“Now, if you sit perfectly silent for a long time and look at the sea, or the sky, or the running water of a river, something happens to you – a sort of magic. Not the violent magic that makes the kind of adventures that I have been telling you about, but a kind of gentle but very strong inside magic, that makes things clear, and shows you what things are important, and what are not.”
- E. Nesbit, from The House of Arden
If you consider yourself a fan of children’s fantasy, but haven’t read E. Nesbit, get to work. She practically invented the genre at a time when books written especially for children barely existed. Her imagination was vivid and wild, but her stories were anchored in the modern day. Unlike Alice or Dorothy, Nesbit’s characters usually have problems to solve in their ordinary life as well as their magical one, and this was a strong influence on authors like J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. In fact, you can see a clear C.S. Lewis tonal quality in the passage quoted above. This sort of pause for narrative patronizing was common in early Victorian children’s literature, as authors figured out how children might like to be addressed in their own books. Nesbit’s most famous books are The Enchanted Castle (which I remember being a bit scary) and The Story of the Treasure Seekers. The House of Arden is not one of her best books, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a prime example of her work, but if you or your child is already a fan, it’s definitely worth picking up.
The House of Arden was published in 1908, and tells the story of two siblings who are heirs to the lost aristocratic family of Arden. Their father has vanished in South America, and they are being raised by their aunt, who has to take in boarders to make ends meet. When their father is declared dead, they inherit the House of Arden, an enormous tumbledown mansion that contains secret rooms, a legend of lost treasure, and a magical white mole come to life from the family crest. A neighbor tells them of a prophecy stating that when the lord of Arden is not yet ten he can say a spell and find the lost treasure. They quickly find the spell and summon the mole, who goes by its Germanic title of “mouldiwarp.” The mole sends them back in time on multiple adventures to visit past Ardens, with the goal of making Edred, the heir, “brave and kind and wise.”
The plot becomes more convoluted from here as the children seek the treasure through multiple eras, hoping for enough money to repair the house and help the tenants. In the process, they meet two other time travelers, one of whom suggests that they should be looking for their father instead of treasure. Their quest shifts, and the end of the book feels abrupt and thrown-together. The mysterious presence of the other time travelers is never resolved, and the children, due to being pulled out of most of their scrapes by the grumpy mouldiwarp or their time traveling allies, don’t develop much self-reliance before reaching their happily ever after—although these rescues also serve to keep it from ever getting too scary. Upon the mouldiwarp’s insistence that they must not quarrel for three days straight before the time travel will work, they do learn to get along and work as a team. Edred rescues Elfrida all on his own once, and she nobly refrains from pointing out that he could have done it better. They also learn a great deal about how children were treated through history—they have to wear restrictive clothes and get reprimanded for speaking. Elfrida gets slapped at one point. She also does embroidery and rides in bumpy carraiges in between their encounters with highwaymen, smugglers, and a brush with the gunpowder plot that gets them thrown in the Tower of London. Readers who like history and magic will love these rollicking adventures, which seem to be present in the book mostly for pure fun. The magic system is dreamy and arbitrary, with certain sequences reminding me of the magic in Robin McKinley’s novels, which always feels more like a meaningful hallucination than any kind of force or tool or phenomenon.
All in all, this book is a good, but not outstanding, example of early children’s literature, and would be a great read for young readers who’ve gobbled up all the more well known children’s fantasy. If you’re an adult, up for much darker stories, and interested in this genre and era, I would also reccommend The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, which is loosely based on Nesbit’s life and family.