In an article I read recently, the writer bewailed the degeneracy of today's youth. Her proof? That modern children did not read exactly the same books as they had when she was young.
I do not ever wish to be that writer. I love the explosion of children's and young adult fiction that we've seen in the past couple of decades, and hopefully am not arrogant enough to believe that what I read when I was a child was somehow superior by virtue of my having read it. And I quite understand why no one seems to read E.Nesbit anymore. But I'm not entirely resigned to it.
Edith Nesbit is a fascinating figure. She was one of the founders of the Fabian Society, had an open marriage, and lectured on socialism. She's best known for her children's stories but she also wrote fiction for adults, including one of my favourite horror stories, "The Shadow".
Nesbit's fiction (children's and adults') is notable because there's always so much going on beneath the surface. "The Shadow" is all about the insecure narrator and's jealousy and fascination. The Railway Children (perhaps Nesbit's best known work) is at its subtle best when it is referring (never too directly) to the heartbroken wife of a wrongly imprisoned man who must hide their situation from her children.
The Enchanted Castle is far from the most famous of Nesbit's books, but it's in many ways her best. Three children are prevented from going home for the holidays by illness, and they resolve to make their own fun. In exploring the area around their school they come across a castle (or possibly a country house) a princess (or possibly the scullery maid) and a magic ring.
Noel Coward praised Nesbit's ability to evoke hot, summer days in the countryside. But these are never the comfortable, middle-class idylls that his words might seem to suggest. The children play at being explorers, secure at first in the knowledge that they have a picnic lunch and that magic probably isn't real. They move to a sense of wonder and from there to growing unease. Nesbit's world is all golden and sunlit on the surface, but underneath it is shifting and layered and strange and horrible - this is why she's such an effective horror writer as well. The Enchanted Castle contains grotesque, nightmarish scenes in which statues and gods and creatures made by the children themselves come to life. Plenty of children's writers have tackled the idea of games of make-believe gone horribly wrong (Antonia Forest's Peter's Room is incomparable) and with the popularity of role-playing games they will probably continue to do so. But this is the most viscerally terrifying take on the trope that I've ever encountered.
And this is why, though her situations are hopelessly dated and her characters are frequently too good to be true, I hope people continue to read Nesbit. There's a weirdness at the heart of her fiction that is unlike almost anything else for children. And The Enchanted Castle may just be the strangest of her works.