Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Story of the Treasure Seekers, by E. Nesbit

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was first published in 1899 and I’m trying to picture what a totally different world it was back then, before motor cars, before electricity, before the start of women’s emancipation, before free medical care, before everyone was entitled to an education; a world on the verge of enormous change. I imagine that neither E. Nesbit nor her heroes, the Bastable children, would have been able to fathom the type of people who would be reading their story a hundred years down the line. A hundred years! It’s amazing to think of that and think how the power of words and storytelling can survive long beyond their first conception, no matter how much the world might change around them.

The Bastable family are down on their luck. The silver has been sold, the servants have left, the children pulled out of school. Pocket money has dried up, and there are no more cab rides or dinner parties or new dresses for the girls. Thus it is clear to the six Bastable children that something must be done: they must restore the family fortunes. But how? Answer: through a series of somewhat naïve and hair-brained schemes that extends from digging for buried treasure to rescuing old gentlemen from Highwaymen, kidnapping, going into business, publishing poetry in the newspaper, and dowsing. With varying degrees of success and disaster, so the children are left largely to entertain themselves and their reader from page to page, as told in a sweet mishmash of first and third person perspective by one of the children, who employs a certain amount of hindsight and, amusingly, is always certain to explain that he knew what was the ‘right’ thing all along.

E. Nesbit is perhaps best known for The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and The Story of the Treasure Seekers possesses a similar feeling of timelessness. Reading it does feel a little old-fashioned to begin with, but after the first couple of chapters that sense went out of the window and I was swept up by the sheer wonder of the children’s imagination and their capacity for play.

The Bastables are, of course, extremely good children, and their kindness and consideration for others (especially for those who they believe are less well off than themselves) is ultimately the key to finding their sought-upon treasure – typically moralistic for this era of children’s writing, but heartening too. What really stood out for me though, was their role playing, their innovativeness and their imagination – and their ability to get adults to play along with them. Perhaps their father can no longer afford to send them to school, but I would argue that an active imagination is as equally important as a sit-down education (or, alternately, I would perhaps argue that education is best served when it actively engages the imagination).

It’s engaging and sweet, and while there are inevitably some old-fashioned ideals in the story’s pages – the boys, for instance, do not cry, while other particylar behaviours are deemed inappropriate for girls – these things only popped up here and there and didn’t override the fun of the story. The edition of The Treasure Seekers I read is a beautiful new publication by Hesperus Press, just one of a new collection of children’s classics to be made available over the coming year, and I was delighted to discover that another on the list for publication is The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat, a book which I had entirely forgotten about until it was mentioned by one of the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers. It’s going on my list.

No comments:

Post a Comment