Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Enchanted Castle

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, 1907.

E. Nesbit is a cornerstone of early 20th century British children's lit, as well as founder of the Fabian Society & a very liberal lady. Fun fact: Her marriage was a menage a trois.

So how, I ask, did the woman manage to write books that are dull by comparison? Maybe dull isn't the right word exactly. Aimless? Rambling?

Now don't get me wrong, I adore some rambling, dusty old British lit. But Nesbit manages to tell a magical tale in such a way that I end up begging her to just get on with it.

I read the charmingly yawn-inducing The Railway Children a couple of years ago. The story was darling, but forgettable.

The Enchanted Castle, written a year later, is similar in that it is sweet & tends to plod along on occasion. Three siblings - Jimmy, Gerald, & Kathleen - come across a castle, a young girl named Mabel, & a magic ring that is whatever the wearer wishes it to be. Chaos ensues when the kids start wishing.

There are moments in the plot that are just fantastic. The children put on a production of Beauty & the Beast in the house & create audience members out of hockey sticks, umbrellas, brooms, clothes, & painted faces, which come to life when the children wish for their applause. These "Ugly-Wuglies" are both funny & terrifying. One, who upon animation asks to be directed to a "good hotel," becomes a well-known London banker, Mr. U. W. Ugli.

The language is dated, which isn't a problem if you have a dictionary nearby, but can trip you up otherwise.

Nesbit's occasional first-person interjections & a handful of dry-witted, perceptive narrative remarks are what make this book worth reading. Mabel comments, "I thought Americans didn't believe in anything but machinery and newspapers."

& this sentence, which I probably read ten times: "So the carnations were bought, a bunch of yellow ones, like sulphur, a bunch of white ones like clotted cream, and a bunch of red ones like the cheeks of the doll that Kathleen never played with." Perfect.

When her prose doesn't get away from her ("One wonders how one can ever have wondered about anything. Space is not; every place that one has seen or dreamed of is here. Time is not; into this instant is crowded all that one has ever done or dreamed of doing." Oy.), this book is magical. But it's not because of the magic ring; it's because of the moments when Nesbit's writing transcends the real and becomes something magical.

Which, I suppose, is why people are still reading her a hundred years later.

All in all, I would recommend this book. Just don't expect to breeze through it.

Next up, The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

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