rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Via Mari Ness, who pointed out over at torcom that she had never read any of E. Nesbit's adult novels, and gave this one a fairly complimentary review. I realized I'd never read any of the adult books either.

It's very interesting. It's not a book in which much happens, but the ways in which things don't happen are, for 1902, revolutionary, and still, for fiction, in some ways impressive.

In short, this is a book about housework.

From a male perspective.

The protagonist and his wife, new-married and both working in artistic professions for a not-spectacular living, are left a house and a small income by an uncle. The house is gigantic-- twenty-nine rooms, far too large for two people, and besides has four adjacent cottages which belong to the property, an orchard and large garden, and a ridiculous number of necessary repairs. It would be silly to move into it. They promptly move into it; they cannot help it. (I don't think many people could.) And then they are caught in the trap that the things they want to do and most enjoy doing, which are fixing up the house and unpacking the furniture and building new furniture and going through the cellar and getting the mold off the doorstep and hanging the wallpaper etc. etc. etc., do not bring in any money whatsoever, but it can be very difficult to write and draw when you have a giant old house all around you calling out for things to be done to it and also half your clothes are still at the back of a pile of boxes under the stairs and damn it if you don't prune the peach trees this year they're going to fall over onto the roof.

The thing that I like is that this is an absolutely gender-neutral problem. They both work, neither takes the work lightly, and they are both in a state of new-house rapture compounded by still pretty much being on honeymoon compounded by spring. And neither one of them has ever had to do housework before, being of the class who keep servants, but they can't get one to stay; the house is too big. So there's the novelty value for them also, but in addition the organizational issue-- the protagonist thinks at one point that his wife knew how to be an organized person in the tiny house they had before this, because she had lived in a similar house growing up and was following her mother's rules, whereas in a tiny house he tried to spread out and claim territory all over the place. But in a large house she has to find out what rules she actually considers necessary, and he's turned into a person who wants to do the dishes between parts of dinner just so he knows where to find the things again.

Fortunately they have a good and sophisticated friend, who is willing to come in and gently sort them out, though one of the book's few sour notes is that she has an Obligatory and most annoying Romance of the kind that I almost suspect the Powers That Be of insisting on. Because in a book of this sort in 1902 having a woman of her sort (been to college, has a career) not have an Obligatory Annoying Romance would be sufficiently subversive as to be unpublishable. Still. Aargh.

The other sour note is that there are a couple of racial epithets of sorts that are nowadays not used, and which are not here used in reference to any specific people, but it is very odd and jarring to see them crop up in figures of speech and analogies: unpleasant.

Overall, though, this is a kind of book I thoroughly enjoy and approve of: it's a book about a happy marriage that I can believe, a marriage in which people talk to each other and in which they consistently and cheerfully enjoy one another's company. They are each other's best friends. And when she becomes pregnant, and they are both absolutely terrified and with good reason (they are twenty and twenty-two, they've only just sorted their lives out, and there is a real possibility of this killing her, because that happened randomly sometimes then), they talk out their fears to one another and are honest about the prospect of death. (Look! An Edwardian novel that mentions pregnancy!)

1902, people. This gentle, honest, humane, still unique book was the political equivalent of throwing a bomb. It's a sign of how well that bomb has exploded that lots of this is now actually somewhat quaint and even a little sexist. It's a sign that it is still exploding that my list of books which value housekeeping as a human art and endeavor is very short, and this is one of precisely two I can think of in which the narrator is male and his discovery that he enjoys housework isn't meant as a joke. (The other one is Gordon Korman's Losing Joe's Place, in which the entire rest of the book is a joke, and a good one, but not that bit.) I have a feeling this should not be this rare a quality in a novel; but at least, if three things make a genre, we are lacking only one now.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
There are reasons this is not one of E. Nesbit's more famous books.

In point of fact, if I had been handed this and told it was written by L. Frank Baum as a remix of The Sea Fairies... hang on, I need to do a little bibliographical work here.

Right. The Sea Fairies was published in 1911. Wet Magic was published in 1913. Oh dear. They are similar enough that I actively hope Nesbit had not read the Baum.

At any rate, both of these books are fantasies about children who are taken under the sea by the mermaids, and what they see there. Baum's child is allowed to see the undersea fairyland because she is special, but Nesbit's five children earn their passage: they rescue a captured mermaid from a circus. By far the best parts of the book center around this rescue, in which the mermaid is haughty and vicious to them, and they do the right thing anyway, only to find after they've dumped her back into the ocean that the nastiness, and indeed every story that has ever drowned a sailor, is caused by a malady that affects mermaids when they get too dry, and that under ocean they are, even, physically different. The fine gradations of how annoying the mermaid is depending on what the air is like are very well done.

But the rest of this is a hot mess, several books shoved together in one and several plots; a lost-child-finding-parents plot, a war plot, a plot about characters out of books coming alive which depends far too much on one having read the books in question (and yet, paradoxically, far too much on the protagonists not having read them). Any one of the threads might have worked, but as it is the novel is too busy to produce solid, memorable characters and too crowded for real emotional tension. There are some very lovely individual bits round the edges, like the pot of water that pours the source of all rivers, or the fact that everyone always forgets that the water of oblivion tastes wonderful, but overall I cannot recommend this, even to profound Nesbit-enjoyers.

Nor, sadly, can I recommend the Baum, which is a book I treasured deeply as a small child and then discovered, upon growing up and learning more about sea life, to be full of terrible and book-destroying puns. I mean I like puns, if clever, and those were right out.

Therefore if you are in need of a book full of undersea magic, and the ocean the way one wants it, I suggest Jane Yolen's Neptune Rising. This one is not worth your time.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
'Complete' here meaning that it has one more story than the original edition. These short stories were all initially published in magazines, and collected after the run.

If you don't mind the fact that Nesbit has a reader very definitely in mind, and that that reader is quite young, this is lovely; but I mean that she has that reader in mind much more firmly than many authors do, because it is not just that you can tell who the book is aimed at. This is that style of late Victorian/Edwardian children's fiction where the author tells you to wash behind your ears and not take too many helpings of pudding. You know. That sort.

That said, it does not hurt these tales greatly for me, because Nesbit is also so sharp it can take you a moment to notice the stab. When there is a national holiday, 'even the children of plumbers and authors got tuppence apiece', and when a king makes a law that everyone should have enough to eat it pleases everyone 'except the ones who had already had too much'. And as the theme of this is dragons, it stands to reason that some of them are beautiful. There is an ice dragon here, twined around the frozen plume of steam that is the North Pole, in the ever-burning fire-shadow of the Aurora Borealis: and though she never quite gets out of her own way entirely, the image is magnificent.

In fact it is her talking-to-children, her sense that things ought to be down-to-earth, that I wish she would let go of, because when she does, even for a sentence, the effect is magical. As it is, it is modified magic. At any rate, there are dragons aplenty, some large, some the size of earwigs, some carnivorous and some tame, ice and fire dragons, dragons made of iron and a dragon that turns into a cat eventually (one always knew it). And children to go with the dragons, who are usually doing something their parents would rather they not be doing, and who come out of things all right but are not believed, mostly. If this reminds me of anything it is Joan Aiken's Armitage family stories, that sense of prosaic and enchanted intermingled. I suppose it is possible these might read to some people as twee (there are a number of things that nearly go over that line for me), but she always means the real plots seriously, which for me mostly saves it.

There is also a wicked uncle here who is a magician, with a very posh taste in waistcoats and a desperate sense of his own self-importance, and I could see around the edges of that text C.S. Lewis, with his nose twitching at a scent, in a wild surmise. Vast chunks of what went into The Magician's Nephew are scattered throughout this collection, which made it interesting to me on an entirely separate level.

So, then, if this is the sort of thing you like you will like it, and it is very good Nesbit, though not like The Enchanted Castle, where she did get out of her own way, or Five Children and It. But good anyhow.

(I do wish the one extant biography of Nesbit weren't so screamingly badly written. I know I ought to read the Byatt novel. I will get to it.)


rushthatspeaks: (Default)

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