Desert Island Books for Novacon – E Nesbit – The Phoenix and the Carpet

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As a writer, you’re often asked about your influences. As a fantasy writer, it’s generally assumed that Narnia must have been central to your childhood reading. Now, I certainly read and re-read the Narnia stories, and loved them as a kid, but thinking back to early reading that’s had a lasting influence on me as a reader and writer, I’d say E Nesbit far outweighs CS Lewis. Not least for the far wider variety of the stories she offered. There are the Bastable books, the Psammead books, the House of Arden books – and still more. All of which include so many snippets of information and history and other interesting asides which fascinated me, alongside the thrilling adventures, with or without encounters with magic.

Then there are the elements in Nesbit’s books which Narnia so conspicuously lacks – such as parents. For Nesbit’s child protagonists, parents mean complications both practical and emotional, bringing a whole added level of interest and complexity to their stories. Then there’s loss and change and these children have to cope with those things – just as children of all ages and eras have to cope with such challenges. There’s no getting away from the realities of life, even if you’ve got a magic carpet. Unlike the Pevensie children who can live entire lives as adult rulers of Narnia and still hit the reset button back to childhood by stumbling through the wardrobe the wrong way. Whose reaction to learning everyone has been killed in The Last Battle struck me as unconvincing then and now.

I was never convinced I’d have much in common with the Pevensies. The children in Nesbit’s books? Oh, yes, we’d have got on famously. Not least for their inveterate habit of playing complex imagination games spun off the stories they’d read and things they had seen. That’s how me, my brother and our friends spent our free time after all. And just like us, they had to handle unexpected bad luck, sometimes as a consequence of things they had done, sometimes coming out of the blue. They so often had to negotiate adult rules and expectations, not merely those of their parents. And to decide just how much of the truth, without actually telling lies, they could share with their parents…

Revisiting these books as an adult, I find they stand up to re-reading far better than Narnia. I can also appreciate far more fully the ways Nesbit slides in adult perspectives and preoccupations which the children in the book can only half-grasp, in the same way that I first half-grasped them as a reader. This must have made reading these books aloud far more amusing for parents; think how Pixar do the same in their movies today. Then there are the social conscience elements, reflecting Nesbit’s lifelong commitment to socialism from the 1880s onwards. In this particular book, the children’s lives include servants as a matter of course but Nesbit shows their cook has good reason to be so exasperated. When the children encounter a burglar, it’s soon apparent his descent into crime stems from social ills rather than a degenerate personality.

It’s worth noting that these are the particular aspects that stood out in my memory when I was trying to decide which particular book of Nesbit’s to choose for this Desert Island collection – the cook, the burglar, the phoenix’s transitory nature and the fact that carpets wear out.

Incidentally, I’ve learned far more about Nesbit’s life and political activism over the years and that’s a fascinating story in its own right. From the writerly point of view, she really does deserve far more recognition than she gets today, when people are discussing the origins of current fantasy writing.

(Next up, the American writers who expanded my understanding of SF)

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