The firebird flies again

Phoenix fire plaque, Pickering © Copyright Pauline Eccles and licensed for reuse
Phoenix fire plaque, Pickering © Copyright Pauline Eccles and licensed for reuse

E Nesbit
The Phoenix and the Carpet
Puffin Books 1994 (1904)

The common advice to would-be fiction authors is to “write about what you know”. A phoenix and a flying carpet aren’t of course really within one’s everyday experience, but at heart the events that take place and many of this fantasy’s settings are taken from real life, a fair few of which hark back to Nesbit’s own childhood in the Victorian period.

The reminiscences in Long Ago When I Was Young, though only first published as a collection in 1966, were serialised before Nesbit embarked on her career as a children’s writer and partly the spur for her successful forays into publishing. A significant number of the incidents in The Phoenix and the Carpet can be directly traced to the memories she presents in Long Ago. A mysterious keep-like stone structure that appears in ‘The Topless Tower’ and ‘Doing Good’ is based on the same building that the young Edith encountered in France, as recounted in the chapter entitled ‘In Auvergne’. ‘Doing Good’ also highlights themes that she had previously visited within ‘In the Dark’ and ‘Mummies at Bordeaux’. And ‘Two Bazaars’ may well be partly based on the bazaar that Edith experiences in ‘Lessons in French’.

We will have already met the children of this novel in Five Children and It, where they spend their summer holidays in the country ‘at a white house between a sand pit and a gravel pit’. Then they encountered a sand-fairy, the Psammead; now, in early November, they discover an egg rolled up in a carpet, replacement for a previous one in their Camden Town home ruined by a firework on Bonfire Night.

The five children are now mostly four – Cyril (called Squirrel), Robert (rather more prosaically called Bobs), Anthea (Panther) and Jane (Puss). Hilary is the remaining child (the toddler maintains the animal theme by being referred to as The Lamb), though he only appears occasionally and then to unwittingly cause mayhem. (The animal theme continues when the Phoenix hatches, and again later when more creatures make their appearances – Persian cats and, bizarrely, a cow.) The two boys are typically well-mannered and well-meaning but liable to make unwise decisions. Anthea may most resemble the author – tomboyish but creative – while Jane, the youngest of the four, is more ‘girly’ and, well, wimpish, prone to burst into tears at the merest hint of danger. (Mind you, danger, real or potential, does always seem to be round the corner.) But, as Nesbit says, even though ‘boys never cry, of course,’ Cyril and Robert are also susceptible to emotion, making faces ‘in their efforts to behave in a really manly way’.

The Phoenix itself is a marvellous creation. Vain and garrulous, he tells the children about the magic Persian carpet which grants three wishes a day. They use it to transport themselves to various more or less exotic places, from France to the Middle East, from the City of London to a desert island. In keeping with their original serial publication, the chapters at first appear episodic and unrelated to each other, merely recounting separate adventures where the siblings get themselves into scrapes. But as the story progresses Nesbit starts to weave in themes from earlier chapters – the cook, the ‘topless tower’, the absent-minded curate – and naturally the overall motif of fire runs brightly through the narrative pattern, with dire consequences for the flammable flying carpet. From that first Guy Fawkes Night through the rebirth of the Phoenix from the flames, the setting alight of an increasingly frayed carpet and a visit to the Phoenix Fire Office in Lombard Street we arrive at the potentially catastrophic conflagration at the Garrick Theatre. Ironically, the last takes place at a dramatisation of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (a genuine production from 1902), and water becomes another underlying theme, as with the visit to the tropical island to alleviate the Lamb’s whooping cough or the booby-trap with a pail of water balanced on a door.

The Phoenix and the Carpet is more than just a re-run of Five Children and It with the bird and the rug substituting for the Psammead and a succession of escapades. The children become even more individual in character, especially Robert with his unexpected affection for the Phoenix; and the Phoenix itself is a distinct personage, different from the grumpy Psammead with its unintentionally entertaining if increasingly tedious chatter, inflated sense of self-importance and embarrassing avuncularism. Adults too have their part to play, but mostly they are bemused by the magic played out before their eyes, ascribing the sights they experience and the things they hear to a curious daydream. Which is, as is the way of metafiction, exactly what it is.

Phoenix CarpetAbove all, what I most liked is Nesbit’s humour, evident from her asides, her descriptions of the children’s thought-processes and her delight in their convoluted attempts to Do The Right Thing. Modern sensibilities may be upset by some aspects – such as her portrayal of native peoples or Jews – though, this being Nesbit, her teasing tongue-in-cheek tone and her Fabian socialist sympathies suggest she mightn’t necessarily share those common prejudices.

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4 thoughts on “The firebird flies again

  1. I believe “Five Children and It” might have been the book that taught me the essence of speed-reading as a child – because I had no idea how to pronounce “Psammead,” I read it just as a symbol of sorts without sounding it out at all, and then, after a while, I realized that’s how I was reading everything.
    E. Nesbit might have been from another planet? And I mean that in the best possible sense. She just seems to be missing some of the fundamental niceties that are hammered into the rest of us that make our writing so boring and obvious and wrong – like how to write the way people actually talk to each other, especially adults with children – things that are easier for an outsider to observe.

  2. How we make sense of symbolic language (which is what writing is) is one of those great wonders that linguists and neuroscientists and psychologists wax lyrical on and the rest of us can only marvel at. All those systems we are told work for teaching children how to read (phonics and Look and Say) actually result in most of us taking in words and phrases and short sentences as discrete concepts rather than spelling out each unit laboriously. Which is how I suppose we speed-read.

    Not quite sure if you’re praising or condemning Nesbit’s writing for children, but I’m guessing it’s the first!

  3. Oh, I *love* her. I still can’t believe my parents (particularly my father’s very straight-laced English family) fed me her books, though – they seem so subversive compared to, say, Enid Blyton or other books I was given as a child. I’m still tickled to find another book hers turn up that I haven’t read from time to time. It will be a sad day for me when I finally finish them all.

    1. I’m glad you’re a fan! She is very different from the other rather more moralistic authors of that period. I mean she has a moral stance, but she also seems very much of the children-will-be-children camp, and prepared to let them make mistakes but with the very best of intentions. It’s part of her appeal, that she is able to recreate the mindset of the child; and if that makes her subversive then so be it.

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