The Magic World by E Nesbit,
Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)
Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes
“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”
And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.
As was the way with much fiction then the stories were published in magazines first before appearing in book form in 1912; pretty much all Nesbit’s output appeared this way, even the novels like Five Children and It (which betrays its origins with uniform-length episodic chapters, loosely linked). With the twelve tales of The Magic World there was of course no need to have a narrative thread and yet a few of the pieces have themes in common, and one or two even explicitly reference another in the collection. I’ll be grouping some of these tales according to their commonalty rather than dealing with them in the order they’re here published.
Some of the tales involve transformations, with the protagonist taking the form of some creature or other. In “The Cat-hood of Maurice” the titular boy somehow becomes the family cat, and learns what it feels like to be teased intolerably — a case of the punishment suiting the crime. However, in “Kenneth and the Carp” Kenneth is falsely accused of theft but when he becomes the aforementioned carp he is able to prove his innocence. (Incidentally, this story is set in an historic moated house similar in all respects to one that Nesbit herself lived in.) In one of the few tales eschewing overt magic, “The Related Muff”, cousin Sidney is wrongly regarded as a ‘muff’ — an incompetent who ‘muffs’ everything he attempts — until an emergency demonstrates his ability to rise to the occasion, a transformation of sorts. (The narrator sometimes talks of himself in the third person, a literary tic that Nesbit had previously used in The Wouldbegoods.)
Sometimes something else transforms. In “The White Cat” Octavius finds a forgotten china ornament in the form of a cat which comes to life and reveals family secrets and changes fortunes. A spyglass which magically changes the magnitude of objects transforms the lives and fortunes of Augustus and his newfound friend Edward in “The Mixed Mine”. In “Accidental Magic” young Quentin follows the lead of many a fairytale hero by falling asleep on a ancient relic (in this case the Altar Stone at Stonehenge), which transforms into a ship en route to Atlantis; Nesbit here revisited themes she’d explored in The Story of the Amulet.
More reminiscent of traditional fairytales and fairytale motifs are the remaining half dozen pieces, often featuring princesses, princes, magicians and mythical creatures. Some involve the laying of curses and their subsequent circumvention. In “The Princess and the Hedge-pig” — the latter an alternative name for a hedgehog — a king and queen try to stop Princess Ozyliza being cursed at her christening by a wicked fairy’s curse, to no avail. A prince and a princess are also afflicted with curses in “Belinda and Bellamant” but luckily bells (the pair’s names suggest an affinity with these instruments) furnish a solution to their problems. The enchanter who is implicated in the workings of this last story also appears, along with Princess Belinda, in “The Magician’s Heart”; here more curses fly through the air at a royal christening. The motif of magician’s power lying in an external object is revisited in “Septimus Septimusson”; the hero — whose name denotes the seventh son of a seventh son who traditionally has exceptional abilities — has to seek his fortune, encountering that object during the course of his adventures.
Surprisingly, not that many young females feature as protagonists. In “Justnowland” Elsie’s adventures are reminiscent of those of Gulliver or Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel in that we have talking crows and dragons, but her kind nature wins the day. Finally in “The Aunt and Amabel” Anabel actually enters a wardrobe to access a magic world, rather like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, leading to suggestions that C S Lewis subconsciously borrowed this idea from Nesbit.
So much for superficialities; Nesbit’s stories are so much more than this. There is humour and mischievousness in them, truths and profundities, playfulness and seriousness, ingenuousness and knowingness. They are more than just fairytales but follow in that great tradition; they partake of the Edwardian period (what with the presence of a Quentin and an Augustus and a Maurice) even while the whiff of Grimm and Anderson wafts in their wake. Here is a collection that I’m happy to keep on my shelves alongside compendiums of traditional tales from the British Isles, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere — that’s how much I esteem them — because they are honest and, essentially, very human.
Repost of review first published 20th July 2015