'Lighted by the Candle Within': E. E. Nesbit's 'The Railway Children'


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.