The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

The Railway Children“They were not railway children to begin with.”

And they weren’t.  To begin with, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis lived with their parents in London in a nice house with servants and virtually anything they desired.  But one day there is a knock on the door and the whole family’s life is turned upside down.

Father disappears and Mother is left to work hard at her writing of stories to sell.  They immediately leave for the country and end up lodging in a house called The Three Chimneys, located close to a railway station.  The children are mesmerized by the trains passing by and spend much of their days roaming around the countryside, meeting many of the people of the community while involving themselves in many compelling adventures.

Railway and locomotive

~ source Wikimedia Commons

Nesbit does a spectacular job of giving each of the children their own distinct personality.  In this excerpt, she inserts herself right into the story to tell us about Roberta:

“I hope you don’t mind my telling you a good eal about Roberta.  The fact is I am growing very fond of her.  The more I observe her the more I love her.  And I notice all sorts of things about her that I like.

For instance, she was quite oddly anxious to make other people happy.  And she could keep a secret, a tolerably rare accomplishment.  Also she had the power of silent sympathy.  That sounds rather full, I know, but it’s not so dull as it sounds.  It just means that a person is able to know that you are unhappy, and to love you extra on that account, without bothering you by telling you all the time how sorry she is for you.  That was what Bobbie was like.  She knew that Mother was unhappy —- and that Mother had not told her the reason.  So she just loved Mother more and never said a single word that could let Mother know how earnestly her little girl wondered what Mother was unhappy about.  This need practice.  It is not so easy as you might think.”

Railway station

Arley Station ~ source Wikipedia

Nesbit also is adept at weaving lots of humour into the story.  I was highly amused by Peter’s take on marriage:

“I suppose I shall have to get married someday,” said Peter, “but it will be an awful bother having her round all the time.  I’d like to marry a lady who had trances, and only woke up once or twice a year.”


Old Railway Station

Old Railway Station ~ source Wikimedia Commons

Every one of the children’s adventures is captivating, from reuniting a Russian expatriot with his family to saving a baby from a barge fire; from preventing a disastrous train wreck to planning a birthday for the train porter who, because his family is poor, never had one before and involving the whole community. While there is misfortune and conflict both internal and external, there is also warmth and caring and an appealing responsibility in the children’s lives and their behaviours.  Often others are more important than self-interest, and happiness is not to be kept and guarded but shared.  And this is why, while they were put into poverty by circumstances beyond their control, their adjustment is reasonably simple and they grasp life with just as much joy as previously.

Nesbit uses the writing technique of inserting herself into the story occasionally and speaking directly with the reader.  This style only adds to the enjoyment of the story as you feel that she is sharing the story with you, and not merely telling it.


Aqueduct ~ source Wikimedia Commons

I was so sad when this story ended but thrilled that I finally read it.  To think that it could have slipped away without me every being introduced to the railway children is a thought not to be borne.

8 thoughts on “The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

  1. I was first introduced to this book thanks to a rerun of the 1968 BBC series when I was in primary school. I have read the book a couple of times since then and was pleased that it held up to an adult read as well 🙂

    Glad you enjoyed it too 🙂

    • Hey Brona, nice to hear from you! I had no idea there was a series that old! I’ll have to keep a look out for it. It does hold up well, doesn’t it. More Nesbit reads are in my future!

  2. The first sentence of that first quote reminds me a lot of how Tolkien wrote about Bilbo in the Hobbit, which I suppose makes sense.

    • I hadn’t noticed it before but you’re right! And I’ve read the Hobbit numerous times. Thanks for pointing it out. Often short sentences are more direct and impactful than longer ones.

  3. I’ve never read this, but it sounds delightful and like a book I should really got to sooner than later. Isn’t it wonderful when you find a book that you don’t want to end?

    • Oh, Amanda, you would love this one! I can’t believe that I somehow missed it as a child and almost as an adult. I’m so glad that I finally read it.

  4. Oh, wow–I have heard about this book for years and years, and still have never read it! I hope I will meet a copy of it post-haste! I’m putting feelers out everywhere, looking for a copy! Thank you for a splendid review!

    • Hi Judith, very nice to hear from you! I think you’ll love this book. It will take you back to a time when life was simpler (but not necessarily easier) and community was friendly and more cohesive. And the children’s adventures are such fun! I really hope you like it!

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