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Adult Authors & Child Narrators: New Perspectives on Adult-Child Conversations

Liras into Lyres: Talking Across Difference in the Works of Edith Nesbit

Quand les lires deviennent des lyres : se parler malgré la différence dans les œuvres d’Edith Nesbit
Melissa Jenkins

Abstracts

This article’s title references a conversation between the Bastable siblings at the start of Edith Nesbit’s The New Treasure-Seekers (1904), the third title in her Bastable trilogy, which also includes The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1901). In a chapter called ‘The Road to Rome’, the children imagine leaving England, although none of the children make it past the London train station, and only one travels farther than the family sitting room. As Oswald presents this conversation to the reader, he watches himself as a participant in the conversation, and takes time to annotate it for the reader, revealing small details about the children’s reactions and relations to each other. The conversation, and many like it across Nesbit’s novels, unfolds the extent to which the children’s speech comes into conflict with adult conventions, and the extent to which conversation fuels their understanding of their own nation and other lands. My analysis uncovers how conversations between children in Nesbit’s novels feature partial knowledge, constructed piecemeal through misunderstandings and mishearings. The primary claim that emerges from the analysis is that linguistic and conversational errors, within the conversations between children about travel, fuel a brand of radical cross-cultural sympathy, and that this sympathy challenges adult perceptions about race and nation. I agree that any account of a child’s agency can be overstated, even within Nesbit’s works. Yet, I posit that this focus on mishearings and misunderstandings restores unexpected power to the child’s speech, especially when the child is speaking to other children. Being unable (or unwilling) to understand an adult’s verbal directive can be liberating, and a child’s verbal play can have an effect on the adult world and even on the adult perspective. The mistakes found in the child’s acts of narration and perception present familiar places from new perspectives. To understand the phenomenon, it is helpful to draw on the distinctions between ‘localized utopia’ and ‘heterotopia’, as theorized by Michel Foucault, M. Christine Boyer, and others. As I have detailed in other work on place in children’s literature, the concept of the ‘localized utopia’ acknowledges how a subgroup may imaginatively transform one place into another. Heterotopias are spaces that are legible to children and adults alike; they are similar to localized utopias in that they mark their inhabitants as resisting social norms for defining what places mean and represent. Both can perform important social work. These acts of willful or accidental mis-seeing become even more powerful when they can be shared–when others can join in the subversive misinterpretation.

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1British author Edith Nesbit (1858–1924) took many approaches to narration across her 98 novels for children. One worthwhile contrast is between her fantasy fiction, which features fairies and flight, ‘magic carpet’ rides, and ‘exotic lands such as Babylon’ (Galvan 90), and realist fiction such as the Bastable trilogy that is the focus of this article. In The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), and The New Treasure-Seekers (1904), the Bastable children are limited to travel that is appropriate to their fallen fortunes within realist novels. In the first book, the children’s first instinct is to improve the family fortunes by exploring their own garden. Oswald ‘couldn’t help wondering as we went down to the garden, why Father had never thought of digging there for treasure instead of going to his beastly office every day’ (9). Even after their fortunes have been restored by their ‘Indian Uncle’ (more on him later), they never leave England. Yet, despite their limited geographical range, the children’s stories contribute to our understanding of empire and its decline, and the tensions between multiculturalism and regionalism that continue to resonate in British politics and culture. In Nesbit’s Bastable trilogy, conversations between the child protagonists offer novel glimpses of alternative locales, especially, I will argue, when the conversations feature malapropisms, misinterpretations, faulty redefinitions, mishearings, and misappropriations. The children’s mistakes evidence accidental or wilful rejections of adult realities, in favour of what tends to be a more generous and idealized version of another place and culture.

2This article’s title references a conversation between the Bastable siblings at the start of The New Treasure-Seekers (1904). In a chapter called ‘The Road to Rome,’ the children imagine leaving England, although only one travels farther than the family sitting room. They fantasize about visiting Rome, which will be the honeymoon destination of ‘Albert’s uncle’. (This unnamed adult is the most beloved adult in the series due in part to his profession as a writer of adventure stories and his influence on the way the children think about language). As Oswald presents this conversation to the reader, he watches himself as a participant in the conversation, and takes time to annotate it for the reader, revealing small details about the children’s reactions and relations to each other. The conversation unfolds the extent to which the children’s speech comes into conflict with adult conventions:

‘Lucky hounds’, H.O. said, ‘to be going to Rome. I wish I was’.
‘Hounds isn’t polite, H.O., dear’, Dora said; and H.O. said—
‘Well, lucky bargees, then’.
‘It’s the dream of my life to go to Rome’, Noël said. Noël is our poet brother. ‘Just think of what the man says in the “Roman Road”. I wish they’d take me’.
‘They won’t’, Dicky said. ‘It costs a most awful lot. I heard Father saying so only yesterday’.
‘It would only be the fare’ Noël answered; ‘and I’d go third, or even in a cattle-truck, or a luggage van. And when I got there I could easily earn my own living. I’d make ballads and sing them in the streets. The Italians would give me lyres—that’s the Italian kind of shilling, they spell it with an i. It shows how poetical they are out there, their calling it that’.
‘But you couldn’t make Italian poetry’, H.O. said, staring at Noël with his mouth open.
‘Oh, I don’t know so much about that’, Noël said. ‘I could jolly soon learn anyway, and just to begin with I’d do it in English. . .’. (Nesbit 1904, 17)

3Dicky’s caution (‘I heard Father saying so’) registers the child’s awareness of adult presence—and of adult restrictions on a child’s mobility. Dora’s correction (‘Hounds isn’t polite’) shows her integration of adult norms for conversation. Yet, parts of the conversation elude adult control. Noël’s allusion harnesses an absent adult (the author of the ‘Roman Road’) in the service of his resistance to the paternalistic voices of the present adults. Mistakes in perception do the rest of the work. When Noël uses the word ‘lyres’ rather than ‘liras’ to reference the nation’s currency, he replaces practicality with romance, just as his talk about Italy renders it as a magical land of travelling bards and opportunities for adventure. His misperceptions smooth over the questions of how he will get to Italy, how he will transcend the language barrier, and how he will make a living. His plan, to make his own way in Rome without linguistic or financial resources, is optimistic and self-assured. It depends on an expectation of like-mindedness and generosity. He believes he can find a way or make one, and have access to what he needs to survive and thrive in an unfamiliar place. His romantic re-envisioning of Italy is contagious. The youngest in the family, H.O., tries to steal away to Rome in a piece of luggage. Though he makes it no further than the London train station, his hiding place revealed to train staff by the ticking of his pocket watch, the episode reveals that ‘the road to Rome,’ for these children, is paved with partial knowledge, constructed piecemeal through misunderstandings and mishearings. These misunderstandings are representative of the child’s unflagging optimism, but also of his hubristic assumption that the road will bend to meet his feet. The question then becomes: are these imagined bridges between foreign and domestic spaces the bridges of colonization and occupation, or are these children coming in peace, to absorb and to learn? And, to what extent might these acts of seamless imagined travel translate into actual travel? Is this ‘Road to Rome’ a dead end, or a real path to empowerment for the children?

  • 1 ‘Say’ appears 189 times in The Story of the Treasure-Seekers alone, and ‘tell’ 98 times. Often, ‘sa (...)

4Many children’s texts feature friendly adult narrators as guides; E. Nesbit’s most famous work of fiction, The Railway Children (1906), follows this formula. By contrast, her Treasure-Seeker trilogy employs a loquacious, quirky, semi-aware, emerging adolescent. Thus, the Bastable trilogy offers opportunities to think about child narrators in fresh ways. Marah Gubar includes Nesbit in a list of authors who ‘help the young find their own voices despite the existence of preexisting stories about who they are and how they should behave’ (Gubar 2009, 127). Oswald has absorbed many adult narrative conventions, in whole or in part, and he parrots quite a few and rejects others, as will be made evident in my analysis of how he begins his first novel. Oswald’s first foray into authorship, in 1889’s The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, begins with much confidence in his mastery of writerly discourse. Oswald thinks of himself as a writer, but writes as if he were speaking. Throughout, he discusses writing with the language of speaking (‘tell’ or ‘say’ are common verbs)1 and he spends much of his time as a writer rendering imagined and real dialogues between people. He begins,

There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, ‘Alas,’ said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, ‘we must look our last on this ancestral home—and then someone else says something—and you don’t know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it. (Nesbit 1899, 1)

5Oswald assumes that his reader shares his philosophy about dialogue, and invents this opening to experiment with ways to diverge. He responds to what he has read with new ideas about how and what he wants to write. As with the romance he references, Oswald’s main theme is the loss of an ancestral home, in his case his family’s suburban flat ‘in the Lewisham Road’ (1) after his mother’s death and his father’s fall into financial ruin. This moment of direct address signals dialogue, real and imagined, between children, between children and adults, and between the narrator and the reader, as crucial for the development of ideas of what ‘home,’ or feeling ‘at home,’ even means. Oswald wants to draw from classic ‘texts’ because he knows his readers will respond to their key themes along with him. However, he wonders if the mutual understanding between narrator and reader could improve if new writers could diverge from old conventions.

6The children lionize adults who know how to engage children in interesting conversations that seem to be at the child’s level. Throughout the series Oswald references Kipling as an important model for learning how to phrase new ideas eloquently, and ‘Albert’s Uncle’ is a hero to the children because of his profession as a writer and how his writerly imagination allows him to engage the children with his speech. They meet a third kindred spirit during a train ride into London in chapter 4 of The Treasure-Seekers. This ‘awfully jolly’ (35) unnamed and androgynous female poet—likely modelled after Nesbit herself—writes what they deem the best poem they have read about childhood, a poem that ‘shows that some grown-up ladies are not so silly as others’ (36). She is introduced as one who ‘didn’t talk a bit like a real lady, but more like a jolly sort of grown-up boy in a dress and hat’ (38). She is sceptical of adult readers even though she is a writer for children and adults. She holds the manuscript for her ‘new book of stories,’ ready to add, in Oswald’s words, ‘marks on it with a pencil to show the printers what idiots they are not to understand what a writer means to have printed’ (35). Oswald imagines that she shares his antagonism towards those who seek to dictate, from the outside, the parameters of creative expression. (By contrast, in the ‘Being Editors’ chapter of the novel, Oswald offers suggestions with a light touch (75), even when it involves leaving errors intact). Oswald and his siblings, following the jolly bespectacled female writer’s lead, pair moments of deference with moments of conscious resistance.

  • 2 For general errors in conversation, see Schegloff (1987) and Weigand (1999). Schegloff’s work in so (...)
  • 3 For example, Rothwell sees ‘Denny’s misquoted poetry, Oswald’s misuse of various words and expressi (...)
  • 4 The best source for a detailed discussion of this dynamic is Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult (200 (...)
  • 5 See also Victoria Ford Smith’s Between Generations (2017), which examines occasions in which childr (...)

7To date, there has been little work analysing errors in conversation and their function in dual-audience texts (texts for children and adults).2 The work that exists related to Nesbit tends to see the child’s naïve mistakes as elevating the agency of the adult and the adult reader.3 The attraction to the ‘deficit model’ (Gubar 2013, 450) of subordinating the child’s expression to the adult’s, is due to how children’s literature is written constructed by adults, for children, for the purposes of entertainment or instruction.4 I join Marah Gubar in seeing the deficit model as far from universal (she proposes a ‘kinship model’ [450] instead),5 and I would like to consider Nesbit’s role in expanding our understanding of how a child’s agency in thinking and speaking can be presented in realistic fictions. Rachel Conrad’s concept of ‘childness’ (127) becomes apparent throughout these readings. The trilogy depends on moments in which children see themselves as occupying a special social category. Subsequently, scholars such as Victoria Ford Smith and Gubar join Conrad in theorizing ‘a form of social agency that can involve children’s participation in understanding and maintaining the social roles of child and adult,’ at times ‘without adults’ awareness of children’s agency’ (Conrad 127).

8It is natural to expect that the power dynamic in an exchange between an adult and a child will privilege the adult’s understanding over that of the child. It is also natural to expect that dynamic to appear when fictional adults interact with fictional children, when the text was designed with any didactic purpose. With that expectation in mind, critics Murray Knowles and Kirsten Malmkjær examine a specific passage from Nesbit’s The Railway Children—a passage in which a doctor explains to one of the children why boys must be gentle in interactions with girls—as evidence of multiple linguistic strategies for an adult to impose an ideology onto a child, including ‘fragmentation,’ ‘differentiation,’ ‘unification,’ ‘universalization,’ and ‘naturalisation’ (48, 53, 59). This adult successfully initiates the children into speaking about, and thus thinking about and enacting, traditional gendered power structures. As with the children in the story, so with the boys and girls who read the account and absorb the same lesson. The fictional child’s decision to defer to the adult, or to resist the adult, is important because it presents options to the child reader. I agree that any account of a child’s agency can be overstated, even within Nesbit’s works. Yet, I posit that a focus on mishearings and misunderstandings can restore unexpected power to the child’s speech, especially when the child is speaking to other children. Being unable (or unwilling) to understand an adult’s verbal directive can be liberating, and a child’s verbal play can have an effect on the adult world and even on the adult perspective.

9This is the case, for instance, in the opening conversation between the siblings in The Story of the Treasure-Seekers:

We all stretched ourselves and began to speak at once, but Dora put her hands to her ears and said—
‘One at a time, please. We aren’t playing Babel.’ (It is a very good game. Did you ever play it?) (5)

10The children have lost their grip on financial respectability after the death of their mother and the ruin of their father, who was swindled by a former business partner, and are desperate to use the resources of the child to right the social and financial wrongs experienced by their treasured adult. The aborted game of Babel launches a series of money-making schemes concocted by the siblings to repair the fortunes of the family. The schemes involve very little actual travel (a backyard dig, a stroll to the park, a short train ride into town), but a wide range of global imaginings. In this short excerpt, Oswald’s older sister Dora is trying to rein in the carnivalesque energies of her siblings. As with her corrections to her brother’s language in the ‘Road to Rome’ chapter, discussed previously, here, too, Dora, the eldest of the five Bastable children, inserts the emerging adult perspective into the child’s conversation. Dora’s admonition isn’t about stifling the conversation as much as giving it a manageable shape and form. She doesn’t want the individual threads to present themselves simultaneously; when her siblings listen, the novel gains its clear structure of one adventure per chapter, until the return of the children’s ‘Indian Uncle,’ and the restoration of the family’s position, makes all of their schemes financially meaningless and returns their experiences of fantasy from sequenced to simultaneous. The chapters are ordered; the ending is chaotic, ‘so wonderful that now nothing is like it used to be. It is like as if our fortunes had been in an earthquake, and after those, you know, everything comes out wrong-way up’ (1899, 185). What interests me about this small moment, a moment that delays the earthquake for several chapters, is the tension between Dora’s statement and Oswald’s aside. Dora cautions against the chaos of simultaneous narratives, while Oswald calls it ‘a very good game.’ It seems that they have to pause the game of ‘Babel’ in order to build the book—indeed, the chapters exist because they decide, per Dora’s dictate, to present their schemes ‘one at a time.’ Yet, even in taking turns as narrators the children model a mode of authorship that is infinitely more multi-voiced and collaborative than is typical (it is a rare book that is written by a large group of siblings with contributions from good friends such as Dicky). Also, later chapters, such as ‘Being Editors,’ do drift away from Dora’s calls for ‘one at a time,’ and do have the children jumping into each other’s sentences and paragraphs. Overall, Oswald’s partial concession to Dora’s request for order allows for the kind of conversational structure that appears in traditional print books. However, his appreciation for Babel as ‘a very good game’ hints at possibilities for other narrative structures. His wilful partial disregard for the conventions of conversation appears in the parentheses. Having dedicated himself to reporting the exchange between the siblings, along the lines of what Dora mandated, he turns to the reader, teasingly offering her the chance to play the forbidden game with him. As with the actor on stage who was given the subversive aside, Oswald is interjecting into his own conversation to initiate a side conversation. The misunderstanding of Dora’s mandate is intentional; his aside suggests, ‘we are not going to play Babel in the official transcript of this conversation, but perhaps we (I and the reader) will play Babel in the margins, within dialogues that Dora cannot overhear’. Nesbit, writing her novel during the transition from Victorianism to modernism, here seems to foreshadow some of the more radical approaches to dialogue in written texts—for adults as much as for children—that would become a crucial part of the modernist narrative revolution.

11‘Babel’ is dialogism at its most global. ‘Babel,’ evoking the Hebrew word for ‘confused,’ references a story from the book of Genesis that is shared by the Abrahamic traditions. The story is meant to caution against hubristic empire-building; it suggests that God imposed linguistic differences to disperse a community that would otherwise mobilize and build a tower to the heavens. Before the punishment ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech’ (Genesis 11:1); after the punishment chastened humans were forced to disperse ‘over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:9). Games of Babel erase distinctions between people that are rooted in language difference and national boundaries. A novel that is written as a game of Babel would display active resistance to linear narratives of progress and clear paradigms of cause and effect. Dora doesn’t want to play at the kind of building implied by a game of Babel, but Oswald wants to try his hand at it. The confusion of letting all of the stories occupy the same space at once may lead, in his opinion, to a shared experience that is different from ordinary communication but all the more fun for its divergence from the norm.

12Mistakes made by the Bastable children and their collaborator, Dicky, tend to make their world smaller and more navigable. In the ‘Being Editors’ chapter of Treasure-Seekers, Dicky’s contribution to the science article suggests that ‘The earth is 2,400 miles round, and 800 through—at least I think so, but perhaps it’s the other way’ (Nesbit 1899, 75). Dicky’s numbers are both wrong and precise. He underestimates the circumference of the earth to a degree of 10, and he underestimates the diameter to a degree of 10, his miscalculations creating a slightly more traversable and manageable scale model of earth. It is still impossible to dig the hole to China (though that doesn’t keep the children from imagining that as a possibility), but they are more intimately connected to the other side of the globe than they would be were the math correct. Oswald, as editor of this section, chastises Dicky for his uncertainty but not for his numbers, writing, ‘(You ought to have been sure before you began.—ED)’ (Nesbit 1899, 75). Here, he mildly signals his awareness of adult standards of accuracy, but isn’t moving to strike the faulty calculation. Instead, he allows the faulty calculation to go to print, leaving it up to the child reader to either seek an adult to verify that the inaccuracy is a matter of degree, or to be satisfied with the efforts of the child writer and child editor.

  • 6 See Melissa Jenkins, ‘The Next Thing You Know, You’re Flying Among the Stars: Nostalgia, Heterotopi (...)

13The mistakes found in the child’s acts of narration and perception present familiar places from new perspectives. To understand the phenomenon, it is helpful to draw on the distinctions between ‘localized utopia’ and ‘heterotopia’, as theorized by Michel Foucault, M. Christine Boyer, and others. As I have detailed in other work on place in children’s literature,6 the concept of the ‘localized utopia’ acknowledges how a subgroup may imaginatively transform one place into another. Children create localized utopias frequently through imaginative play, as when a parent’s bed becomes, for a child, ‘the ocean by swimming between the covers or the sky by bouncing on the springs and leaping into the air’ (Boyer 53). Heterotopias are spaces that are legible to children and adults alike; they are similar to localized utopias in that they mark their inhabitants as resisting social norms for defining what places mean and represent. Both can perform important social work. If the excluded individual is able, through conscious effort or unconscious mistake, to see a space differently, she has managed to elude a form of social control and standardization. This is a linguistic version of donning rose-coloured glasses. These acts of wilful or accidental mis-seeing become even more powerful when they can be shared—when others that can join in the subversive misinterpretation. This work defamiliarizes familiar spaces for the purpose of enacting change without leaving that familiar space.

14In the New Treasure-Seekers, the children travel a short distance, in search of their lost dog, and find themselves in a small neighbourhood of Chinese immigrants; they reflect upon the experience as if they had travelled by paddleboat to China. Oswald’s narration of the event turns it into a case study for resistance to dominant narratives about particular spaces, and the people who occupy those spaces. Oswald introduces the episode by debunking stereotypes about the diet of Chinese immigrants. He and his siblings enter the neighbourhood full of preconceived notions but also eagerness to reconfigure those notions. After defending an elderly resident of Chinatown from a group of British children who are bullying him, they are invited into his home. In describing the smell of the Chinese household, Oswald draws on the familiar to negotiate the new space with less fear. He reports, ‘the smell seemed to have all sorts of things in it—glue and gunpowder, and white garden lilies and burnt fat, and it was not so easy to breathe as plain air’ (1904, 109). Lest he convey the impression to his reader that he is choking rather than trying to breathe deeply, he adds, ‘I wish we had stayed longer, and tried harder to understand what they said, because it was an adventure, take it how you like, that we’re not likely to look upon the like of again’ (Nesbit 1904, 109). Here, two novels after the game was praised by Oswald and rejected by his very proper older sister, Oswald is imagining playing Babel. He wants to stay in this chaotic multi-lingual space and make sense of the noise, just as he tries to break the smells of the new space into its component parts. He seems to want to reverse the curse of separation and difference.

15By wilfully allowing a neighbourhood of Chinese immigrants in England to stand in for China, Oswald and his siblings are trying to negotiate the difference between the localized utopia of children and the heterotopias of adults. The adult heterotopia of deviation would figure the enclave of Chinese immigrants as permanently othered, as being separate from the larger community of British subjects because of something inherent to the people who live in the neighbourhood. The adult heterotopia of crisis still assumes that the immigrant is outside of the norm for a reason related to his or her deviance from an ideal, but would assume this condition to be temporary. Perhaps, it would argue, the apartment will smell like shepherd’s pie and ale in short order. The child’s imagination performs a crucial inversion, imagining the children as the ones in the position to assimilate and change. Again, Oswald writes, ‘I wish we had stayed longer, and tried harder to understand what they said, because it was an adventure, take it how you like, that we’re not likely to look upon the like of again’ (Nesbit 1904, 109). True, he uses the language of ‘adventure’, but he focuses on staying to understand rather than staying to make himself understood. Oswald, at least in this moment, imagines himself as a visitor rather than a conqueror, and thus it is appropriate that his adventure begins with an attempt to stave off an attack on this Chinese man by young English bullies.

  • 7 The most famous literary examples of these stereotypes come from Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet 3 (...)

16This reconfiguration of what it means to be ‘at home,’ even in an unfamiliar place, and the work of ‘staying longer’ and ‘tr[ying] harder to understand what is said,’ is an important part of how the children imagine themselves as travellers. The children’s inability to see what is in front of them in orthodox ways, or to interpret word in traditional ways, facilitates this work of reconstruction. It is important, however, to avoid idealizing the naïveté that gives the children such courage as travellers and social bridge-builders; the courage that stems from erroneous definition and errors in transmission can also signal unsustainable cultural misunderstandings. Some of the children’s antics don’t stand the test of time, as with their fondness for disguising themselves as gypsies and Arabs, or donning blackface. Even here, however, their mistakes tend to bring the othered group closer to the children, rather than to enforce separation. When Dora (always resisting games of Babel) tries to draw a contrast between princes and gypsies, for instance, Noël counters, ‘there are gypsy princes, though . . . because there are gipsy kings’ (Nesbit 1904, 278). Their conversations turn Mr Rosenbaum, a recognizable caricature of the Jewish moneylender, into ‘a Generous Benefactor, like in Miss Edgeworth’ (88), and their expectations become reality when Rosenbaum reaches out to help their father after his conversation with the children. This example runs counter to the ‘deficit model’ argument that the children’s misperceptions fail to alter any adult material realities. They fail to realize that one cannot reach China in a paddleboat, but ‘were not frightened by’ false rumours about cannibalism in the community (Nesbit 1904, 93). This belief fuels heroic action, when they save the immigrant from the hostile, mocking mob. Most famously, at the end of the first novel the children embrace their ‘Indian Uncle,’ a wealthy white Brahmin, because they were expecting, per their reading of Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man,’ the ‘poor Indian, whose untutored mind / Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind’ (Pope, Essay Epistle 1, lines 99–100). They make several bridge-building mistakes here. They confuse Native Americans with inhabitants of British India, and they conflate ‘poor’ as a psychological condition that speaks to character and intellect, with ‘poor’ as a material condition that speaks to circumstance. The confusion rises in part because of their inability—or disinclination—to listen carefully to adult political talk: ‘afterwards they talked about Native Races and imperial something-or-other, and it got very dull’ (Nesbit 1899, 176). When they meet their uncle, they ‘are all very much surprised, for we never thought of his being that sort of Indian. We thought he was the Red kind, and of course his not being accounted for his ignorance of beavers and things’ (Nesbit 1899, 189). His whiteness becomes an explanation for his ‘ignorance,’ as opposed to a tool to make a claim for his superiority. The sticky mis-labelling persists, to the uncle’s benefit and to the benefit of ethnic ‘Indians’ and ethnic ‘Native Americans’. Two novels later, Oswald continues to find his otherwise imposing uncle engaging because of his demetaphorization of ‘warm-hearted’. He says that his uncle ‘has lived so long in India that he is more warm-hearted than you would think to look at him’ (Nesbit 1904, 168). The mistake inverts a racialized point of view that would connect hotter climates, and darker skin, with less admirable personal qualities such as rage, sensuality, or acting on impulse.7

  • 8 Think of Jane Eyre’s aunt ordering her silence before her punishment in the Red Room, or the Counci (...)

17Nesbit writes against some of the Victorian texts that make up the ‘Golden Age of Children’s Literature’ in Britain. These texts are rife with examples of adults speaking for children or demanding a child’s silence.8 These are the frameworks that Nesbit’s children absorb and resist, as noted by scholars who see a contrast between Nesbit’s works and the canonical texts that preceded hers, enabled in part by the allusive nature of Nesbit’s text. Julia Briggs characterizes the children as ‘avid readers who are delighted when they can communicate with adults through the shortcut of shared allusions’ (Briggs 78; see also Gubar 2009, 129 and Parkes 105). As writers, the children begin with the conventions they have absorbed, but Nesbit creates child voices that strike most adult readers as ‘authentic’ (Moss 91), due to their awareness of how they speak and see differently. The realism extends to the basic arc of their storylines, as well. At times, the children express melancholy when the financial and social troubles of their family seem less pliable and easy to dispel than those in fairy tales and story books. Yet, their mistakes in interpretation—the quirky conversations that ‘rea[d] . . . the metaphorical as the literal’—are part of what can ‘transform an irascible old man into a fairy godmother’ (Reimer 53), infusing otherwise realistic narrative spaces with heterotopic possibilities.

18The children’s inclination to respond to ethnic others with generosity and imagination is based not only on what they read and hear, but also on what they misread and mishear. This is important because of the emphasis in all of these books on language and conversation being the greatest dividing line between child-like and adult ways of perceiving the world. Oswald’s assessment of the most trusted adult in their lives, Albert’s uncle, the novelist, underscores their awareness of who speaks to exclude children and who speaks in a way that bolsters their worth and adds credence to their perspective. Oswald writes, ‘That’s one thing I like Albert’s uncle for. He always talks like a book, and yet you can always understand what he means. I think he is more like us, inside of his mind, than most grown-up people are. He can pretend beautifully’ (Nesbit 1899, 169). With this idea, Oswald takes his reader full circle from where he began his first narration. He began The Story of the Treasure-Seekers with a critique of elevated adult language in old-fashioned romances, romances that, not coincidentally I would argue, tend to feature high-born figures, magic, and improbable coincidences in the kinds of magical settings Nesbit features in her fantasy fiction but eschews in her realist fiction for children. Yet, the children infuse elements of magical thinking into these realist texts to allow for more human connections than would be possible otherwise. So, again, it is not that the children have no use for adult discourse. On the contrary, they take bits and pieces of what is useful as they design their conversations with each other. Yet, a lot of the power of these appropriations comes from partial understandings and accidental or wilful misunderstandings. Voice and narration help the children to decide how they want to position themselves as global citizens, and that positioning requires little actual travel.

19Oswald and his siblings are far from immune to the class, gender, and race-based prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Yet, it is indisputable that many of the sweetest surprises of the trilogy come when the children’s misunderstandings allow gypsies to become princes and ‘Poor Indians’ to infuse their families with wealth. The stakes are high for how the children imagine travel, because travel is the motif they use to understand the shape of a life. They understand their mother’s untimely death through the motif of travel, wondering how their lives would differ if she ‘had only been away for a little while, and not for always’ (Nesbit 1904, 37). Maturity within a specific community involves normalizing one’s sense of how aspects of life are to be measured, as in Prufrock’s dismay at the boundaries and limits placed on polite adult discourse (‘they will say . . . they will say . . . ’) (41, 46), in T. S. Eliot’s famous poetic account of the modern condition. Nesbit’s books offer similar glimpses at the ‘eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’ (Eliot 56) through thinking about freedom or confinement in discourse. The world can be managed when it seems to be smaller, from the child’s perspective. Wonder can be maintained, even though relationships may become harder to maintain, when the adult perspective makes the world seem bigger. As Oswald ages across the series, he gains varied senses of distance and scale as he discovers new ‘alternative’ spaces on earth. It is one thing to imagine a parent’s bed as the sea and sky, and another to find oneself between sea and sky for the first time. Here are Oswald’s reflections in The New Treasure Seekers (1904), when he finds himself party to a minor smuggling expedition, as pretending becomes real:

Until you are out on the sea at night you can never have any idea how big the world really is. The sky looks higher up, and the stars look further out, and even if you know it is only the English Channel, yet it is a jot as good for feeling small as on the most trackless Atlantic or Pacific. (252)

20This passage is a perfect representation of the liminal spaces at the end of childhood. Oswald presents the ‘sea’ to his readers, admits that it is ‘only the English Channel,’ but explains that in its effect on the imagination it serves the same purpose as ‘the most trackless Atlantic or Pacific.’ The feeling of expansion and discovery Oswald experiences turns the Channel into a kind of localized utopia. He foreshadows the extent to which there will be a law of diminishing returns. When he is an adult, the English Channel will be the English Channel, and he will need to be at sea to feel ‘at sea.’ As a child, his local environment can perform the same transformative work. He can travel without going far, and can use where he is to imagine where he could be. There is something deeply empowering about being able to reap large developmental benefits through small changes and small events.

  • 9 OED, ‘insidious’—from the Latin for ‘cunning’ and ‘deceitful’.

21 The passage, of course, represents a stylistic lapse on Nesbit’s part. Oswald’s voice has merged with Nesbit’s here; she could not resist using the child narrator to speak as and for herself, just as in Story of the Treasure Seekers she inserts a version of herself (the quirky poet the children meet on the train into London) to demonstrate her ability to connect with children by speaking their language. Nesbit’s continued attempts to ventriloquize children hearken to the relationship between seeing the world through a smaller scale, and being able to achieve cross-cultural understanding. The moment recalls one of the strangest bits of narration in the second novel, The Wouldbegoods (1901), in which Oswald reflects on his status as part child, part adult: ‘Oswald can see that ere long he will be too old for the kinds of games we can all play, and he feels grown-up-ness creeping inordiously upon him’ (312). Had he known better, Oswald would have said ‘insidiously,’ a word ‘rooted’ in adult suspicion of language.9 Instead, he coins his own word that transforms ‘ordinal’ and ‘ordinary’ (based in rules and order), and perhaps ‘odious’ (unsavory), into a new way to think about his own future. The word is a mish-mash that is still, somehow, the right word for its occasion. In the end, the Bastable children become the ‘bastard Babel’ children, scrounging and scrambling for useful bits of language that can be mixed together in unauthorized ways. The mistakes turn their worlds into what seems to be, from their limited perspectives, a smaller and friendlier place.

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Bibliography

Boyer, M. Christine. ‘The Many Mirrors of Foucault and their Architectural Reflections’. Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. Ed. Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter. London: Routledge, 2008, 53–74.

Briggs, Julia. ‘E. Nesbit, the Bastables, and the Red House: A Response’. Children’s Literature 25 (1997): 71–85.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. 1847. Ed. Richard Nemesvari. Peterborough, OT: Broadview, 1999.

Conrad, Rachel. ‘“We Are Masters at Childhood”: Time and Agency in Poetry by, for, and about Children’. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 5.2 (2013): 124–50.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. 1837-9. Ed. Peter Fairclough. London: Penguin, 1985.

Eliot, T. S. Prufrock and Other Observations. London: The Egoist, 1917, 9–16.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Of Other Spaces’. Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22–27.

Galvin, Elisabeth. The Extraordinary Life of E. Nesbit: Author of Five Children and It and The Railway Children. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2018.

Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Gubar, Marah. ‘Risky Business: Talking About Children in Children’s Literature Criticism’. Children's Literature Association Quarterly 38.4 (Winter 2013): 450–57.

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. New York: Bantam, 2000.

Knowles, Murray, and Kirsten Malmkjær. Language and Control in Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 1995.

Moss, Anita. ‘Varieties of Children’s Metafiction’. Studies in the Literary Imagination 18.2 (Fall 1985): 79–92.

Nesbit, Edith. New Treasure-Seekers; Or, The Bastable Children In Search of a Fortune. New York: Stokes, 1904.

Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. 1906. London: Collector’s Library 2007.

Nesbit, Edith. The Story of the Treasure-Seekers. 1899. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2017.

Nesbit, Edith. The Wouldbegoods. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1900, 1901.

Nodelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.

Parkes, Christopher. Children’s Literature and Capitalism: Fictions of Social Mobility in Britain, 1850-1914. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. The Poems of Alexander Pope, Ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963, 501–48.

Reimer, Mavis. ‘Treasure-Seekers and Invaders: E. Nesbit’s Cross-Writing of the Bastables’. Children’s Literature 25 (1997): 50–59.

Rothwell, Erika. ‘“You Catch it if you Try to do Otherwise”: The Limitations of E. Nesbit’s Cross-Written Version of the Child’. Children’s Literature 25 (1997): 60–70.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. ‘Some Sources of Understanding in Talk-in-Interaction’. Linguistics 25 (1987): 201–18.

Smith, Victoria Ford. Between Generations: Collaborative Authorship in the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2017.

Weigand, Edda. ‘Misunderstanding: The Standard Case’. Journal of Pragmatics 31 (1999): 763–85.

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Notes

1 ‘Say’ appears 189 times in The Story of the Treasure-Seekers alone, and ‘tell’ 98 times. Often, ‘say’ is used in dialogue as the children predict or imagine other people’s utterances. It also litters moments when Oswald expresses awareness of his divergence from adult ways of writing. A clear example comes at the beginning of chapter two, when Oswald apologizes for the excessive amount of dialogue in chapter one. He writes, ‘The best part of books is when things are happening. That is the best part of real things too. This is why I shall not tell you in this story about all the days when nothing happened. You will not catch me saying, ‘this the sad days passed slowly by’—or ‘the years rolled on their weary course’—or ‘time went on’—because it is silly; of course time goes on, whether you say so or not (9, emphasis added). Oswald pretends to reject talk in favor of action, but uses ‘tell’ and ‘say’ to describe how he plans to convey action. The phrases he puts in quotation marks evidence how much of his writerly toolbox is based on his own critical reading. Not all remembered phrases will be of use to him. Some are models of the kinds of speech and writing he is eager to resist.

2 For general errors in conversation, see Schegloff (1987) and Weigand (1999). Schegloff’s work in sociolinguistics seeks to source various categories of misunderstanding in conversation based on social factors, with an emphasis on race and class with some nods towards age. Schegloff is also invested in a taxonomy of common sources of misunderstanding, such as lack of clarity about whether an utterance is meant to be in jest (206). Weigand, drawing on Schegloff’s work, categorizes misunderstandings as they relate to membership in different social groups, again with more of a focus on race and class. My article seeks to fill a gap as relates to dual audience texts and the role that stages of development (the child and the adult) play in generating misunderstandings. In addition, I examine what may be empowering for children in accidental or intentional misunderstandings of adult utterances—how a child’s mistakes can transform real physical spaces into localized utopias. Here, Weigand’s distinction between ‘understanding’ and ‘coming to an understanding on an interactive level’ (769, her emphasis) is useful. She argues that a ‘harmonious model’ of communication does not require identical social status across hearer and speaker, nor does it require ‘complete understanding’ (769). Instead, Weigand, too, sees the category of the game—in her case ‘dialogic action games’ (769) as a model where misunderstanding can be a productive part of a process of coming to an understanding.

3 For example, Rothwell sees ‘Denny’s misquoted poetry, Oswald’s misuse of various words and expressions, and the general misunderstanding of the adult world that pervades the trilogy’ as ‘designed to be understood by and appeal to adult readers before child readers, and at the expense of children’ (Rothwell 61–2). Rothwell suggests that Nesbit’s book The Red House (1902) underscores the naïveté of the Bastable children by re-presenting specific moments from the child-centered narrative books through adults’ eyes. The contrast leads her to conclude that Nesbit writes limitations to a child’s agency into all of her works. ‘Unable to understand fully or affect knowingly the adult world,’ she writes, ‘Nesbit’s children can hope for no more than amused condescension from the kindest of adults’ (Rothwell 61). 

4 The best source for a detailed discussion of this dynamic is Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult (2008). His text begins by underscoring the strangeness of children’s literature as a body of texts that are written by adults for adults to purchase, and that are based on adult imaginings of what children may or may not want to read (3–4).

5 See also Victoria Ford Smith’s Between Generations (2017), which examines occasions in which children collaborated with adults to create specific works of children’s literature.

6 See Melissa Jenkins, ‘The Next Thing You Know, You’re Flying Among the Stars: Nostalgia, Heterotopia, and Re-Mapping the City in African American Picture Books’. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 2016): 343–64.

7 The most famous literary examples of these stereotypes come from Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet 3.1 the Meditteranean climate is blamed for the ‘mad blood’ (3.1.4) that results in the murder of Tybalt by Romeo. In Othello, Iago uses Desdemona’s deviation from ‘matches/Of her own clime, complexion, and degree’ (3.3), in marrying ‘the thicklips’ (1.1), as a sign of her unnatural sexual passions. The Prince of Morocco, in The Merchant of Venice, draws the same contrasts when he equates his own climate with passion and her whiter skin and cooler climate with virtue (2.1.12). Portia’s written rejection of him when he selects the golden casket leads him to say ‘Farewell, heat, and welcome, frost’ and her to say, ‘A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./Let all of his complexion choose me so’ (2.7). Oswald, more of a fan of Kipling than of Shakespeare, seems to have been primed for a different perspective.

8 Think of Jane Eyre’s aunt ordering her silence before her punishment in the Red Room, or the Council in The Jungle Books during which the adult animals seek someone to speak for Mowgli, or the horror and disgust with which Oliver Twist’s guardians respond to his request for ‘more.’ It is not accidental that these children are all liberated by claiming the inheritances owed to them as heirs to Englishness. By contrast, the Bastable children must look abroad for the materials and individuals who will improve their social positions.

9 OED, ‘insidious’—from the Latin for ‘cunning’ and ‘deceitful’.

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References

Electronic reference

Melissa Jenkins, “Liras into Lyres: Talking Across Difference in the Works of Edith Nesbit”Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 92 Automme | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 25 July 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/cve/8327; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.8327

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About the author

Melissa Jenkins

Melissa Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Wake Forest University, USA. She has published works in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, the Victorians Institute Journal, and several edited collections. She is at work on a monograph entitled Place and Power in Children’s Literature.


Melissa Jenkins est Associate Professor en études anglaises à Wake Forest University, USA. Elle a publié dans les revues Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, Victorians Institute Journal, et ses articles ont été inclus dans plusieurs recueils. Elle travaille en ce moment sur une monographie dont le titre est Place and Power in Children’s Literature.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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