Like the best of Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, or Kenneth Grahame: E. Nesbit wrote for children of all ages, with turn-of-the-20th-century dry British humor. Many years ago I read aloud her Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet to my children. Last week Nesbit's 1907 story The Enchanted Castle jumped off a library used-book-sale shelf and landed in my hands. I immediately set aside my other reading (a tome on epistemology) to enjoy it. The Enchanted Castle begins with:
There were three of them — Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen. Of course, Jerry's name was Gerald, and not Jeremiah, whatever you may think; and Jimmy's name was James; and Kathleen was never called by her name at all, but Cathy, or Catty, or Puss Cat, when her brothers were pleased with her, and Scratch Cat when they were not pleased. And they were at school in a little town in the West of England — the boys at one school, of course, and the girl at another, because the sensible habit of having boys and girls at the same school is not yet as common as I hope it will be some day. They used to see each other on Saturdays and Sundays at the house of a kind maiden lady; but it was one of those houses where it is impossible to play. You know the kind of house, don't you? There is a sort of a something about that kind of house that makes you hardly able even to talk to each other when you are left alone, and playing seems unnatural and affected. So they looked forward to the holidays, when they should all go home and be together all day long, in a house where playing was natural and conversation possible, and where the Hampshire forests and fields were full of interesting things to do and see. ...
That's typical Nesbit, arch commentary with thoughtful asides. Later in Chapter 1, for example, there's a little lesson on manners. Young Gerald has been exceedingly polite and thereby gotten permission for the children to go out adventuring. His brother and sister observe:
'Do you think it's quite decent,' Jimmy asked later — 'sort of bribing people to let you do as you like with flowers and things and passing them the salt?'
'It's not that,' said Kathleen suddenly. 'I know what Gerald means, only I never think of the things in time myself. You see, if you want grown-ups to be nice to you the least you can do is to be nice to them and think of little things to please them. I never think of any myself. Jerry does; that's why all the old ladies like him. It's not bribery. It's a sort of honesty like paying for things.'
And there's even more serious philosophical commmentary, like the memorable moment in Chapter 10, when the ineffable is unveiled:
For this hall in which the children found themselves was the most beautiful place in the world. I won't describe it, because it does not look the same to any two people, and you wouldn't understand me if I tried to tell you how it looked to any one of these four. But to each it seemed the most perfect thing possible. I will only say that all round it were great arches. Kathleen saw them as Moorish, Mabel as Tudor, Gerald as Norman, and Jimmy as Churchwarden Gothic. (If you don't know what these are, ask your uncle who collects brasses, and he will explain, or perhaps Mr. Millar will draw the different kinds of arches for you.) And through these arches one could see many things — oh! but many things. Through one appeared an olive garden, and in it two lovers who held each other's hands, under an Italian moon; through another a wild sea, and a ship to whom the wild, racing sea was slave. A third showed a king on his throne, his courtiers obsequious about him; and yet a fourth showed a really good hotel, with the respectable Ugly-Wugly sunning himself on the front doorsteps. There was a mother, bending over a wooden cradle. There was an artist gazing entranced on the picture his wet brush seemed to have that moment completed, a general dying on a field where Victory had planted the standard he loved, and these things were not pictures, but the truest truths, alive, and, as anyone could see, immortal.
Many other pictures there were that these arches framed. And all showed some moment when life had sprung to fire and flower — the best that the soul of man could ask or man's destiny grant. And the really good hotel had its place here too, because there are some souls that ask no higher thing of life than 'a really good hotel'.
And one more exchange that I'd like to scrapbook and remember: in Chapter 11, a thoughtful-hilarious commentary about what a drag it is getting old—which leads to some silly fantasies of future matrimony by the children:
Jimmy added that Gerald rather liked sucking-up to people.
'Little boys don't understand diplomacy,' said Gerald calmly; 'sucking-up is simply silly. But it's better to be good than pretty and —'
'How do you know?' Jimmy asked.
'And,' his brother went on, 'you never know when a grown-up may come in useful. Besides, they like it. You must give them some little pleasures. Think how awful it must be to be old. My hat!'
'I hope I shan't be an old maid,' said Kathleen.
'I don't mean to be,' said Mabel briskly. 'I'd rather marry a travelling tinker.'
'It would be rather nice,' Kathleen mused, 'to marry the Gypsy King and go about in a caravan telling fortunes and hung round with baskets and brooms.'
'Oh, if I could choose,' said Mabel, 'of course I'd marry a brigand, and live in his mountain fastnesses, and be kind to his captives and help them to escape and —'
'You'll be a real treasure to your husband,' said Gerald.
'Yes,' said Kathleen, 'or a sailor would be nice. You'd watch for his ship coming home and set the lamp in the dormer window to light him home through the storm; and when he was drowned at sea you'd be most frightfully sorry, and go every day to lay flowers on his daisied grave.'
'Yes,' Mabel hastened to say, 'or a soldier, and then you'd go to the wars with short petticoats and a cocked hat and a barrel round your neck like a St. Bernard dog. There's a picture of a soldier's wife on a song auntie's got. It's called "The Veevandyear".'
'When I marry —' Kathleen quickly said.
'When I marry,' said Gerald, 'I'll marry a dumb girl, or else get the ring to make her so that she can't speak unless she's spoken to. ..."