Proposed edits to The Railway Children by E Nesbit

August 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

If we wrote a book half as good as The Railway Children, would that half-as-good book be better than the book we are writing at the moment? A troubling question. But perhaps we are too hard on ourselves when we compare our own unfinished, unpublished manuscript to a book we would currently place in the top ten of children’s books.

I like Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis very much. There is no scene I enjoy more than Peter’s being caught red-handed by Perks in the middle of his coal mining, and Peter’s subsequent outrage over being ‘humoured’ by his sisters. Mother is wonderful! There are so few nice mothers, let alone wonderful mothers, in children’s fiction that we welcome Mother.

But even The Railway Children is flawed. If you have not read the book, it is enough to know that when Father disappears, without explanation, from the children’s lives, the family leave London for the country. In the country Roberta, Peter and Phyllis have many adventures, chiefly around the railway. Now that Father is mysteriously away, Mother must dedicate herself to writing stories to make money. Although Mother is not with the children for much of the time, she is there in the background, a very strong presence.

Edith Nesbit found it easier to write ‘episodes’ rather than a story with a strong chain of cause and effect. Episodes can, of course, illuminate underlying themes but the danger is that some episodes add very little to the main story, and even worse detract from it. It is hard for a writer to distinguish between an incident that develops a story and one that is merely more of the same. It has to be remembered that a writer is very close to her work, too close to see it well. But the editor can fully apprehend the work and it is his job to point out its weaknesses. Either Edith Nesbit’s editor did not do his job or Edith Nesbit was one of those writers who sold so many books that she did not have to bother with her editor’s advice.

The children, as almost all of us know, warn a train—with red flags concocted from petticoats—that danger lies ahead, a landslide. By their timely intervention, many lives are saved (Chapter 6). This fits very well. The children are always playing around the railway and it is right that they should be on the spot for this disaster.

Yet in Chapter 8, Edith Nesbit indicates she has not given the canal or the canal people a fair innings. We are told that up until that time, the children had no good experience of the canal. This one starts out badly: a bargeman, on his way to the pub, tells them off. He is followed closely by his wife who endeavours to soften the impression her husband has made. But the impression on the reader is not softened when we learn that they are both off to the pub, leaving a baby on the barge, in the care of a dog.

A fire starts on the barge but Bobbie and Peter rescue the baby, and all ends well. But we never hear of the bargeman and his wife again. Nor do we wish to; we are out of sympathy with people who leave a baby unattended. So this episode does not add to the story but diminishes it. We have had the thrill of the averting of a train disaster. Do we really need another rescue? A baby in a fire! What next, we say to ourselves, an old woman drowning?

Less is more, we might say again in Chapter 11 when Phyllis and Peter, while searching for help to remove the injured boy from the tunnel, come upon a sleeping signalman. They wake him up before any damage is caused. And he is afraid he will lose his job; the scene ends unpleasantly with his trying to bribe the children to keep quiet. We are not without sympathy for the signalman whose ill child has deprived him of sleep but this incident intrudes on the rescue of the boy with the broken leg. Can’t one life saved be enough for that day?  Why bother with this incident at all? It is not pleasantly resolved like the children’s two misunderstandings with the rather irascible Mr Perks.

The episode with the bargeman undermines the earlier prevention of the train crash and the episode with the signalman undermines the rescue of the boy. In short, four feats of daring in one book is two too many.

All that was required were two excisions (plus any references). Such easy editing. Most writers must wish the flaws in their work were so easy to remove. Most flaws, although damaging to the story, are often part of the fabric of the story so their removal causes the story to collapse. And the writer must not only cut out but substantially rewrite parts of the story. The superfluous episodes don’t spoil The Railway Children. Of course not! But for a few minutes its lustre dims.

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