- "You Catch It if You Try to Do Otherwise":The Limitations of E. Nesbit's Cross-Written Vision of the Child
Edith Nesbit did not begin writing for children consistently or particularly successfully until she produced The Treasure Seekers in 1899. After this success, the majority of her books were children's, but she also continued to write for adults. Nesbit, however, not only alternates between addressing child and adult audiences, but also cross-writes for adult and child within and across works. The children's books that make up the Bastable trilogy—The Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), and The New Treasure Seekers (1904)—though told from a child's point of view, address both child and adult readers and focus attention upon the common, but conflicting, experiences of adult and child. Meanwhile, the domestic novel The Red House (1902), which is intended for an adult audience, calls attention to the same phenomena of shared, yet conflicting, experience by introducing the child Bastable characters as "guest stars" and telling, from Len's adult point of view, an episode that is later renarrated by Oswald in The Treasure Seekers.
Virtually all critical consideration of Nesbit and her view of the child is based solely upon her children's books and does not incorporate the intersection of child and adult books that I have just described. Humphrey Carpenter finds Nesbit's Bastable trilogy "as condescending towards children as are any of the Beautiful Child books of the Molesworth era" (132), but more often Nesbit's children's books are thought of as iconoclastic.1 Mary Croxson, for example, believes that Nesbit's purpose is to emancipate the child. Nesbit's children "are no longer enslaved by the repressive or over-indulgent adult domination of an earlier age. They converse freely with their elders, are at liberty to develop as they will and have the freedom of personal awareness given by a rich imaginative life" (Croxson 63). In [End Page 60] short, Nesbit is typically defined as a juvenile author who writes for children as equals and as an uncompromising advocate of the child's viewpoint, rights, and freedoms.
I believe, however, that the cross-written vision of the child that emerges from the sum of the Bastable books and the Red House reveals that Nesbit's view of the child is more complex and contradictory than is usually acknowledged and that this perspective is neither liberating nor emancipating. It is true that the Bastables are remarkably free of regulations and inhibitions, and that Nesbit clearly does reject some Victorian manifestations of the child when she dismisses evangelical classics like Maria Charlesworth's Ministering Children (1854) as the "wrong sort of books" (328).2 Nevertheless, I do not think that Nesbit's works truly can be said to address the child as an equal or to grant him or her any significant liberation. The Bastable books contain much that is inaccessible to the child reader, and the final picture that emerges from Nesbit's texts reveals the young as separate and powerless beings who are repeatedly subject to failure and confusion. Unable to understand fully or to affect knowingly the adult world, Nesbit's children can hope for no more than amused condescension from the kindest of adults.
Nesbit may well owe her reputation as a child-centered author to the creation of Oswald Bastable, who sees and speaks to the adult world from a child's perspective. Alison Lurie writes that "the decision to tell her story through the persona of Oswald Bastable, a child much after her own pattern: bold, quick-tempered, egotistic, and literary," was a decision which "released Nesbit's genius" (424).3 Oswald voices the collective opinions, observations, and conclusions of the Bastable children as they attempt to understand adults and the adult world. Thus, Oswald has been considered an "Everychild" who can speak directly to child readers in a way adult narrators cannot.
Oswald's jaunty narration, however, which combines detail, incident, observation, and reflection, balances the Bastable tales between child and adult readers through a style designed to suggest realism to the child reader while simultaneously communicating both realism and humor...