Tuesday 19 May 2015

Swans, Snow and a Talking Mole

Edred and Elfrida walking down the street before
their adventures begin.
Oh Lordy, I must be getting old. Or growing up or something. That’s three children’s ‘classics’ I’ve read recently, and I hated all of them, even though they ticked all the right boxes. Which is odd when you consider my weakness for children’s literature.

First up is Edith Nesbit. I’ve always loved The Railway Children, and the Bastable stories, and Five Children and It and its two follow-ups, so I thought I’d love The House of Arden, which just shows how wrong you can be. I know there are lots of people out there who really rate this book, but it didn’t do anything for me, except make me cross. 

Brother and sister Edred and Elfrida Arden live with their aunt, who lets lodgings, which is ‘one of the most unpleasant ways to make a living’. They’ve got no money, their mother is dead, and their father has disappeared on an exploration to South America, accompanied by the aunt’s fiancé. Strange how many children’s books feature absent parents, either one, or the other, or both. Obviously this enables children to go off and have adventures, but I do wonder if there’s some deeper significance. 

Anyway, it turns out that Edred is heir of the Ardens, so they move to their ancestral home, a crumbling castle which luckily includes a habitable (but run-down) house. To restore the fortunes of family and castle Edred and Elfrida must find the Arden treasure, hidden away centuries ago.  
Prisoners in the Tower: Edred meets Sir Walter Raleigh
while they are both imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Helped by pigeons they don garments found in old chests and are transported back in time to periods matching the clothes. And wherever they go in time there are two children who look just like them, and are their ages, with their names, and they become those children. 

This was what I really, really hated about this book. I couldn’t get my head round the way they travelled through time taking over other children’s lives, like some kind of cosmic hijackers. It’s Quantum Leap a century earlier, but unlike Dr Sam Baker they not allowed to change history. Personally, I thought it was really spooky. And in case you wonder what happens to the other children (well, I certainly did) they pop off and hang around somewhere else until they can return. And they don’t notice anything is happening because they’re not special like Edred and Elfrida…  

And don’t get me started on the magical talking mole (the White Mouldiwarp from the Badge of Arden). Or the magical clocks which appear, made of daisies and such like. Or the magical swans pulling a magical carriage made of magical snowflakes.

Actually, the magical elements in this book really annoyed me because, on the whole, they’re twee and fluffy and pretty, and pulled out of nowhere, like a rabbit from a hat. Children trapped on top of a tower in a snowstorm? No problem, let’s conjure up a swan drawn snow-carriage to rescue them. Why swans and snow? Because all things white obey the Mouldiwarp. Well that’s OK I suppose, and after all it’s not really so very different from Cinderella going to the ball in a pumpkin coach pulled by mice-horses, and I’ve no problem with that.  
Time traveller: Elfrida in the Georgian era.
So why don’t I like this? I’ve tried to analyse my response, and I’m really not sure, but I think it has to with the fact that I feel magic should be grounded in some kind of reality or mythology, if that makes sense. Authors like Diana Wynne Jones, JRR Tolkien and Ursula le Guin created characters who wield enormous magical powers, which they use only in dire need. There is an emphasis on balance, a sense that there is a cost to be paid for using magic, because it can upset the equilibrium of the world, and have unforeseen consequences. They have a responsibility to use their powers wisely, and they don’t magic something out of nothing, or change the essential nature of something. If they are not to be perverted to the dark good magicians must abide by some kind of rules or guidelines. Even in fairy tales magic can be a dangerous business, and you may not always get what you wish for.  

The final chapter (which involves a lot of magic) is one of the daftest and most unbelievable things I’ve ever read. And there is, of course, a happy ending, which has nothing to do with the treasure, and includes a repetition (or recycling, if I’m being kind) of the most famous lines in The Railway Children, which is sloppy writing, and I would have expected better from Nesbit.  

Actually, this post hasn’t gone in the direction I planned. I was going to write a few concise paragraphs on The House of Arden, and a little bit more on Elizabeth Goudge’s The Runaways, which I also hated, but that will have to wait for another day. And I didn’t mention Richard Arden, a mysterious boy from the past who knows about Edred and Elfrida’s time. However, his tale is revealed in Harding’s Luck, the follow-up to The House of Arden and deserves post of its own.

*The illustrations are by Harold Robert Millar, from the original 1908 edition of the book. 


  1. I've never read 'the House of Arden' and now I don't think I'll bother even though I love The Would-be-goods' and some of Nesbit's non-magical stories, but what I identified with in your post was what you said about 'The Runaways'. My copy is called 'Linnets and Valerians' and I've started it two or three times and never got past page fifty; could you bear to tell us what you dislike about it?
    By the way, have you read any Edward Eager? I think he played fair with the magic.

    1. Never come across him at all! But I've just looked him up, and he sounds intriguing, so I'll try and track one down. Thank you for the recommendation.

      Re The Runaways it was originally Linnets and Valerians and was republished last year as The Runaways. .I'll try and get a review up during the next week, but in the meantime I'll say it's unbearably twee, and cloyingly sweet.

      If you've tried it more than once and not got very far then I wouldn't bother! But don't let me put you off - I seem to be out on a limb with The Runaways and The House of Arden because most people love them.

  2. I've tried to read Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle, but I really struggled to remain interested. I wonder if I'd been exposed to her writing as a child, then I might be more receptive now. We'll never know!

    1. Vicki, I read lots of Nesbit's books when I was a child, and really adored them (I've still got them). But I'd never read this one before, and I did wonder if my response was affected by the fact that I read it for the first time as an adult. And the same thought occurred to me with The Runaways, by Elizabeth Goudge, which I didn't like either. I'm sure someone, somewhere, has written a blog post on this very topic fairly recently, but I can't remember where I saw it.