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.