Although I’m not nostalgic and seldom reread children’s books, I had astonishingly good taste as a child: I read Little Women, Linnets and Valerians, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Friday’s Tunnel, An Episode of Sparrows, and E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. E. Nesbit’s charming fantasy classics were my favorites, and I demanded them for several birthdays and Christmases. There was nothing better than lounging on a lawn chair after a birthday slumber party, sleepily reading my own copy of The Phoenix and the Carpet. Oddly, no other children read Nesbit’s stories. They seemed to be my personal discovery. What a fool I was to sell them in a moment of graduate school poverty!
I didn’t call these fantasies: I referred to them as “magic adventure books.” The adventure happens to witty, independent, intelligent children against the background of ordinary life at the turn of the twentieth century. And yet these witty classics were unpopular in America in the ’60s, as Gore Vidal observed in his enthusiastic New York Review of Books article on Nesbit: he blamed American librarians for preferring contemporary problem-solving realism to fantasy.
Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle was J. B. Priestley’s favorite, according to Vidal–and it is mine. It has taken me two years to reread it, as I’ve finished a chapter every couple of months: although it’s a classic, I have savored the disparate episodes almost as though they are short stories. It’s beautifully written, whimsical, light, and entertaining, the interwoven tales of the “magic adventures” of Gerald, Jimmy, and Kathleen (siblings), and Mabel, the imaginative niece of the caretaker of a castle. They wander into the garden of a castle for a picnic (how I wish I had a castle garden nearby!) and meet Mabel dressed up like a princess and feigning an enchanted sleep in the garden. She convinces them she is a princess and says she has a magic ring–and then, to her consternation, it becomes true. She wishes she were invisible–and becomes invisible. She doesn’t believe they can’t see her–and shakes them. The sight of their being shaken by someone invisible is terrifying. They clutch her invisible arms and legs.
Every time the children wish on the ring, the magic always goes awry. But that, of course, is the charm: how will they get out of the fix? These are such terrific books. An NYRB edition of The House of Arden is in print. Perhaps her realistic novels–The Railway Children, the Bastables books–are more popular, but I’m a fan of the fantasies.