Reflections on E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet

I just finished reading Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet to the children. I was not familiar with her work, but had read once or twice that her children’s books were an influence on Lewis. I’d like to make just a few notes about this children’s book, written in the very early 1900s.

1. Everyone treats the servants like trash. Even the young children boss them around and call them stupid. Nowhere does the author ever hint that this isn’t entirely acceptable behavior. The author provides regular commentary on the children’s morals, but never once touches on the treatment of the servants. They are garbage. Even the burglar they catch breaking into their house is shown more respect than the cook and the maid. It’s difficult for me to imagine even a particularly snooty or racist person today mistreating hired staff this overtly today, at least in the USA. What do I, a son of rural Western farmers know of this history? Nearly nothing, though I suspect it was more often like this than what one sees in Downton Abbey.

2. The plots of the chapters themselves are fairly weak. The adventures are only mildly adventurous. The difficulties are often resolved through some kind of deus ex machina device in the last two pages. On the other hand, it’s also interesting to think that what might constitute an adventure would be different to children in 1904 than today. We’re used to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Avengers. To them a visit to a tropical island or a trip to find a bag of coins in an old tower in France might approach maximum excitement. Also, to young children under 10, even an old treehouse can be a lot of fun. There are days when I wish that I could be enthralled by much less flashy things. Sometimes I even am. Books help.

3. The thing the author really gets right is the interaction between the four young siblings. The quirky balance of tender care mixed with petty bickering is something that cannot be accurately captured unless experienced first-hand. I was curious if this knowledge came from the author’s own childhood, but (according to Wikipedia) apparently not. It must have come from her own many children (several of who were adopted from her philandering husband’s multiple mistresses!).

4. The lack of foreshadowing in the book left me at several points thinking that it could have been written quite a bit more interestingly than it was. Some great opportunities for tie-ins between chapters would have made the world richer and the story more cohesive but they were not often taken. I’m no writer of fiction and will rarely dare to make a comment like this, but this time I couldn’t help but feel like I could have improved on the telling with minimal effort. Some of this came out in an additional inserted commentary when reading aloud.

5. The lack of parental oversight is astounding when compared to our safety obsessed culture today. The young children are left alone to play by themselves for sometimes a week at a time! Their father goes to work every day and the mother usually takes care of the baby, but she frequently leaves the house for several days at a time to visit relatives. The servants are sometimes around, but not really paying attention to the children – they have other jobs to do. The children make fires at home and prepare food and go shopping and even take the train to neighboring towns without thinking twice. My wife commented that the same thing happens in many of the Anne of Green Gables books – young children of age six or so are left at home all day without adults watching them. Frankly I think this is just fine and the fact that if you do this today you are likely to be thrown in jail (no hyperbole) is tragic on several levels. It all depends on the particular child and the environment of course – how can I possibly qualify this statement enough? Still, it could be completely fine. We (my wife and I) frequently try to encourage independence in our children, but I must say it doesn’t end up coming close to looking like what seems to have been commonplace a hundred years ago. I wonder what it would take for this to become normal again?