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 were partly the spur for her successful forays into publishing. A significant number of the incidents in The Phoenix and the Carpet can in fact 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’. But it is the stories we’ve come to enjoy, not the echoes of an author’s childhood.

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.

1902 poster of The Water Babies at the Garrick Theatre

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 Carpet

Above 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 rightly 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.

Repost of review, slightly revised first published 17th June 2013, perhaps apt for the run-up to Christmas

14 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.

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  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!

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  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.

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    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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  4. What nostalgia! Nesbit was one of my favourite childhood authors (and I was principal boy as Oliver Bastable in our primary school play of the Treasure seekers, aged 10!) I’ve still got most of my original Puffins and really ought to revisit them one day. However, I also have a book of her adult horror stories on my bookshelf which could be fun …

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    1. I meant to read those Nesbit horror stories (The Power of Darkness I think is my edition) around October but never got round to them, though I’d read the first tale some years ago. How much fun that must have been to play Oliver Bastable! One of Nesbit’s truly inspired characters, whose voice she captured so well. I’m hoping to reread The Story of the Amulet for review next year, followed by the Kate Saunders sequel Five Children on the Western Front. I think 2020 will be a year for reading a lot of children’s and YA fiction for me…

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  5. I see you’re on Nesbit roll, Chris! Glad to see this review here, I agree the Phoenix book seemed to possess a more coherent and whole narrative, and even more subversive motives – which I enjoyed quite a lot 😉 Yes, there are some elements of the novel that have aged considerably, but bearing in mind its venerable age I believe we can easily excuse them as remnants of an age (hopefully) long gone.

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    1. The joy and wonder of Nesbit’s children’s narratives comes through more than any outdated prejudices, I agree, Ola, and in its little rebellious ways seems quite modern, bearing in mind that hers was an age when children were expected to be seen and not heard.

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  6. I love the Phoenix and the Carpet. I was a very lucky kid, because my mom owned copies of several Nesbit stories — most of the fantasy titles — and she was probably the only person in 1980 Bakersfield who did. I read them many times, and I didn’t get the bit with the Phoenix fire insurance company for years (nor could I pronounce Psammead). I didn’t meet the Bastables or the Railway Children until I was an adult.

    Looking at it now, I can see that Nesbit was doing a lot of brand-new stuff. Children who actually act like children — they bicker and have weird ideas and misunderstand things — and magic that happens in the middle of ordinary life. I think she might have invented modern urban fantasy.

    Speaking of Nesbit in the US, which she mostly wasn’t until fairly recently, have you Brits ever heard of Edward Eager? He wrote — mostly in the 50s — books with Nesbit-esque adventures in a modern American setting, with the avowed goal of introducing and popularizing Nesbit to an American audience. The stories are great and very funny. Half Magic comes first.

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    1. Lizzie has recommended Edward Eager to me but I’ve never seen his titles in the UK, Jean, and I’ve never got myself sorted out to search for it online. ☹️ But Half Magic remains on my radar.

      Though I’ve only read about eight or nine titles by Nesbit she constantly surprises and delights. I’ve got her horror and supernatural stories to read next, but first I hope to review her final Psammead tale!


  7. Ah, I do like kids who try to do the right thing…in their way. Kid logic is a hard thing to get right when you’re a grown-up. You can tell the folks who have no kids don’t understand why they read about kids giving names to inanimate objects, or doing the things they do. Kid logic throws the ENTIRE planet into a whooooole new light.

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    1. Good points, Jean, thanks! Edith Nesbit was, as far as I can tell, actually quite a distant nother: like many a middleclass Victorian mother she left her kids (and those of her husband’s mistresses) to their own devices or the care of employees (one of whom was one of the mistresses). To get what you call ‘kid logic’ right she channelled her own tomboy self into the more proactive child characters but clearly used the children of her own extended family as models for siblings.

      I’m not surprised when children have to create scenarios and explanations for what they observe of the world, especially when responsible adults ignore their questions or leave them in the dark or make up white lies to ‘protect’ their innocence and sensibilities. No wonder kids develop sometimes overactive imaginations!

      Liked by 1 person

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