The Railway Children is a straightforward narrative of what happens when a family is disrupted by the absence of one of its members, and E. Nesbit uses the disruption to examine the responsibilities that people have to one another and themselves within the English class structure. The book conveys the basic sense that people and the world are largely good; although the children’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned, justice does prevail in the end. Dr. Forrest appears to treat family members for a minimal fee, if any, although he is poor himself. The children avert tragedy several times and are rewarded for it with the friendship of the rich old gentleman and a poor barge worker, among others. When they do wrong, they are forgiven—and learn from their mistakes.
This theme of goodness, however, is closely tied to self-sufficiency. While Nesbit makes it clear that the children can and should help others, they are not expected to receive charity themselves. Bobbie’s entrance into the adult world is marked by a transition from asking for help to learning to help herself and others. At the beginning of the novel, she joins in asking the old gentleman for food and pleads with Dr. Forrest about his fees. By the end of the novel, she is capable not only of keeping her father’s condition a secret from the other two children but also of sitting in a dark railway tunnel and comforting the injured Jim. The need for self-sufficiency rather than charity becomes clear when Mother is upset about the children asking the old gentleman for food, and Nesbit reinforces the theme when Perks is greatly offended at his birthday party...
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Edith Nesbit was recognized as an excellent writer for children during her lifetime and remains an important figure in children’s literature. While her adult characters are generally offstage or not well developed, her children are realistic and believable. They argue with one another, make mistakes, and struggle to be good without being priggish or too virtuous; Nesbit’s moral lessons are always accompanied by humor.
The Railway Children is typical of her work in its episodic structure, occasional sibling rivalry, and happy ending. Many of her other books, however, are more fantastical than The Railway Children. In Five Children and It (1902) and its sequels, The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Secret of the Amulet (1906), the children’s adventures occur through magic, such as the wishes that almost never turn out the way the children want them to in Five Children and It. Magic provides an opportunity for the children to learn about the world and themselves. Nesbit also uses it occasionally to make points about the English social order; in The Secret of the Amulet, the Queen of Babylon declares that her slaves are better off than the English working class. Nesbit’s work has endured not only because of its humor and realistic representations of children but also because of its way of engaging the reader with complex questions about human relationships and responsibilities.