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  • E. Nesbit, the Bastables, and The Red House:A Response
  • Julia Briggs (bio)

It is at once a pleasure and a responsibility to respond to two papers that address E. Nesbit's cross-writing, as demonstrated in Nesbit's description of the Bastables' visit to the Red House in the novel of that name. It is a pleasure to find Nesbit's work being treated with the seriousness it deserves, and a responsibility because any response risks narrowing, rather than opening up, the field. Mavis Reimer and Erika Rothwell contribute valuably to ongoing theoretical discussions concerning the construction of the child at the end of the last century; they set the figure of the child in the perspectives of empire and of earlier writing for children, and they explore the question of persuasion or even coercion implicit in the adult writer's address to the child reader. These are key issues, and their very centrality permits a response more closely focused upon the initial circumstances of publication of The Story of the Treasure Seekers as a text generated by and within a context of cross-writing. I am conscious of pursuing a rather different line of argument, but my approach through intertextuality and publishing history, which is intended to complement rather than to counter the arguments Reimer and Rothwell establish, is made possible by their more fundamental concern to define the relationship between adult and child as figured in Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Red House, and The New Treasure Seekers.

Yes, these stories are good. They are written on a rather original idea, on a line off the common run. Here we have the life of a family of children told by themselves in a candid, ingenuous and very amusing style. Of course, no child would write as E. Nesbit writes, but the result is that we have drawn for us a very charming picture of English family life . . . the stories are individual—they will please every grown up who reads them.

Edward Garnett, Reader's Report to Fisher Unwin on Seven Stories from the Pall Mall Magazine, 1898 [End Page 71]

Garnett, a famous talent-spotter, seizes at once on the point made by Erika Rothwell at the outset of her essay: the stories that became The Story of the Treasure Seekers were addressed to children and adults simultaneously, with the expectation that they would be read in different ways, like a pantomime that includes different types of jokes for different age groups. Unfortunately Nesbit left no record of the process by which she transformed her writing for children from the flat, simplistic narratives of her early work for Raphael Tuck and Ernest Nister to the complex and self-conscious rhetoric of Oswald Bastable, whose literary sense apparently directs him to relate his own story as a third-person narrative. She was, however, an ardent admirer of Henry James, whose work in the 1890s, particularly What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) exploits the possibilities of literary misreadings created by unreliable narrators and the conflicting interpretations of events by children and adults.

Put to comic purpose, these devices dominate the narrative practice of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), creating a cross-writing that simultaneously addresses adult and child readers by conferring on Oswald (and through him on his siblings) the full subjecthood implicit in a first-person narrative, a narrative that invites the child-reader to identify with Oswald or his siblings. (When he is referred to in the third person or as a child among children confronting the adult world, however, Oswald is seen from an adult perspective as comically smaller and less significant than he supposes, as an amusing little boy, as "Other"; as Rothwell puts it, "the joke is often between the adult reader and the author at Oswald's expense.") Nesbit's introduction of the Bastables into her sentimental novel The Red House (1902) could thus be considered the logical outcome of a narrative strategy that had originated with their invention. Chloe's exclamation, "Aren't they perfect dears? . . . I don't like the Morrison boy—but the others are lovely" (175) is thus...


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pp. 71-85
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