Edith Nesbit is one of my favorite authors of fantasy novels for younger readers. Her books for children were published between 1899 and 1925, with the majority of them in the first decade of the 20th century. While I like them all, even the non-fantasy ones, there are a few that I count as favorites, and this is one. I reread it about once a decade. Nesbit had a great understanding of poor and disadvantaged people, and this is one of her books that best shows that, plus the magic in it is inventive and exciting.
Dickie Harding is one of those poor people, a boy living with his aunt in a dingy row house. The aunt does not treat him very well, and the surroundings are grim and soulless. As Nesbit portrays Dickie, he’s a good, well-meaning boy with a lame leg that requires him to walk with a crutch made from an old broom handle. He tries to help his aunt, but longs for better things. When some unusual seeds come his way, he plants them in the back garden where nothing else grows, and while Dickie is away in hospital having some work done on his leg, a huge flower emerges, much like a sunflower, but silvery white. Dickie calls it a moonflower, and carefully collects the seeds. He uses some to bargain with a pawn-broker to get back a small silver rattle that’s the only heritage from his long-lost parents.
Out on an errand one day for his aunt, Dickie falls in with a tramp named Mr. Beale who convinces, or really tricks the boy into leaving home and setting out on the road with him. The two make their way by begging, and the lame boy discovers he’s quite good at this. Later, Mr. Beale reveals another motive for wanting Dickie…he’s part of a robbery that’s planned in a big, fancy estate, and Dickie is needed to crawl in through a small window to let in the burglars. Dickie is not happy with this idea, but eventually goes along. The robbery goes wrong, and Dickie is captured by the homeowners. Rather than turning him over to the police, the lady of the house offers to let Dickie stay with her and become part of the household. Dickie is entranced with the offer, but eventually decides he must run away again back to his aunt.
When Dickie finally returns to his old home, he finds his aunt long gone, and the house empty. Despairing and penniless, the boy sneaks into the empty house to spend the night. he lays out his only remaining treasures: the silver rattle and the moonflower seeds. In the night a magical mole appears to help Dickie. This creature, called a Mouldiwarp, is connected to the rattle, and somehow brought forth by the moonflower seeds. “Where do you want to go?” asks the creature. Dickie says he’s not particular. And the next morning, to his amazement, the boy wakes up in a new time and place: several hundred years in the past, in a large castle. Dickie is known well by everyone there as Richard Arden. It seems he’s stepped into the place of one of his ancestors. Best of all, the boy is no longer lame, and has two strong legs to carry him.
Many interesting things happen to Richard, along with his two cousins who have their own separate but connected book, “The House of Arden,” but eventually Dickie asks the Mouldiwarp to return him to his own time and place. He feels guilty about abandoning Mr. Beale and wants to try to help that man to a better life. Richard in the past is quite rich, and he figures out a clever way to get some of those riches into his own time.
That’s only about half the book, and if this sounds intriguing to you, I heartily recommend you give it a try. The image above is from my hardcover copy, but I actually reread it on my phone and iPad in a public domain version from Project Gutenberg. A link to that version is HERE. I find Nesbit reads quite well today, aside from some British slang and dialect, but it’s really not hard to follow, and her prose is engaging. She will draw you into her story quickly, and you’ll have a fine time in it!