The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit

From the back cover:
It’s startling enough to have a Phoenix hatch in your house, but even more startling when it reveals you have a magic carpet on the floor. Conceited it may be, but the Phoenix is also good-hearted, and obligingly accompanies the children on their adventures through time and space—which, magic being what it is, rarely turn out as they were meant…

The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second book in the trilogy that begins with Five Children and It. It’s November now and the children—Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and baby brother “the Lamb”—are back at home in Camden Town. One day, after a small fire ruins their nursery carpet, their mother buys a new one from which emerges a shiny yellow egg. And when that egg falls into the fire, a talking Phoenix is hatched who informs them that the new carpet is actually magic and can take them wherever they’d like to go.

As with the first book in the trilogy, most of the story is comprised of the wishes the children make and their often unexpected outcomes. They wish to go abroad, for example, so the carpet takes them to visit a topless tower in France, where Robert promptly gets stuck on a window ledge. On another occasion, the cook accidentally accompanies them on a trip to a sunny shore and ends up being worshipped by the natives. Other wishes involve visits to India and a plethora of Persian cats.

What’s different this time is that more of the wishes are linked. When the children wish to do a bit of good, they find themselves back in France, where they find the rightful owners of the treasure hidden in the tower. And when a would-be burglar is arrested on suspicion of having stolen said Persian cats, the children rescue him from jail and convey him to the sunny shore, whereupon he promptly falls in love with the cook and they get married on the spot. The emphasis on helping people makes this installment of the series a little more like The Railway Children, which still remains my favorite Nesbit book.

While the adventures are fun—my very favorite is not a wish at all, but a visit the children make with the Phoenix to a fire insurance company who uses his likeness for their logo—Nesbit’s writing is really the main draw here. It’s warm, observant, and clever simultaneously, eliciting many a giggle. I love this evocative line about a cast-aside bit of correspondence:

”The letter… lay on the table, drinking hot bacon fat with one corner and eating marmalade with the other.”

That line not only conjures a vivid mental picture, but tells you something about the letter’s recipients, as well. And, indeed, the characterization of the children is more defined in this second outing, with the two eldest (Cyril and Anthea) showing signs of increased maturity. Nesbit never idealizes the children—“The children were not particularly handsome, nor were they extra clever, nor extraordinarily good. But they were not bad sorts on the whole.”—and their imperfections are what make them likeable. When they discover that sometimes things can get worn out through striving to please, one gets the sense that they’ve learned an Important Lesson about consideration without it coming across as some sort of moral.

Though less famous, The Phoenix and the Carpet is actually better than the first book in the trilogy, and I am definitely looking forward to the third and final installment.

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit: B+

From the back cover:
‘It’ is a Psammead, an ancient, ugly and irritable sand fairy the children find one day in a gravel pit. It grants them a wish a day, lasting until sunset. But they soon learn it is very hard to think of really sensible wishes, and each one gets them into unexpected difficulties. Magic, the children find, can be as awkward as it is enticing.

After reading and really enjoying The Railway Children, I decided that I definitely needed to read more by E. Nesbit. Five Children and It was my first pick, because I’ve been curious about the book for ages. Expect to see more Nebsit after this one!

Five Children and It (1902) actually has some things in common with The Railway Children (1906). It’s obvious from the titles that both feature kids, but more specifically these kids are siblings from the city who are moving into a new house in the country. Both stories are told by a companionable and amusing narrator. In the case of the latter book, the kids meet and help a lot of new people, and a warm, feel-good tone is the result. There is, alas, less of that feeling in Five Children and It, though it’s still an imaginative and entertaining tale.

Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and “the Lamb” (the nickname for the youngest, a two-year-old boy whose given name is Hilary) have just moved into their new house, and are keen to explore. One day, when their mother has gone off to tend to her ailing mother, their wanderings take them to a nearby gravel pit, where they dig and find a strange creature called a psammead, or sand-fairy. The psammead agrees to grant the children one wish per day, the results of which will disappear at sunset, and the majority of the book is made up of their wishes and the usually unpleasant repercussions thereof.

Nothing ever seems to turn out like they hope. When they wish for money, it comes in a form unrecognizable and unaccepted by local merchants. When they wish for wings, they fail to account for how hungry the exertion of flying will make them, and end up stranded on a rooftop after stealing someone else’s dinner. When they wish they lived in a castle, it’s ill-defended and in the midst of a siege. Each time, they attempt to learn from what went wrong and get the best from their next wish, but by the time their mother returns home they’re quite ready to quit with the wishing altogether. If I had to pick a theme for the book, I’d say it’s “be content with your lot.”

What’s really nice about the story is that the kids aren’t idealized at all. In fact, Nesbit says up front that they can be tiresome, and they’re shown being disagreeable often enough. They’re also, however, shown being clever and level-headed, particularly Anthea, the oldest girl. It takes a while for them to emerge as individual characters, though, and I’m still not really sure how to describe Jane, the youngest girl. This is another aspect in which The Railway Children is the superior book, since each of those characters is memorable and distinct. I do think, though, that Anthea and Railway‘s Roberta would like each other very much. In fact, now I kind of want to read fanfic in which they hang out and are sensible together.

In the end, I definitely enjoyed Five Children and It and look forward to reading its two sequels, but it doesn’t supplant The Railway Children as my favorite Nesbit so far.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: A

From the back cover:
When Father goes away unexpectedly, Roberta, Peter, Phyllis and their mother have to leave their happy life in London to go and live in a small cottage in the country. The children seek solace in the nearby railway station, and make friends with Perks the Porter and the Station Master himself. But the mystery remains: where is Father, and will he ever return?

This is the story of three children—Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis—who move with their mother from the city to the country after their beloved father mysteriously goes away. Though it’s initially a culture shock, they’re soon fascinated by the railway and make many friends among its staff and patrons and end up helping quite a few people—and receiving help in return—along the way.

Perhaps the best compliment I could give The Railway Children is that I wish it had gone on for about three times as long. But, as Peter sagely opines, everything must end.

‘There’s no end to this tunnel,’ said Phyllis—and indeed it did seem very, very long.

‘Stick to it,’ said Peter; ‘everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep on.’

Which is quite true, if you come to think of it, and a useful thing to remember in seasons of trouble—such as measles, arithmetic, impositions, and those times when you are in disgrace, and feel as though no one would ever love you again, and you could never—never again—love anybody.

The passage above exemplifies several of the qualities that make this book such a charming read. The narration, for example, has a comradely air, evincing sympathy for the child’s point of view while utilizing humor that would please any audience. Here’s another bit at which I giggled—it takes place right after the children have gone out to pick cherries and end up preventing a terrible accident:

Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it.

‘And it was us that saved them’ said Peter.

‘How dreadul if they had all been killed!’ said Phyllis; ‘wouldn’t it, Bobbie?’

‘We never got any cherries, after all,’ said Bobbie.

The others thought her rather heartless.

I could go on quoting similar diverting passages, but must address a second strong point in favor of this book: the characterization of the children. Now, it may be said that it’s idealistic to expect children this clever and honest to truly exist, but Nesbit is also careful to give each of them flaws. Peter is a bit hot-headed, Phyllis is self-absorbed, and Bobbie is… well, Bobbie hasn’t really got faults, and yet I love her best of the lot.

Bobbie’s the eldest, and poised on the brink of growing up. She still has fun playing with her siblings, but she’s the one attuned to her mother’s sorrow, and realizes that asking about their father’s whereabouts would only cause more pain. When she discovers the truth, and thinks how it would affect her younger siblings, she understands why her mother did not reveal it. She’s brave, kind, sensitive, and thoughtful. The family owes their happiness to her, though they know it not.

The end result is a story that is wholesome, but never saccharine. The children invariably do the right thing, but that doesn’t make them immune from quarrels. Unfair and frightening things happen, but likewise people are willing to offer help when asked. Cleverness and simple goodness are prized more than foolhardy exploits, and the children are extremely proud of their mother, who uses her gift of storytelling to support the family after the move. It’s a story that makes one feel good about people, and oh, that ending! “I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.”

Clearly I must read more E. Nesbit.

Additional reviews of The Railway Children can be found at Triple Take.