Careful what you wish for

E Nesbit The Enchanted Castle
Wordsworth Editions Ltd 1999 (1907)

Careful what you wish:
Edwardian children find
magic mixed blessing.

There are two types of enchantment in this book. One is the everyday sort, evidenced by how enthralled the reader might be as they proceed through the book, and especially by the young charmer Gerald who sweet-talks his way through pretty much every situation. This is enchantment that lives up to the term’s origins, where chanting, speaking, singing and silent perusal of words creates the magic that keeps us literally in its spell.

Then there is the sort of enchantment that manifests itself most strikingly in this book, the kind described eloquently by Nesbit herself in Chapter Nine: “There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.” And in The Enchanted Castle it inevitably does.

The theme of the book can be described as “Be careful what you wish for.” Siblings Gerald, Kathleen and James find themselves absolutely free to enjoy their affluent middle-class summer holiday in a West of England private school, near the fictional village of Liddlesby. A youthful expedition takes them into the grounds of Yalding Castle where they meet with housekeeper’s daughter Mabel and find that magic of the everyday sort gets rapidly superceded by enchantment that makes their holidays unforgettable. And who could fail to be bewitched by the thought of a castle with extensive grounds, statues, a maze, hidden passage and the like, and the sense of mystery concerning secrets and absent owners?

Nesbit wrote for a middle-class audience of more than a century ago and sensibilities in manners and language have shifted over that time, but not so much that we can’t have sympathy for the children that Nesbit has conjured up for this tale. Witty resourceful Gerald steals the show but Mabel impresses too, and Mademoiselle’s literal translations into English of French vocabulary and idioms are well and humorously observed (no doubt informed by Edith’s own childhood education in France). The joyous culmination of the enchantments has much in common with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter of the nearly contemporary Wind in the Willows; both works perhaps were a kind of final golden vision of Edwardian England before the horrors of the Great War were visited on all and sundry.

Review first published online November 2012 and here slightly revised

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