Edith Nesbit: Five Children and It (2100 words)

Matthew Creasy (University of Glasgow)
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Five Children and It (1902) is the first major work of fantasy published by Edith Nesbit. It concerns a family of London children who move to Kent one summer. Freed from adult supervision, they discover a magical creature whilst digging in a local gravel pit. According to her biographer Julia Briggs, Nesbit concocted her name for this creation, the “psammead”, from the Greek psammos (sand) by analogy with the dryads and naiads of Classical myth (p. 223). Her sand-fairy is capable of granting the children one wish a day, although the effects usually wear off by sundown. Having established this premise, the plot of the novel is largely episodic and chapters chart the ways in which a succession of wishes goes astray: for example, the children wish for gold, but discover that local shopkeepers will not accept the doubloons that the psammead manifests for them; they wish for wings and end up stranded on a church tower, having over-indulged their new powers of flight; they wish for beauty but none of their adult attendants recognise them, so they cannot return home for supper until the wish fades at the end of the day. In the final chapter of the novel, the children recognise how much they impose upon the psammead and renounce their claims to future wishes in return for magical assistance in averting the false implication of their mother in a jewel theft.

The title of her novel indicates how, in common with non-fantastical works by Nesbit such as The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), the family relationship between the children is central to this text. The eponymous “five children” are Cyril, Robert, Jane, Anthea and “The Lamb”. This latter is the name given to their youngest sibling, a baby brother, but such pet names reflect the close-knit economy of their family, so Cyril and Anthea are also known as Squirrel and Panther, respectively. Evidently the dynamics of this formula worked well for Nesbit, who would revisit the family and the psammead in two further works of fantasy that follow on from these events, The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Story of the Amulet (1906). Although not planned as a trilogy, writing these sequel stories allowed Nesbit to expand upon the episodic form of Five Children and It, drawing upon further magical devices to incorporate adventures across the globe and even across history in The Story of the Amulet, which is amongst early time travel narratives for children.

Although Five Children and It was Nesbit’s first full-length fantasy novel, she was well-versed in various aspects of the genre already. Indeed, she wrote many short stories drawing on fairy tales and magic, publishing two collections, The Book of Dragons (1900) and Nine Unlikely Tales (1901) before Five Children and It. Teya Rosenberg has suggested that the novel originated as a response to English translations of German fairytales by Rudolf Baumbach that circulated in the 1890s. Even the children in Nesbit’s novel seem to recognise various forms of precedent for their experiences. Towards its close, Anthea compares events in the novel to The Brass Bottle by F. Anstey (the pen name of Thomas Anstey Guthrie), in which the main character, Horace Ventimore, releases a genie who confers sudden wealth and status upon him. Nesbit’s first readers would probably have recognised a deeply reflexive aspect to this allusion: Anstey’s novel was first serialised in The Strand magazine between January and September 1900, barely two years before Nesbit’s own story was serialised there as The Psammead, or the Gifts between April and December of 1902 (prior to book publication). Nesbit and Anstey even shared the same illustrator within the pages of The Strand – the highly gifted H.R. Millar. So the playful and recursive aspect of the children’s passing allusion to The Brass Bottle not only confirms the position of the novel within the fantasy genre, it also belongs to a wider pattern in Nesbit’s work of literary allusion to contemporary children’s literature and other well-known texts that has been remarked by Marah Gubar and others.

In fact, U.C Knoepflmacher and others have argued that Five Children and It represents in this way the culmination of an attempt to wrestle the fairy-tale genre back from domination by male authors from Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers onwards. Elaborating upon Nesbit’s debts to fairy-tale tradition, Ann Dowker has situated the central character of the psammead in relation to previous didactic stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Eleanor Fenn’s The Fairy Spectator (1788) and The Cuckoo Clock (1877) by Mary Louisa Molesworth (writing as Ennis Graham). In comparison with the po-faced moralising of characters such as Molesworth’s magical cuckoo, however, Nesbit adopts a playful tone from the outset in addressing her imagined child readers. She draws attention to the way that “grown ups” value prosaic literal truth and promises to tell “really astonishing things” (p. 4) as a kind of antidote. Likewise, as Dowker points out, Nesbit’s wish-granting creation, the psammead is “not nearly so one-dimensionally virtuous” (p. 171) as these precursors. For starters, his appearance is deliberately incongruous: with a “tubby” body covered in fur, bat’s ears and eyes placed at the end of “long horns” like a snail (p. 11). But he is also bad tempered, pompous and intransigent. The alarming consequences of his wishes are open, to some degree, to interpretation as an abject warning about the nature of unbridled desire and the final act of the children is one of renunciation. But it seems just as likely that their wishes backfire as a consequence of mischievous and wilful misinterpretation of their requests by the psammead.

Noting the uneven temper of this magical character, other critics have located the power and appeal of Nesbit’s novel in her mingling of the fantastic with the mundane. As Marcus Crouch comments, in his account of Nesbit’s influence upon subsequent generations of writers for children: “she initiated the comedy of magic applied to the commonplaces of daily life” (p. 16). Thus, far from being idealised, the children spend a considerable portion of the narrative squabbling with each other. This is another factor that accounts for the way their wishes bring about unintended consequences. As Elaine Ostrey points out: “they spend a good deal of time negotiating with each other and then trying to figure out how to get out of the straits in which they have found themselves” (p. 50). Indeed, Ostry goes so far as to suggest that the psammead stands in for the parental figures who otherwise seem absent from the Nesbit’s novel. If so, this confirms a general impression about the questionable nature of adult authority throughout Five Children and It. In one episode, Robert wishes to be bigger than the working-class baker’s boy who physically bests him in a fight. As a result, he is transformed into a giant and takes revenge upon his nemesis. Resourceful enough, the children then capitalise upon Robert’s transformation by monetising his size – they sell his services to a freak show at a local fair, until the effects of the wish wear off. But their resourcefulness is predicated upon the untrustworthy and mercenary character of the side show owners at the Fair, who seek to buy their transformed brother from them.

After the early experience where their magically intensified beauty means the servants do not recognise them and bar them from the house for the duration of the wish, the children ask the psammead to build in a clause to their wishes, so that the adults connected to their family remain oblivious to any magical effects. The result is a curious double ontology, which creates a symbolic division between the fantastic magical experiences of the children and the everyday lives of the adults around them. In one unusual episode, a misguided wish means that the children find themselves under siege from an army conjured out of the kind of medieval Romance written by Walter Scott (“by my halidom … a brave varlet this!” (p. 126)). As Cyril and the others repel the attack, the adult servants in the household carry on their daily business, unaware of this physical threat to the well-being of the children. In another extraordinary chapter, the older children wish that their baby sibling would grow up so that he would be less of an imposition upon their play. Suddenly transformed into an adult, his behaviour becomes disconcerting – to the horror of his brothers and sisters, he flirts with a young woman and the episode is resolved comically when his nurse turns up to breast feed “The Lamb” seemingly oblivious to his transformation into a grown man.

Such incidents reflect Nesbit’s characteristic concern in Five Children and It with finding narrative forms and stories that do not merely condescend to child readers. They reveal her close attention to the lived experience of children and indicate a sensitivity to questions of power in relation to children’s literature. Robert’s desire to physically overcome his bully, their wish that “The Lamb” would grow up – these are deeply suggestive about the ways in which adult society tends to deprive children of agency and hint at a desire amongst children to exert greater control. Of course, some critics have noted the confluence of Nesbit’s novel with the burgeoning discipline of Freudian psychoanalysis during this period. The first English translations of Freud’s work would not appear until shortly after the publication of Five Children and It, but Nesbit may have encountered his ideas amongst the avant-garde and bohemian intellectuals who featured in her social life through her involvement with the Fabian Society from the last decades of the nineteenth century onwards. Seen this way, her novel might have much to say about more fundamental or psychological forms of fantasy. Nesbit’s treatment of wishes about physical transformation and appearance are revealing about the nature of desire itself.

The complexity of the novel’s dealings with the wishful tendencies associated with childhood on the part of both children and adults is what makes it difficult to pin down: it is open to a variety of interpretations. And this may also explain its enduring popularity across the generations. Never out of print, Five Children and It has also been widely adapted across a variety of media. Two versions for television have been produced in 1951 and 1991; it has been brought to the cinema in 2004 by director, John Stephenson (starring Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard): it has even inspired a long-running anime series Onegai! Samia-don (Please, Psammead!) in Japan and elsewhere. In addition, there are at least two sequels or alternative fictional responses: Five Children on the Western Front (2014) by Kate Saunders which imagines an afterlife for Nesbit’s characters as adults, and Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It (2012), which transposes the novel to a contemporary setting. Nesbit’s combination of wry humour and thoughtful sensitivity to the predicaments of her child characters has held a strong appeal to readers across the ages and proven influential upon successive generations of writers for children too, especially in the genre of fantasy.

Works Cited

Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924. (London: Penguin, 1985).
Crouch, Marcus. The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel in England 1945-1970 (London: Ernest Benn, 1972).
Dowker, Ann. “Five Children and It: Some Parallels with the Nineteenth-Century Moral Tale”, in E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: A Children’s Classic at 100. ed. by Raymond E. Jones (Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2006), pp. 169-84.
Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Knoepflmacher, U. C.. “Of Babylands and Babylons: E. Nesbit and the Reclamation of the Fairy Tale”, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6:2 (1987), 299-325.
Nesbit, E. Five Children and It (London: Puffin Books, 1996; 1st. pub. 1902).
Ostry, Elaine. “Magical Growth and Moral Lessons; or, How the Conduct Book Informed Victorian and Edwardian Children’s Fantasy”, Lion and the Unicorn 27:1 (2003), 27-56.
Rosenberg, Teya. “Generic Manipulation and Mutation: E. Nesbit’s Psammead Series as Early Magical Realism”, in E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: A Children’s Classic at 100. ed. by Raymond E. Jones (Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2006), pp. 63-88.

Citation: Creasy, Matthew. "Five Children and It". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 February 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=39013, accessed 26 January 2022.]

39013 Five Children and It 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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