E Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods
Puffin Books 1985 (1900)
achieve ill when they meant good;
comes right in the end.
Edith Nesbit’s life was certainly unconventional by late Victorian and Edwardian standards, and it’s not surprising that her own childhood experiences and adult observations find themselves thinly fictionalised in her novels, particularly those written for children. Typical is her re-use of names of friends and acquaintances for the names of her characters in The Wouldbegoods.
Of the six Bastable children, for example, Oswald and Noel take their names from her male friends and sometime lovers Oswald Barron and Noel Griffith, and Alice from her friend Alice Hoatson (not only Edith’s husband’s lover but also mother of two children whom Edith adopted). Of the two children who share the Bastables’ holiday in the country Daisy takes her name from Edith’s own childhood nickname, while Eliza, the long-suffering maid who appeared in The Treasure Seekers, appears to be a composite of the domestic servants in one of Edith’s residences in Lewisham, both of whom were named Elizabeth.
I mention all this to show that the origins of the escapades and scrapes that the Bastable children get up to during their long summer holiday seem to be similarly drawn from life. Due to various misdemeanours the six siblings get ‘banished’ to Moat House in Kent (largely modelled on Well Hall in Eltham, where Edith and her extended family moved after Lewisham) and resolve to form a society, the Wouldbegoods, to counteract their unwitting misdeeds.
Needless to say their actions largely result in near or complete disasters due to their apparent inability to consult about the appropriateness of their charitable deeds; this is compounded by their further inability to learn from their mistakes in what I feel is the only real flaw in this sequel to The Treasure Seekers. However, the tedium of successive episodes involving misunderstandings and disregard for property is more than balanced by Oswald who, as narrator, has that perfect boyish mix of ego and kind-heartedness expressed in entertaining bombast and endearing malapropisms.
The author concentrates on six protagonists (as in The Treasure Seekers) but rings the changes by largely not involving the rather insipid Dora who, it may be remembered, appeared to be the eldest sibling in the earlier book but is here relegated to a stay-at-home. Her place amongst the activists is often taken by either Denny or Daisy, mousey characters who redeem themselves by the end. Otherwise, the established figures of Dicky, Alice, Noel and H. O. feature, all led by the dominating persona of Oswald as they build dams, go on pilgrimages, give drink to the thirsty or seek for lost relatives. Adults are by turns forbidding and distant figures or lend sympathetic ears when they are not representing stranger danger in an otherwise innocent world.
The Wouldbegoods is a fascinating window into an England of a century and more ago, both familiar and yet strangely exotic but one where middle-class children (and us, vicariously) can live out their fantasies.