Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620
Although Nesbit was in her late thirties when she composed these sketches, she wrote with an innate perceptiveness about what matters most in the lives of children. In a brief foreword to Long Ago When I Was Young , she acknowledges, “When I was a little child I used to...
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- Critical Essays
Although Nesbit was in her late thirties when she composed these sketches, she wrote with an innate perceptiveness about what matters most in the lives of children. In a brief foreword to Long Ago When I Was Young, she acknowledges, “When I was a little child I used to pray fervently, tearfully, that when I should be grown up I might never forget what I thought and felt and suffered then.” Largely because she recalls the joys and pains of her late nineteenth century childhood with such intensity, they seem relevant to modern young readers. Those readers who delight in her many works for children will have the added pleasure of recognizing elements in these memoirs that were later echoed in her fiction.
For example, one recognizes that Daisy and her brothers were happiest when their mother let them “run wild,” as she did during the summer that they spent in Dinan. There are many examples in Nesbit’s fiction, most notably in The Railway Children (1905) and her Bastable books, of children who are happy and resourceful because they are allowed a large degree of independence. Nesbit assigned the rather misleading title “My Schooldays” to these sketches when they were first published, when in fact it was the accounts of carefree summer days spent wandering the countryside that she cherished most, for herself and her fictional children. Not surprisingly, Nesbit never wrote any stories celebrating school life.
Like her Bastables and railway children, Nesbit had only one parent to hold the family together. Unlike them, she had no permanent home to give her childhood stability. Streatfeild suggests in her introduction that it was “as a present to her child self” that Nesbit gave her fictional children such firmly rooted home lives.
One primary way in which Nesbit’s sensitivity manifested itself was as intensely felt fears. These childhood terrors were triggered by such diverse experiences as seeing her sister wearing a gypsy mask during a family play, looking at the skin of an emu in her father’s specimen collection, and—the “crowning horror” of her childhood—visiting the mummies in an underground vault in Bordeaux. Because Nesbit believed that her childhood had been blighted by these terrors and by the fear of darkness that they engendered, she determined that her own children would be reared never to know such fears. Perhaps for the same reason, her fictional children’s scrapes with danger or magic are given a prevailingly comic handling.
Another recurring theme in Nesbit’s autobiography is the power of the imagination versus the deflation of disillusionment that often follows. The most striking illustration of this conflict comes in the story of Daisy’s visit to a shepherdess. She imagined a beautiful maiden from fairy tales, carrying a ribbon-bedecked crook and wearing a hat wreathed in roses. Instead, she was confronted with an impoverished and wrinkled old woman. Her hope that “the fairy-world and this world of ours would touch” when she beheld the shepherdess was dashed. On other occasions, however, the power of the imagination is sustained. When Daisy and her brothers played at explorers and traced a nearby stream back to its source, they discovered its origin to be a rather unromantic roadside fountain. This time, though, the end result was not disappointment because the pleasure was in the journey itself and in the imaginative touches that the children brought to it.
Nesbit is attuned to the special needs and problems of children. For example, she understands that children have “a cat-like fondness” for surrounding themselves with familiar objects— a pleasure that the rootless Daisy rarely experienced. She also sympathizes with the “little-big troubles” that children find so preoccupying and so difficult to reveal to adults.