Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit Five Children and It Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain. Which is a point that many modern-day readers often miss, especially those that criticise the chapter on American Indians for not being politically correct (it was published in 1902, when such stereotypes were perpetuated, and which Nesbit was satirising), or who chastise the author for speaking down to children (they clearly haven’t read many of the contemporary morally-improving tomes for children, compared with which Nesbit’s voice comes across as thoroughly modern and sensitive in its understanding of, and sympathy for, sheltered bourgeois mentality and experience).

Having risen to the defence of Nesbit, I have to say that I didn’t find Five Children and It as captivating as I might have hoped, though it was rather better paced than her preceding titles centred on the Bastable children, The Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1901). Originally appearing in installments (ideal for bedtime reading), the story follows the by now familiar pattern of a group of children who, despite often good intentions, find the outcomes not going the way they hoped. Unlike the Bastable children, this family (Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane, plus the baby Hilary they call ‘Lamb’) has its adventures spiced up by magic, provided by their wishes being granted by the creature they find in an old sand quarry.

To describe the adventures would be to lose any magic gained by reading the story, but of course the precise wishes, formulated through the distorting prisms of juvenile brains, are all granted in rather diverting ways. What I did find captivating, however, was the Psammead itself, not unsurprisingly a rather grumpy personnage considering not only its extreme age but also its constant disturbance by a bunch of kids. As a grumpy personnage myself (though not of a similar age) I thoroughly sympathised with its tic of having to grant whimsical wishes to all and sundry.

Whilst only slightly bemused by its command of contemporary English, I was rather more irritated by its equally whimsical portrayal by more recent book cover designers and film makers, in defiance of Nesbit’s very clear description: it had eyes … on long horns like a snail’s eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes, and ears like a bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey’s, not to mention rat-like whiskers. My edition has a cover illustration depicting the Psammead with bat’s ears, a furry body (green, to be sure) and primate hands and feet as expected, but, horror of horrors, eyes in a face rather than on those telescopic stalks emerging from the top of its head. And the creature in the recent film of the same name is a travesty of Nesbit’s careful portrait.

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4 thoughts on “Do children never learn?

  1. I began to read Five Children and It to my daughter a long time ago: at that time it was too slow moving for her. Now, however, you have inspired me to try another visit. I love E Nesbit’s stuff, Its, phoenixes and all.

  2. Really pleased to have inspired you! I’ve only recently begun reading Nesbit, from her non-magical stories of the Bastable children (The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods) to The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It, with a couple more waiting. They’re delightful stories, even if they betray an episodic feel due to their being published in instalments. I’ve stalled however on A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (which is manifestly based on a Nesbit-like figure) and must get back to it sometime; I hate giving up on books.

    1. Thanks for the link: if I can’t find a hard copy I’ll certainly try this out! I have also promised myself a first read of The Railway Children when I next go on holiday.

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