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A beautifully written, heart-warming and exciting ‘real’ adventure story for pre-teens

I neither remember reading this as a child, nor do I remember seeing the TV or film adaptations, though the story was extremely familiar – and, as I have a clear image of Jenny Agutter seeing her missing father, and wringing the withers of the viewer with a line which is in the book, causing the image to surface, as I read, I can only assume I did read, did see, or both

(the 1968 BBC TV adaptation – regrettably wooden and a little ponderous, lacking the charm of the book on this showing!)

I came to this reading belatedly on the back of a marvellous book for adults, covering a similar territory – Helen Dunmore’s Exposure. That book clearly references this one – 3 children, 2 girls and a boy, a father working within Government, a secret disgrace, manipulated, innocence wronged, and trains an integral background, Dunmore’s book was set in the early 60’s, and this one by Nesbit in 1905. Obviously Nesbit was writing for children, and it is the three children in this one who occupy centre stage – they are the calalysts for all events – whereas Dunmore was most focused on the husband and wife, but, still, what struck me was an optimistic innocence in the Nesbit. This is, in the end a feel-good book. There isn’t an unpleasant character within it – and even ones which might seem, on first meeting them, to be aggressive and unpleasant – like a bargee, are only waiting to have events transpire which reveal their humanity.


Still from 1970 film. Agutter, now 15 as the 12 year old Bobbie has put on a bit of a growth spurt!

Though this does not have the goody goody children of much ‘improving’ fare for Victorian children – Nesbit had, after all, a rather complex, progressive character – she was a co-founder of the Fabian Society, did not marry her first husband till she was seven months pregnant, and ended up adopting the two children he had with his mistress – Nesbit’s good friend – there is a strong moral sense that everyone can be, and wants to be, ethical.

The three children argue and fight, and struggle to swallow their pride and apologise. They sometimes do wrong things – steal coal, because they are cold and poor, but are lucky enough to find that acknowledging their wrongdoing leads to kindly forgiveness. Lots of opportunities for heroics present themselves, and the children prevent a railway crash, rescue someone with a broken leg in a train tunnel, save a baby from burning, and unite a community. The book is a remarkably uplifting and moral one – but it is not the morality of ‘know your place’ or pious god-fearing, but can clearly be connected to Nesbit’s political consciousness.

2000 remake - and here is Agutter again - but this time as Mum!

2000 remake – and here is Agutter again – but this time as Mum!

I was also struck by the ‘reality’ of the book – this was not a book set in a fantasy world, but one set ‘in reality’. The children are children of a middle-class family but for reasons which we learn as the book progresses (I suspect adults would immediately leap to the correct conclusions) the family have fallen on hard times, and it is the mother who has to earn money to put food on the table. The children and their mother struggle over their ‘hard times’ – but they get through by supporting each other. Even the youngest child contributes. If there is ‘unreality’ it is only because (or is that just my cynicism) not everyone so clearly chooses to be progressive, enlightened and morally working for the common good as Nesbit’s characters all do.

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be UN-friends”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Mother, and she sighed

It is, of course ‘only’ a book : one I enjoyed immensely, one with a lot of engaging E Nesbithumour, one very well constructed, one full of hope and positivity – but I kept thinking that Peter, the young boy, brave and sometimes impetuous, ‘in real’ would have no doubt become trench fodder in 1914 : I was very aware, reading this, that it came out of a sense of progressive hopefulness that events of 1914-1918 rather destroyed, and I suspect this book could not have been written 10 years later

The Railway Children Amazon UK
The Railway Children Amazon USA