We know from How Stories Really Work that fiction follows certain templates in order to be successful. Rather than detracting from the power of a tale, a fixed set of guidelines, skilfully applied and hardly ever deviated from, almost guarantees that a story will reach readers and survive the passage of time.
Furthermore, we know that particular types of stories have highly specific sets of rules to follow. A typical adventure tale, for example, in which the figures called ‘characters’ are plunged into a series of mishaps only to emerge triumphant at the end, uses a group of distinct tools in order to attract its readers and ‘glue’ them to that page right until the end. One such story is The Railway Children by E. E. Nesbit. Her protagonist, Roberta Waterbury, or ‘Bobbie’ as she is known, with her siblings Phyllis and Peter, are living idyllic lives with their parents in what is described as an ‘ordinary red-brick fronted villa, coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bathroom with and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and "every modern convenience," as the house agents say’ at the beginning of their adventure. Well-loved, their parents make time to play with all of them; their mother writes stories while they are at school and reads these to them in the evening. Of course, Nesbit is ‘setting us up’ as readers - all of this is to be snatched away, and that removal of positive attributes is precisely what grabs our attention.
One day, two men come to visit the children’s father and he leaves with them, upsetting their mother. Shortly after the father leaves, the mother and children have to move into the country taking only the things that will be useful to them - they have lost everything. The mother is forced to work hard to take care of her family, luckily having some success as a writer. We are ‘hooked’ as readers not only by the emotional loss of the three children, particularly for Roberta our heroine, but by the mystery of what has happened to their father and whether or not he will return.
They woke up, cold and melancholy, and stood shivering on the draughty platform while the baggage was taken out of the train. Then the engine, puffing and blowing, set to work again, and dragged the train away. The children watched the tail-lights of the guard's van disappear into the darkness.
Then begin a series of small linear adventures: the three children no longer go to school, and to while the time away, they spend a lot of time exploring their new surroundings, quickly developing a love for the nearby railway. Their home is no longer as warm as they were accustomed to, and they can no longer afford to buy coal, so when Peter notices a lot of coal at the railway yard, he decides that he is justified in taking some of the coal. In this little ‘sub-tale’ we are obviously gripped by the question ‘Will he be caught?’: the station manager eventually catches him with the intention of reporting him, but when he learns why they are stealing, he lets Peter go.
Through their landscape winds the railway, full of colour and excitement - they name the trains Green Dragon, Worm of Wantley and Fearsome Fly-by-Night - and also acting as a symbol of the passage of story-time, the need for the plot to answer the looming question hanging over them regarding their father.
Adventure stories normally feature an old man with a stick - Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars are obvious examples, though there are countless other less obvious ones - and The Railway Children is no exception. As the Green Dragon, the 9:15 am train, is passing by, the children get into the habit of waving to the passengers, and out of the first class compartment, the hand of an older man waves back.
He is to play the same kind of role in their story as is expected from such a character: he demonstrates wisdom, has power, and points the way to the resolution of the story’s central difficulties.
In another episode, for example, the children’s mother contracts influenza and the doctor prescribes a variety of things to help her recover and is concerned about how she is going to pay for the doctor’s services. Roberta visits the doctor and asks if they can be a part of the club that she has heard he has for poorer people, and he opens it up to them. Roberta does this, though, without her mother’s knowledge, and then decides to go further and, to get the medicine needed for their mother to recover, she writes a note to the old gentleman who always waves back to them from the train. When the 9:15 am train pulls into the station, Phyllis hands the note to the old gentleman. He sends them a package but their mother is angry when she discovers what they have done because she does not want charity. Beneath that, of course, is the fact that this underlines her current position and the loss of the father, which is the central attention-puller in the story.
Further episodes take place, most of them serving to accentuate their father's mysterious absence within the tale.
Things get even more serious as the author increases the sense of risk or threat in order to hold our attention: there is a minor earthquake near the railway tracks shortly before the 3:15 train is to arrive. The children act quickly and use the girls' red petticoats to make a flag to signal the train to stop, preventing a train crash. But we are presented with the image of our protagonist’s death or a close facsimile, as Roberta narrowly saves the day:
She saw the great black engine stop dead, but somehow she could not stop waving the flags. And when the driver and the fireman had got off the engine and Peter and Phyllis had gone to meet them and pour out their excited tale of the awful mound just round the corner, Bobbie still waved the flags but more and more feebly and jerkily.
When the others turned towards her she was lying across the line with her hands flung forward and still gripping the sticks of the little red flannel flags.
The engine-driver picked her up, carried her to the train, and laid her on the cushions of a first-class carriage.
'Gone right off in a faint,' he said, 'poor little woman. And no wonder. I'll just 'ave a look at this 'ere mound of yours, and then we'll run you back to the station and get her seen to.'
It was horrible to see Bobbie lying so white and quiet, with her lips blue, and parted.
'I believe that's what people look like when they're dead,' whispered Phyllis.
'Don't!' said Peter, sharply.
The old gentleman is at the ceremony arranged to honour them, and after the presentation, Roberta tells him about the Russian stranger they found earlier, Mr. Szezcpansk. The old gentleman promises Roberta that he will make some inquiries. Eventually, Mr Szezcpansk’s family is discovered, and the stranger is reunited with them. This foreshadows what we as readers hope will happen for the Waterburys, though we see no real sign of it until one day Roberta is given a pile of newspapers to cut up and finds the answer to the story’s central mystery:
The papers were heavy, and when she had to wait at the level-crossing while a train went by, she rested the parcel on the top of the gate. And idly she looked at the printing on the paper that the parcel was wrapped in.
Suddenly she clutched the parcel tighter and bent her head over it. It seemed like some horrible dream. She read on — the bottom of the column was torn off — she could read no farther.
She never remembered how she got home. But she went on tiptoe to her room and locked the door. Then she undid the parcel and read that printed column again, sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands and feet icy cold and her face burning. When she had read all there was, she drew a long, uneven breath.
‘So now I know,’ she said.
Their father has been accused of a crime and jailed for five years. The mystery is transformed into a further plot-driving question: will he be released?
Roberta goes to her mother, and they have an honest conversation. Once again, Roberta goes to her friend, the older gentleman, who discloses that he knows about the case and had the intention of helping, fulfilling his role as the ‘wizard’ of the story:
'You're a good child, my dear — I got your letter. But it wasn't needed. When I read about your Father's case in the papers at the time, I had my doubts. And ever since I've known who you were, I've been trying to find out things. I haven't done very much yet. But I have hopes, my dear — I have hopes.'
'Oh!' said Bobbie, choking a little.
'Yes — I may say great hopes. But keep your secret a little longer. Wouldn't do to upset your Mother with a false hope, would it?'
'Oh, but it isn't false!' said Bobbie; 'I know you can do it. I knew you could when I wrote. It isn't a false hope, is it?'
'No,' he said, 'I don't think it's a false hope, or I wouldn't have told you. And I think you deserve to be told that there is a hope.'
'And you don't think Father did it, do you? Oh, say you don't think he did.'
'My dear,' he said, 'I'm perfectly certain he didn't.'
If it was a false hope, it was none the less a very radiant one that lay warm at Bobbie's heart, and through the days that followed lighted her little face as a Japanese lantern is lighted by the candle within.
As readers, we of course know the kind of story we are reading by now. Nesbit knows it too, and when the magical moment comes when the vacuum at the heart of any story of this kind is filled, she can afford to be explicit about it:
Of course you know already exactly what was going to happen. Bobbie was not so clever. She had the vague, confused, expectant feeling that comes to one's heart in dreams. What her heart expected I can't tell — perhaps the very thing that you and I know was going to happen — but her mind expected nothing; it was almost blank, and felt nothing but tiredness and stupidness and an empty feeling, like your body has when you have been a long walk and it is very far indeed past your proper dinner-time.
Only three people got out of the 11.54. The first was a countryman with two baskety boxes full of live chickens who stuck their russet heads out anxiously through the wicker bars; the second was Miss Peckitt, the grocer's wife's cousin, with a tin box and three brown-paper parcels; and the third —
‘Oh! my Daddy, my Daddy!’ That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.
The family is reunited; the adventure into loss and grief and emptiness is over. Another template has done its duty and filled us, as readers, with warmth ‘as a Japanese lantern is lighted by the candle within’.