- E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation, and Gender
E. Nesbit’s Psammead trilogy, Five Children and It (1902), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Story of the Amulet (1906),1 maintains considerable cultural currency via Puffin reprints, BBC television adaptations, and a 2005 feature film of Five Children and It. By comparison to this marketing-implied celebration of her work in the present, Nesbit has been somewhat maligned in critical circles as too didactic, an “energetic hack,” and a “Victorian in disguise.”2 While there are indeed aspects of conservatism inherent in the trilogy, in this article we consider something quite different: the way in which transportative magic allows the child protagonists to escape the physical bounds of England and transgress the limits of time and space in time-slip fantasies. From what some would regard as the “safety”3 of these fantasised locations of displacement and distance, Nesbit’s Psammead novels examine changing Edwardian conceptions of gender and nation. Her rewriting of familiar adventure story plots with female protagonists allows for substantial critique of imperialism and contemporary industrialised cities. Significantly, Nesbit reconfigures the category of the heroic to situate maternal relations within it, promoting a unique vision of feminine heroism rather than mimicry of male actions coded as heroic. The leadership role accorded to the heroine, Anthea, because of her maternal instincts is nevertheless ideologically problematic because it is primarily demonstrated through what could be characterised as postcolonial infantilisation of indigenous peoples. The way in which the trilogy critiques English city life is ultimately demonstrated by a utopic society in which the care of children is of supreme importance and is symbolic of socialist ideals to protect the powerless and disenfranchised.4 [End Page 298]
The Psammead books concern the adventures of a family group of children, including three boys and two girls (Anthea, Robert, Cyril, Jane, and a baby who is referred to as “the Lamb”), in which they are impelled by three magical items or beings. The magical device in the first book is Nesbit’s own creation, the Psammead (a “sand fairy”), a creature able to grant wishes. The second book dispenses with the Psammead. The children are bought a new nursery carpet, which not only proves to be a magic transportation device once owned by royalty, but also contains an egg from which they are able to hatch a living specimen of the mythical Phoenix. The Psammead reappears in the third novel (when it has been captured and is offered for sale in a pet shop) but does not grant wishes because the children promised at the conclusion of Five Children and It not to make any future demands upon it. Instead, the Psammead directs them toward an ancient amulet for sale in a shop, which proves to have to the power to transport the children in time and, unlike fellow Fabian Society member H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), also in place.
This capacity for time and space travel enables the children to visit Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Atlantis, and Ancient Britain. Nesbit also injects fantastic elements into the novels’ reality. This mode of fantasy, dubbed the “intrusion fantasy” after the “intrusive consequences” of inappropriate wishes upon the world, must, according to Farah Mendlesohn’s theory of fantasy, encompass a return to normality.5 In some respects, this logic of return is pervasive in the Psammead novels because of their initial appearance in serial form in the Strand magazine as self-contained chapter-length episodes that begin and conclude in the realist landscape. The stories both allow fantasy to “intrude” into reality and give scope for the child protagonists to interact with the world of the past, present and future independent of adult supervision.
In Nesbit’s novels, the absence of any meaningful, regular adult presence means that the children must be self-regulating for almost the entire narrative.6 In contrast with Victorian and Edwardian children’s fiction that included a moral guide figure who directed juvenile protagonists to make correct decisions, the Psammead does not act as the children’s guide in Nesbit’s trilogy. Instead, Anthea functions in a mothering role, directing the...