This collection of essays on E. Nesbit's Psammead novels is the third of four volumes in the Children's Literature Association's Centennial Studies series, published in association with Scarecrow Press, to celebrate well-known works for children. The other volumes are on Peter Rabbit, Baum's Oz books, and Peter Pan. In the future the series may feature less well-known works, which promises to complicate and enrich the making of a children's literature canon, something ChLA has been interested in for a long time. The choice of E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy is especially suitable, then, for its role in inaugurating the modernist template for children's books. The first decade of the twentieth century in Britain sees other justly famous children's books—Burnett's A Little Princess (1905), and Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908)—but Nesbit's Psammead trilogy arguably constitutes the most influential of the books published in that decade in Britain. As writers in this volume point out, these books begin the time slip conventions so prevalent in recent children's books; they also combine fantasy and realism with social awareness and self-conscious narrative positioning. Even Nesbit's willingness to release her narratives from strict coherence and causality looks forward to a kind of plotting we might associate with more recent fiction than with the familiar kind of thing we see in the traditional bildungsroman.
First, I note this volume's form. On the whole, the contents are free of typos and slips in grammar, the font is easy to read, and the page setup is serviceable. The margins might be somewhat larger than they are, but the book is certainly readable. What does strike me as an oversight is the absence of an index. The various chapters make reference to a great range of primary and secondary material, and an index would assist readers in locating, for example, discussions of Nesbit and C. S. Lewis or Nesbit and Fabianism, and so on. Scanning an index can prove useful in judging the thoroughness of a book, or it can bring surprises. We might not consider Nesbit a writer particularly receptive to psychoanalytic readings, but an index here would flag Freud and [End Page 228] Lacan for readers who might not read the book in its entirety. But I cavil; what matters is the strength of the various discussions, and these are uniformly impressive.
The volume contains thirteen chapters plus the editor's introduction, in which Raymond Jones reviews Nesbit's critical reputation among her biographers and critics of children's literature. He also summarizes her life, and in doing so he raises pertinent issues relating to her work: her role as a woman writer, her formal innovations, and her socialist interests. With regard to the last of this list, Jones suggests: "If she was not always a penetrating or consistent social critic in her fiction, her concern with issues of class and poverty did add thematic depth to her stories, and this concern did pave the way for later writers to introduce serious social problems in books for children" (xiii). The comment that her work "did pave the way" for later writers to discuss weighty social matters implies that Nesbit was a pathfinder in her concern with "serious social problems." However, what we do not sufficiently see in the Nesbit presented in this book is her debt to earlier writers whose work confronts social issues such as poverty, class, economic exploitation, and race relations. We might argue that Nesbit is part of a tradition of socially conscious writing dating back to Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a tradition that includes such writers as John Ruskin, Frances Browne, Charles Dickens, George MacDonald, Charles Kingsley, Jean Ingelow, Augusta Webster, and Oscar Wilde. Many of the contributors to E. Nesbit's Psammead Trilogy focus on the influence of Fabianism on Nesbit's work without noticing the trail of writers behind her.
Indeed, the Nesbit who emerges from this collection of essays...