I always thought Five Children and It was a curious title – what on earth could it be? Five children I got. I was from a large family. There were probably five of us when I first came across E Nesbit, but later another one was added. The itwas a strange character for a children’s book – a Psammead (aka sand fairy). Five Children and a Psammead would not have been so intriguing, in fact a little difficult, for how do you say that word and what on earth is a Psammead?
Welcome back to the wonderful world of children’s literature. This is the first post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I plan to explore changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury over the next eleven decades through my monthly choices. A sadness is that this project leaves out At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book my grandfather gave me in 1957, and which I treasured. It was published in 1871 so does not qualify. I can of course reread it at any time. My choices for the Decades Project will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.
Five Children and It – the story
Five children and their parents move to a new home. It is ideal for an adventure, being in the country. The novel is set in the early 20thcentury, when it was written, yet these children are going to be allowed to explore, not come home for lunch.
The best of it all was that there were no rules about not going to places and not doing things. In London almost everything is labelled ‘You must not touch, and though the label is invisible, it’s just as bad, because you know it’s there, or if you don’t you jolly well soon get told. (13)
Almost as soon as they arrive the parents are called away and the children left with the servants. In the gravel quarry they find a Psammead (pronounced sammyadd by the children) and he has the power to grant one wish each day that will last until sunset.
The children have different characters. The two oldest are Cyril and Anthea and then there is Robert and Jane and Baby. They are brave, bossy, inquisitive, imaginative, daring, problem-solving, problem-creating and occasionally quarrelsome.
Without adult supervision but well brought up, the children set about making wishes. They wish first for beauty, which causes a problem as no one at home recognises them and they are simply admired but not fed. It is a warning that making wishes is more complicated than they imagined and when they wish for money they discover that they have not been specific enough. The Psammead grants them gold that is not legal tender and it gains them little.
They have further adventures as they try to find satisfactory wishes and avoid making accidental ones. They sprout wings, find their home transformed into a castle under siege and have Baby coveted by gypsies. And each time they land themselves in difficulty they must be creative about resolving the situation. Bravery, ingenuity, theft and even lying are called for. These present the children with moral problems to resolve.
In the final scene the Psammead reveals himself to be an arch conservative. He begs the children not to reveal his existence for grown ups would do terrible things with the wishes:
… and they’d ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. (205-6)
Edith Nesbit 1858 – 1924
Edith Nesbit wrote many children’s novels, including the more famous The Railway Children in 1906. She published under the name E. Nesbit, perhaps to hide her gender. Altogether she wrote more than 40 books for both adults and children. Her fiction for younger readers combined realism, sometimes with a bit of magic.
She was a co-founder of the Fabian Society and her personal life was with fellow socialists. She married Hubert Bland, a man who believed in free love (or who was an infamous libertine and antifeminist according to some sources). He had already made his landlady’s daughter pregnant when Edith married him. She was 7 months pregnant. Edith’s friend Alice Hoatson came to help her and she too had children by Bland. They lived in this unusual household until Bland died in 1914.
Edith then married the captain of the Woolwich Ferry, Thomas Tucker. She lived most of her life in Eltham in south London. You can find out more at the Edith Nesbit Society.
Five Children and It by E Nesbit was first published in 1902. I used the edition from Penguin Popular Classics (1995) 207pp Illustrated by HR Millar.
Jacqueline Wilson updated the classic as Four Children and It in 2012. I have not read it, have you?
The Decade Project in 2019
This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I plan to choose a children’s book each month from successive decades, starting with 1900-1909 in January. Next month it will be a choice from 1910-1919. I plan to read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett first published in 1910. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.
To read more about the Decade Project in 2018 please follow the link to the final post: The Second Year of the Decades Project. This post listed all 11 choices of nonfiction by women. The previous year it was fiction by women.
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