The heart’s desire

Red jasper ‘thet’-girdle amulet: to grant the protection of Isis. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Story of the Amulet
(third in the Psammead Trilogy)
by E Nesbit.
Illustrated by H R Millar.
Puffin Books 1999 (1906).

One summer holiday in the country four London siblings Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane discovered a strange creature, a Psammead or sand-fairy who granted wishes – a mixed blessing as they soon found out. The Christmas that followed found them lumbered with a Persian carpet and a Phoenix which got them into further scrapes.

Now it’s the next summer and they are staying in a London house owned by their old Nurse; left to their own devices, the heart’s desire of all four is to have their parents return home from abroad, one from reporting from the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, the other recuperating in Madeira. When the bored children start visiting shops selling caged animals they come across an old friend in dire straits who needs rescuing.

It is the Psammead, of course. And he has a plan to help each and every child achieve their heart’s desire.

Scheherazade’ by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (d 1903). Walsall Art Gallery.

When I first read this it felt very episodic – not surprising given that many of Nesbit’s books were first published in magazines in serial form – and thus slightly disjointed, rather like an incomplete tale told by Scheherade. A second read however revealed The Story of the Amulet to be a more cohesive narrative than expected, a quest for the other half of an ornamental object imbued with ancient magic and activated by speaking the name inscribed on it. This talisman, a thet or tyet amulet also called the knot of Isis, is now believed to represent a sacred cloth folded in a distinctive way and somehow a symbolic representation of life. Its symmetrical appearance also seems to imply a mystical union, an aspect that in fact comes to be in the course of the telling.

But the core of the narrative describes the close relationship between the siblings and their befriending of a learned gentleman lodging with their Nurse. He believes that the tales the children tell and his experiences when he joins them in their travels are all part of vivid waking dreams he’s experiencing. So when he sees the Queen of Babylon in London or Britain on the eve of the Caesar’s invasion, and meets an Egyptian priest from millennia before or is present at the fall of Atlantis, he is convinced that it is all simply unreal and due to some kind of hallucination.

The children know otherwise, having experienced similar madcap adventures in Five Children and It and, later, The Phoenix and the Carpet. Nesbit, having done her research, is able to bring the adventures to life with unforced descriptions of what was then supposed to be authentic recreations of past cultures, from prehistoric Britain to Babylon, Atlantis to Gaul, Egypt to a future Britain, and ancient Phoenicia to Syria (when they visit the Phoenix of the second book).

Relief of winged genie  from the palace of Assurnasirpal II, King of Assyria, 9th century BCE, Bristol Museum © C A Lovegrove

But however much she re-envisions historic places it’s how she recreates the life of close siblings at the turn of the 20th century that most delights, and how they try to appease the grumpy but grateful Psammead. Cyril the putative leader who parades his own learning, Robert the impulsive brother, and Jane the youngest who’s also the most timid and squeamish – they all come over as believable. But it is Anthea, the elder sister, who’s most impressive, sensitive to the Psammead’s moods, pouring oil on troubled waters, coming up with sensible solutions; can we credit her with being Nesbit’s alter ego in this novel?

It’s the undercurrent of humour that most impresses me this time round – the asides (either from characters or in commentary by the author), the misunderstandings and mishaps, the wordplay that somehow effects change, and so on. How does time travel work, and how do the children understand and speak with denizens of the past? It’s all explained, and if it’s not clear then either the Psammead or Nesbit will say it’s too difficult to clarify, and we have to just accept it. Along with the humour I also acknowledge Nesbit’s use of language which, more than a century on, is virtually as comprehensible to us as serious adult fiction of the time is often not so. Any unfamiliar word is easily understood from its context.

Dedicated to the scholar Wallis Budge, who helped her with the historical minutiae, The Story of the Amulet wears its learning relatively lightly on its sleeve. I loved it and would recommend it; but don’t take my word for it – the fact that C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, Edgar Eager’s Half Magic and Diana Wynne Jones’s The Homeward Bounders all owe something to this novel should alert the reader to the fact that its magic is only partly to do with the amulet and the sand-fairy.

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

As C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew was in part inspired by Nesbit’s children’s fiction and especially by this title, I’m including this review in the #Narniathon21 thread.

22 thoughts on “The heart’s desire

    1. I vaguely remember it being broadcast but the images of the Psammead just didn’t appeal to me (the more recent feature film was just awful) and didn’t at all match the description of the sand-fairy having eyes on stalks like a snail – a complete travesty!

      Like you I find the mismatch too glaring, and would rather filmmakers adapt the book reasonably faithfully than bother mangling them as they do.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. jjlothin

    All this Nesbit talk … You’ve inspired me to start at the beginning and so I’ve just added to my reading pile ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The heart’s desire – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. The Psammeads were the very first Nesbits I read so they always hold a special place for me. I remember the Treasure seekers as being quite hilarious but didn’t remember that these had humour and some wordplay as well. You’re tempting me into rereading this soon. Just reading your review brought back to mind how the children turned beautiful and how they sought a gift from Persia. Lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope this review did justice to your memory, Mallika! Yes, the Bastable stories relied to a large part on Oswald’s unintentionally funny narration, but the Psammead tales are often about the interaction between the four older siblings (the Lamb of course hardly features in this episode).

      And the amulet? It’s of course Ancient Egyptian, but it seems to have travelled a lot, including to Babylonia, during the course of the children’s adventures.


  4. My family loved these books; we read them out loud and enjoyed every minute. An extra pleasure, for us, was that our shy cat Sammy would always come and sit with us while we were reading; he could hear that we were talking about him every time we read the word “psammead.”

    One of the places I most want to go in literature is the cave where the children end up when they first discover the psammead, from their dreary London day into a fine day at the seaside!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lovely image of Sammy reacting positively to the mention of “Psammead” in the stories, Jeanne! As to the ‘cave’ where they first meet ‘It’, Nesbit was inspired by the gravel pits excavated in Romney Marsh, near Dymchurch in Kent where she used to go on holiday, and the area where she eventually retired long after the Psammead stories were published.

      The pits (as I’ve seen, having myself been on holiday in the area) are pretty much all closed, filled with water and converted into nature reserves.


  5. I loved Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet as a child, but for some reason I don’t seem to have ever read this one. I’m planning to include some children’s classics on my next Classics Club list (not that I’ve finished my current list of fifty yet), so I’ll keep this book in mind!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely worth considering this, Helen! When the kids go travelling it’s through Time (whereas before it was only through Space) so, quite literally, another dimension has been added. I was even more impressed with this instalment on a second read for this review.


    1. It’s great isn’t it? As I say, I think this is the original British Museum amulet that inspired Nesbit. I included a photo of a similar amulet in the Met Museum in my review of The Homeward Bounders – though in neither relic can I see what Nesbit means when she talks of ‘half’ an amulet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always wondered that too. I could only imagine the “other half” as a sort of mirror image starting at the bottom edge, but that would be weird. Or maybe doubling the thickness of the amulet, as if it had been sliced in half crosswise from top to bottom. In the book doesn’t it say the amulet is thicker when it’s whole?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I seem to remember it saying there was a pin missing, which sort of implies the two halves were hinged (perhaps at the top, where there’s a sort of ‘topknot’ to the amulet) – but then Jane was able to attach a string to it to loop around her neck, doubtless using the “ribbed tube for suspension at the top”.

          Anyway, the BM amulet definitely has a front aspect and a back, with the inscription on just one side:

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh right, I forgot about the pin. I think it must end up as a double thick amulet connected at the top somehow. The amulet also has to alter so that it becomes an arch to go through, since it is solid at the bottom! Details, details. It remains one of my favorite magical objects and I now covet a replica.

            Liked by 1 person

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