- Time, Subjectivity, and Modernism in E. Nesbit’s Children’s Fiction
Long appreciated as an innovative writer, E. Nesbit has been recognized for a vigorous depiction of children: a refreshing and original break with previous styles of children's writing. Yet her place in the popular imagination is as a writer of amusing Edwardian period pieces, as evinced by recent radio profiles of her and adaptations of her work, which, as costume drama, engage with the pleasures of nostalgia. This article interrogates this apparent contradiction by placing Nesbit in the historical and cultural context of modernism.
The popular nature of Nesbit's output and its mass-produced, serial format initially could seem to exclude her from a consideration of literary modernism. As Randall Stevenson notes, however, "the philosophy, literature and social fabric of any age are more validly considered developing in parallel, rather than in 'planes' one above the other" (13), and children's literature can, and should, be incorporated into this holistic approach. Children's literature should not be seen as responding to wider forces as filtered down from the higher plane of modernist adult culture but instead should be seen as itself a factor in an interactive model of cultural change and development. It is therefore useful to examine it in tandem with other evidence of historical developments in culture, and this article places Nesbit's children's fiction within this wider context, showing how her writing engaged with a number of concerns usually associated with canonically modernist writers.
After initially discussing examples of the nostalgic response to Nesbit, I focus on three ways in which Nesbit negotiates issues of time and modernity. First, I examine the importance of the railway as an emblem of connectivity in The Railway Children. Second, I discuss how her work engages with questions of subjectivity and language. Finally, I examine the instability of childhood experience in relation to the encounters Nesbit charts between her protagonists [End Page 308] and different historical times in The Story of the Amulet. In Nesbit's work, the novelty and bewilderment of childhood form an analogue with the experience of the modern subject.
Anita Moss, in her compelling discussion of Nesbit's relationship to Romantic ideologies of childhood, asserts that Nesbit's breakthrough novel, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, "stands squarely between Victorian and modern children's literature" (226). My discussion will show how Nesbit is a forward-looking writer whose relationship to the modern is as important as the influence she drew from the past.
Adapting Nesbit: Nostalgia and the New
Most of Nesbit's children's fiction has been adapted into television and radio serials and/or films. Notable BBC versions include the BAFTA-nominated 1991 version of Five Children and It (dir. Richard Callanan and Marilyn Fox) and the 1979 production of The Enchanted Castle (dir. Dorothea Brooking). Nesbit's The Railway Children, arguably her most popular book, has received several screen adaptations, including the extremely successful film version of 1970 (dir. Lionel Jeffries), which was re-released in 1997. These adaptations maintained the Edwardian setting, unlike a 2004 film version of Five Children and It (dir. John Stephenson), which set the story during World War I. This change of setting is the exception rather than the rule for Nesbit adaptations, however, and the wartime setting nonetheless maintains the story's place in a vaguely imagined "past" lacking in specificity.1
Such costume dramas engage with Nesbit's work as nostalgic in two ways. First, they almost always recreate the Edwardian setting, with period costumes, antique artifacts, defunct vocabulary, behavior, attitudes, and so on. Second, they create a nostalgia for the time of childhood itself, an idealized Romantic space of innocence and simplicity.2 These are undoubtedly factors in the success of the screen adaptations, success that has helped to maintain the high profile of Nesbit's books in Britain and their status as "classics."
In a recent radio profile entitled The Railway Children(2005),3 Nesbit's biographer, Julia Briggs, visited the author's childhood home, exploring the haunts of Nesbit's childhood and discussing their relationship to locations in her writing. This historical research was interspersed with the...