Book Reviews, British History, Charles, Children, European History, Social Behavior
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Five Children and It (E. Nesbit)

Five Children and It is a book that resonates on two levels.  On one level, it is an outstanding and well-drawn children’s story.  We read it to our own children to general acclaim.  On another level, it is a glimpse of upper-class child-rearing in Edwardian England, very interesting as social history to today’s adults, even with no children around.

The core moral of the story, that wishes when granted do not often provide the benefit sought by the wisher, isn’t new.  The frame of the story is clever, though—it features Nesbit’s original creation, a sand-fairy, the Psammead.  It is the last of its kind, having burrowed into a Jurassic beach to protect itself from damaging water, and having slept there for eons while the sea receded, leaving behind a gravel pit.  The five children of the title move in nearby, and while digging in the pit for fun, discover the Psammead, who is a grumpy, borderline malevolent creature.  What follows are a series of clever adventures, in which the children either make ill-considered wishes that are granted immediately and literally by the Psammead, or well-considered wishes that the Psammead grants in a way calculated to undercut the point of the wish.  But with pluck and energy, and without the help of adults, the children make every situation turn out all right in the end.

Of course, much of the story’s backdrop seems strange now.  What mother would let her children, including a baby under the supervision only of his siblings, play in a gravel pit alone?  Nowadays, it would be considered criminal child neglect.  True, “gravel pit” here probably means nothing more than a place where wheelbarrows of gravel were dug out of the ground, not a massive pit mine, but the children still spend each day ranging unattended far from home, and none appears older than twelve.  Throughout the stories all adults assume that they are to act in loco parentis.  There is no suggestion that there is any variation in how children are to be dealt with or that an adult has no right to instruct, or punish, another’s children.  The government is only involved when the Psammead grants the children’s wish for gold by giving them very old gold coins, leading them to be reported to the police for presumed theft.  And so on, throughout the book, glimpses of a different way of living.

That’s not even getting to the horrifically not-politically correct nature of many of the stories.  Gypsies are not celebrated as persecuted Roma; they are shown as child thieves (admittedly while under the spell of the Psammead, but still).  “Red Indians” are portrayed as savages eager to scalp the children.  A woman without children is drawn as selfish, nasty and unpleasant to all.  Class distinctions, especially between master and servant, are shown as normal and wholly accepted (even though Nesbit was a Fabian).  The children’s first wish is to be beautiful, and it is assumed that everyone agrees what beauty is, with no pauses to reflect about look-ism.  Sex roles are clearly drawn and assumed, both among adults and children.  Nobody at all is seen as oppressed, except perhaps the Psammead, but given that his nature is to grant wishes, not even he seems actually oppressed when wishes are demanded of him.  It’s a good thing that the concepts of this book aren’t being put out on Twitter; a liberal hate mob would erupt, followed by Twitter banning the account of anyone retrograde enough to enunciate even one of these concepts.

I’m frankly surprised that this book is still popular.  Not that it shouldn’t be, but in this age when everything is politicized, I’d have thought it would have come in for attack and marginalization.  I suppose I should be grateful and should donate copies to my children’s schools.  This book is followed by two sequels, much less well known today, which I have not read.  (Supposedly, though, C.S. Lewis borrowed certain key trappings for The Chronicles of Narnia from those books, including the character of the Tisroc, whom I always assumed was simply based on Ottoman sultans.)  I’m going to get those as well, and read them to my own children, hoping that by osmosis some of the backdrop of these books sinks into them and further chokes the roots of today’s idiot culture.


  1. David A. Rowe says

    Your very last sentiment is my biggest concern. Today’s media, television programming, literature and school system chokes the character of an individual. Boys are hyperactive and should be medicated. Less play and more study for that kindergarten test… it worries me more than anything. It also bothers me that philosophy isn’t taught earlier and used to accelerate reasoning and thought so that higher math and science skills can be picked up later.

    • Charles says

      Very true. Our children, although not homeschooled, have zero TV and zero screen time (except the older ones have to use iPads for school, to which they are strictly limited). We moved the big ones to a private school this year, from our very good public school system, because the public schools were “choking the character” by teaching to the test, requiring conforming behavior, etc. No social media, obviously.

      That said, it’s not perfect. They show no interest in philosophy, for example! We don’t tend to force their education on substance, either. So we’ll see how it works out for us!

      • David A. Rowe says

        I wish you all the best with that. Right now, my only wish is for my boy to grow up as near to Calvin from Calvin & Hobbies did. Time will tell if children will be afforded the luxury of being children in the coming years.

  2. Ah, I feel your pain!! Way too much focus on conforming behavior, in order to reproduce facts and algorithms. Not hardly a peep on philosophy & ethics (in the Hellenistic sense of how to live morally). We have finally decided to home school my 11 year old son, perhaps we should have done it sooner…

  3. Charles says

    We debate home schooling, but decided against it. But we have the money to select the best private school, and the time and inclination to get our children there. Those are specialized abilities; society as a whole needs the ability to provide the same.

  4. Austin says

    It’s somewhat ironic that Nesbit and her husband were founding members of the Fabian Society.

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