by E. Nesbit
originally published in 1907
New York: HarperCollins, 1992
288 pp, 12 chapters
Age: (read to) 6 + ; (read independently) 8 +
Interests: magic, castles, treasure, siblings, mystery, adventure
Also by this author: Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Book of Dragons
Three siblings – Gerald, Kathleen and Jimmy – are at loose ends one summer vacation and discover what seems to be an enchanted castle. It comes complete with a hedge maze with a sleeping princess at the centre… who turns out to be the housekeeper’s daughter Mabel, playing pretend. However just as the magic they’d seen all turns out to be fake, they stumble across a ring that actually can make Mabel invisible, and the real magic adventure begins in earnest. Statues that come to life, burglars, fairground conjuring tricks, secret passages, headless ghosts… the children’s exploits finally end with a true-life romance blooming right under their noses.
This book is a good choice for anyone looking for ‘Harry Potterish’ reads that aren’t as violent or scary as the Rowling series. This is the story of a group of children who encounter a magic ring and, without really understanding all the rules of the magic, fumble their way through some amusing and some nearly-disastrous adventures. As The Enchanted Castle is now over a hundred years old, elements of it may be foreign to children today, particularly the details about boarding school life and the general freedom the children enjoy to roam the countryside.
The only thing that slowed us down when I read it to my daughter (aged 5) was a general wordiness – especially in the character Gerald, who habitually speaks as if narrating his own adventures – and the slang from the time. These aspects make for a slowish read-aloud, and would probably be more amusing for an older child reading on his/her own. (My daughter really enjoyed the events of the plot, but found it hard to figure out what was going on much of the time, amid the verbiage.)
This classic is still read and loved today, but in places it shows its age, as well as the prejudices of the author and her time. The class divide is certainly there, as the children are quite callous in their treatment of Eliza the maid. In addition their very sympathetic French teacher is found at the end to be a gentlewoman fallen on hard times. (To avoid having the hero and lord of the story marry beneath him.) As well, I rather wished the entire mystic bit near the end had been left out of the book. After so much pragmatism and hard-nosed (1907) modernity, it seemed out of place to suddenly, solemnly, reveal the mysteries of the universe in some kind of weird spiritual ceremony… (You’ll see what I mean. It’s hard to describe.) A fascination with ancient civilizations and pre-Christian pantheism runs through the Victorian era and beyond (think of The Wind in the Willows‘ Pan figure), and E. Nesbit was kind of a 19th century version of a bohemian or hippie. (More on her another time!)
In its favour: A terrific story! The situations these children find themselves in are wildly imaginative and startling, even one hundred years after publication. The plot takes so many twists and turns it’s impossible to guess what’s around the corner. The Ugly-Wuglies episode in particular is vivid and chilling. This book was one of the first to depict children in a relatively realistic way – brave, vain, short-sighted, impulsive, funny, irreverent, and always battling in a loving way with their siblings. And Gerald’s mannered way of speech is a hilarious satire of badly-written adventure tales of the era.
E. Nesbit was a fantastically influential British author, even if rather lesser known in North America. (She was a strong influence in particular on my own favourite children-having-magic-adventures writer, the American author Edward Eager.) I will definitely be working my way through Nesbit’s other books in this blog…
(Wikipedia tells me this book was made into a TV miniseries by the BBC in 1979, but that it’s sadly not available on video or DVD.)