A classic feelgood story

E Nesbit The Story of the Treasure Seekers:
Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children
in Search of A Fortune

Puffin 1995 (1899)

Bastable orphans
hope to reverse ill fortune
but land in pickles.

This was the first of Nesbit’s successful children’s books which began life as a serial and which was published in book form in 1899. Dedicated to the scholar and journalist Oswald Barron, its dedicatee furnished the name of the narrator who recounts the ‘adventures of the Bastable children in search of a fortune’ to revive the failing career of their widower father. The children (Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel and Horace Octavius) use the time when their father cannot afford to send them to school to seek for ways to make money in order to return the family to its former comfortable estate.

This is a charming story which reflects the middle-class gentility prevalent in England more than a century ago (observed in detail in A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book) before the horrors of the First World War changed things forever. The children’s approach to fortune-seeking, influenced by their reading and popular culture, gets them into scrapes from which their honesty and honorableness generally rescue them. Nesbit subtly counterpoints Oswald’s descriptions of the situations the children find themselves in with her own adult observations, unspoken but implicit in a turn of phrase or in a character’s reaction. In this way, the young reader is not spoken down to but the adult reader can perhaps relive the experiences from a child’s particular perspective.

I thought this was a magical novel despite not including the explicit magic of her later books such as The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle, a classic feelgood story where goodness overcomes all in the end. This Puffin edition has an interesting Introduction by the late Eleanor Graham (founding editor of Puffin Books and herself a children’s author) which, as its title ‘E. Nesbit and the Bastables’ suggests, gives the background to the writing of the book by reference to Nesbit’s own childhood and bohemian life.

The Treasure Seekers was shortly followed by The Wouldbegoods, which also featured the Bastable children.

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10 thoughts on “A classic feelgood story

    1. Much of the magic comes from Nesbit’s ability to get into the mindset of a child — their hopes and fears, their logic and imagination, their unique perspective and often unbounded optimism. Rarely is there any talking down, and once you see things from a child’s point of view anything is possible.

    1. She was certainly an individual voice, ahead of her time in many ways — the fact that she’s still read and loved over a century later is testament to her modern outlook. I’m so pleased that, after six novels, I’ve still got many more to go, including The Book of Dragons, The Magic City and, of course, my still unread copy of The Railway Children.

  1. The characters in Edward Eager’s Half Magic series are always referring to E Nesbit, which is how I found her. So I owe her twice: for her own books, and for the ones she inspired.

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