Saturday, 13 December 2014

The House of Arden by E Nesbit: Part 2

published 1908


She made her mind up--ran indoors and up the stairs and straight to The Door--she found it at once--shut the door, and opened the second chest to the right. "You change your clothes and the times change too-- Change, that is what you've got to do; Cooroo, cooroo, cooroo, cooroo," said the pigeons or the silence or Elfrida.

"I wonder," she said, slipping on a quilted green satin petticoat with pink rosebuds embroidered on it, "whether Shakespeare began being a poet like that --just little odd lines coming into his head without him meaning them to." And her mind as she put on a pink-and-white brocaded dress, was busy with such words as "Our great poet, Miss Elfrida Arden ," or "Miss Arden, the female Milton of nowadays." She tied a white, soft little cap with pink ribbons under her chin and ran to open the door…



The door opened, not on the quiet corridor with the old prints at Arden Castle, but on a quite strange panelled room, full of a most extraordinary disorder of stuffs--feathers, dresses, cloaks, bonnet-boxes, parcels, rolls, packets, lace, scarves, hats, gloves, and finery of all sorts. There were a good many people there: serving-maids--she knew they were serving-maids--a gentleman in knee-breeches showing some fine china on a lacquered tray, and in the middle a very pretty, languishing-looking young lady with whom Elfrida at once fell deeply in love. All the women wore enormous crinolines--or hoops.



observations: In this entry earlier this week I explained how I came to re-read this childhood favourite – with due respect to blogfriend Daniel Milford-Cottam.

I really intended to do just one blog entry form this book, but in the end the huge range of clothes the children wear was too tempting. And as it turns out, the earlier entry was hugely popular and successful, with great comments from readers - I now have a long list of fine books they recommended. 

The first entry was 1807: this one is 1707. Like all time travellers, Elfrida and Edred have to worry about altering historical events. At one point Elfrida gets into terrible trouble, so: 
Elfrida has always believed, and always will believe, that the disaster was caused by her knowing too much history. That is why she is so careful to make sure that no misfortune shall ever happen on that account, any way. That is one of the reasons why she never takes a history prize at school. "You never know," she says. And, in fact, when it comes to a question in an historical examination, she never does know.

The whole thing is strangely and unexpectedly reminiscent of the bodacious and outstanding Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure - both stories show the benefit of having your protagonists not be too clever. As Bill and Socrates say, '
The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing' -  Ted replies, profoundly,  'That's us, dude.' I think Elfrida and Edred would agree.

And for those who worry that history isn’t taught properly in UK schools, compared with the olden days of perfect education: 
"I wish I could remember what was happening in history in 1807," said Elfrida, "but we never get past Edward IV. We always have to go back to the Saxons because of the new girls."
The children take their camera back in time with them and take pictures of their ancestral home as it used to be, so they’ll be able to restore it in later times. (Strange link with Dracula, where Jonathan Harker is busy using his Kodak at Dracula’s castle – on the blog here, in a Guardian piece on non-anachronisms here ) They are looking for the lost family treasure, and that aspect is somewhat unresolved, and the final chapters are rather strange. But still, a great book.  

One picture is Watteau’s The Worried Lover from the Athenaeum, the other is an illustration from an early edition of the book.

20 comments:

  1. Sorry not feeling it. B+T's Excellent Adventure was a decent film in it's day. I don't think it has stood the test of time though TBH

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    1. No, I love B+T still, it makes me laugh so much. I'd much rather watch it than Back to the Future, say, or most of those 80s teen films. I just love those boys! Egregious & bodacious.

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    2. We'll agree to disagree - give me Michael J. any day please!

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    3. I suspected that would be your choice! I just said to Margot below that Frequency is a great (adult) film with time-travel and thriller elements - have you ever seen it? highly recommended.

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    4. Never heard of it, so I'll look it up tomorrow.....my bed is calling me!

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    5. Yes, I've seen Frequency, and I hugely enjoyed it. I love time-slip fiction - John Wyndham's short stories are particular good on this - and I worked a bit of time-slip into my first children's book. Subliminally influenced by E Nesbit again, very probably!!

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    6. I love timeslip, so long as I don't have to be too bothered about the mechanics of it, I just want to read about great situations resulting from it....

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  2. Moira - Interesting commentary on changing history in this novel. I think people do wonder what would happen if you could go back in time, and what would happen if you changed one thing. That's dealt with in popular culture of course in Bill and Ted's... and of course in Back to the Future. It's also addressed in Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder. After all, you never know...

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    1. It makes for great philosophy, wondering about it. There's a film called Frequency that I really liked, which deals with the question of changing the past, and has a pretty good thriller plot too.

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  3. I love E. Nesbit too and would like to be in a Nesbit gang! Haven't read this one, so I must. The Enchanted Castle might be my favourite.
    I remember reading a short story about two old men on small pensions. One of them finds a way to go back to a time when food was cheaper and brings back oranges for the other - of course it gets more complicated than he anticipates. I have a feeling it might have been written by Lawrence Block - but I might be completely wrong.

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    1. You are most welcome in our gang Chrissie! That's an intriguing-sounding setup, you'll have to let us know if you track the story down.

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    2. 'Fraid it's not mine, Christine.

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    3. Thanks! I can stop flipping through your Collected Short Stories. I think it was set in New York - that's why I thought of you - and it's infuriating not quite being able to remember

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    4. Honoured to have you visit, Mr Block! You'll have to keep thinking Christine - glimpsed memories of remembered plots are one thing that you can't easily look up online these days.

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    5. Maybe Ray Bradbury. Have a feeling now that I read it in a sci-fi collection though I don't normally read sci-fi. It's going to keep niggling . . .

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    6. This is just going to annoy you isn't it! You need to find a time travel or scifi forum and pose the question...

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    7. Just read this (after reading the previous post). Usually I like time-shift stories, and I read lots of children's books, and I love Edith Nesbit, but I have mixed feelings about this one. I liked bits of it, but I really couldn't cope with the way the children go hitch-hiking through time, taking over other people's bodies... Other people who look like just like them, but other people who are pushed out of their own bodies to make way for Elfrida and Edred. I'm sorry, but I think that's really spooky, like some kind of possession. It's horrible.

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    8. That's a really good point. Nesbit was obviously struggling with her concepts a little, she wanted to get the mechanics of it sorted out, but couldn't get it quite right. It is a very strange book, but I did enjoy it, now and back when I was young....

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    9. Late to the party I know, but I read it as them actually being the same children - that there's something odd about the Ardens and the same children are being born over again every hundred years or so (although with no memory of previous lives), that's why they're able to hop about, why there's the emphasis on 'always a boy and a girl' and the same relative ages and looks. Maybe even why they can use up time in the present when they're in the past - it's their own 'clocks' that are ticking on if they're not put back.

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    10. Oh that's a good take on it. I must admit
      I gave up on trying to work out or understand what was going on in that sense, and just enjoyed the story, but your theory sounds convincing.

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