09 February, 2010

Book 46 - "'We'll give it tea-leaves next time. Carpets like tea-leaves.'"

Title: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904)

Author: E. Nesbit

Why this book:
Nesbits's book, The Railway Children, was one of the mainstays of my childhood, but I'd never read any of her fantasy works before, so I thought I'd give it a go.

So what's it all about?
It's the school holidays, and one family of children are impatient for Guy Fawkes' night. They decide to light one or two fireworks in the girls' bedroom, accidentally setting the rug on fire when they do so. Their mother buys a new rug, a second-hand one which arrives containing an unusual, glowing egg. The egg hatches into a phoenix, which in turn tells them that the carpet it arrived in is, in fact, a magical carpet that will take them anywhere they want to go.

The children are no strangers to bizarre magical happenings, having previously encountered a wish-granting Psammead in the book *Five Children and It*, and are excited to be able to go off adventuring again. They quickly find, however, that the carpet has limitations, when it strands them in a tower in the middle of nowhere. And the phoenix, although an intelligent creature, has its own problems - it's egotistical, and has a habit of accidentally setting things on fire.

However, these problems are minor compared to the trouble the children face when their baby brother, nicnamed Lamb, crawls onto the carpet and flies away. It's hard enough hiding a phoenix and a rapidly deteriorating magical rug from their parents, without trying to explain why the baby has disappeared...

The Good and the Bad
This was, to me, a book which has badly dated. The actual adventures of the children, and even the children themselves, are fine - they're squabbly, at time bratty, but essentially goodhearted - but certain views of the writer (reflecting, I gues, societal views of the time) definitely overshadowed a lot of the fun of the book. Most notably, the racism inherent in the children's trips - one trip of theirs is to a tropical islnd, where the people are simply described as savages. Not only, in fact, are they savages who are given no traits beyond the (dark) colour of their skin, but when they meet the children's Cook, they immediately bow down and worship her as their queen, which made my teeth itch.

There's also the token bit of sexism, although no more than in most early twentieth century chilren's books. The two sisters, Anthea and Jane, are between them the kindest of the children, the only ones capable of sewing, the most easily frightened, and in need of male protection. They do, however, fully participate in all of the adventures, and since these traits are split between the two of them they aren't nearly as bad as, say, Anne from the Famous Five (who I love, but really, talk about overkill with the "feminine" qualities.)

So should I read it or what?
Once again I'm going to say read something of the author's, but not this book. The Railway Children, as I said, was an important part of my childhood, but as I haven't read it recently I can't really comment on whether the -isms are as bad there as they are here (although I suspect not). Most of Nesbit's works can be found here, at Project Gutenberg, and I do recommend checking them out.

Link of the day:


Sadako said...

Looks kind of fun/surreal. I read (most of?) E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, and that was pretty kooky. This looks cool, too.

Sadako said...

Oh, and re the racism, I didn't remember much racism in that book...but it was a while ago. I do remember being pissed off even as a kid at the sexism in stuff like Enid Blyton and the Boxcar Children. You know, the boys would do the adventurin' and the girls got to wash up and cook and clean and be responsible. Ugh.