Monday, May 23, 2011

The Enchanted Castle (E. Nesbit)

The Enchanted Castle
E. Nesbit
Wordsworth Editions
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The three English siblings Gerald, James, and Katherine usually summer with their cousin Betty at the family home in the countryside, where they can play and explore as proper children, far from the strict society rules of city life and boarding schools. But when Betty comes down with measles, they find themselves staying at Katherine's boarding school for the summer. With all the other girls gone home, it won't be so bad a summer holiday... and perhaps they can still find adventures. Their explorations lead them to a hidden cave and the lush gardens of a great castle, which they immediately declare to be enchanted. A sleeping princess who isn't what she seems, a troublesome magic ring, and a series of ill-worded wishes soon give the threesome a holiday they'll never forget!
This Wordsworth Classics edition, complete and unabridged, includes the original illustrations by H. R. Millar.

REVIEW: First published in 1907, this centenarian story shows just how far children's literature - and society in general - have come. The over-talkative narration dithers over, around, and behind the story as it follows three privileged English children more or less frittering away their summer holiday. There is no urgency, no enemy, no hardship, no wrong to be made right, no lesson for them to learn or consequences to face, as one would find in more modern stories. (Okay, I take that back. Once in a while, their adventures make them miss their tea. That's a fairly serious prospect for any child in any era.) Of course not. They're wealthy English children; they own the world, after all, and the world darned well owes them a pleasantly diverting (yet none too trying) magical adventure to fill an otherwise dreary summer away from home. In Nesbit's time, I suppose, simply being schoolchildren on holiday provided sufficient motive power to drive a plot. Anyone of lower classes, lesser education, or (Heavens forfend) less-than-alabaster skin color is brushed aside with casual backhanded insults and stereotyping. Nesbit's audience likely would have thought as little of the slights and slurs as she herself did - she clearly never considered the possibility that such individuals might read this book - but to modern eyes they glare. But it's unfair to blame her for being a product of her society... even if some of the language probably makes this book unfit for modern elementary school libraries. Looking past that, Nesbit concocts some truly imaginative moments, with a garden full of living statues and hidden wonders within the castle. The girls - Katherine and Mabel, the erstwhile "sleeping princess" - show a fair bit of pluck for their era, and manage to not be deadweight. I also liked the old-school illustrations by Millar; there's just something about a nicely-executed ink illustration that adds an extra touch of magic to any story. Considering how long ago this book was written, I might have been willing to give the story the benefit of the doubt with an Okay rating, but the ending sank that hope. (No spoilers here, but it somehow managed to make an already-pointless story even more pointless... an astounding feat which probably should be rewarded with a star all on its own, but won't be.) At the end of the day, The Enchanted Castle is an occasionally whimsical, mostly tedious window into the fictional expectations of a (thankfully) bygone era.

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