Edith Nesbit has been a favorite author of mine since childhood, and this is probably my favorite book of hers. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but more than five, though not more recently than 10 years ago, maybe 20. Above is my hardcover edition published by Coward-McCann in 1933, though it originally came out in 1907. However, I didn’t read that book this time, I read the iBook version on my phone, which is a free download from Apple, using the version available online from the Gutenberg Project. More about that later.
Nesbit’s children are SO well written, you feel like you know them inside a few pages. This book features four. First, a family of three: Gerry, oldest boy, who likes to talk about himself in the third person as if he is a character in a story, which of course he is, an interesting technique; Jimmy, the younger brother, somewhat stubborn, and not always willing to follow Gerry’s lead; and Cathy, their sister, always playing peacemaker, very sweet and loveable. These three have been forced to spend their summer at a boarding school in a small country town when other plans fall through. In charge of them in the empty school is a French governess who seems to be young and pretty, probably fairly new at the job, and easily swayed by clever Gerry to let the children explore the town on their own. On an early expedition the three find a hidden entrance to a large estate dominated by a home that is more like a castle, very grand. And in the elaborate garden maze they come upon what seems to be a sleeping, enchanted princess, a girl about their own age dressed in a long, fancy dress and bedecked with lots of very expensive-looking jewelry.
When they wake her, the princess gives them a tour of the castle, which does seem to be a magical place. One room holds secret panels behind which are lots more magnificent jewels — this is where the princess’s came from, and among them what she tells them is a magic ring. Indeed, it proves so when the girl, on a dare, wishes herself to be invisible to prove it to them, and is shocked to find she actually IS invisible. She’s really Mabel Prowse, the daughter of the housekeeper, and now in lots of trouble!
Many wonderful adventures ensue, and as in most Nesbit books, the magic is very difficult and tricky, always leading to unexpected and sometimes dangerous results. Or funny ones, though not so funny to the children who have to deal with it. Nesbit’s book is much more than that, with romance and intrigue for adults as well as deep magic involving gods and dinosaurs and very creepy people made out of old clothing, secret passages and caves, and lots of insightful humor and social commentary as well as very realistic kids.
Now, about the iBook version. It’s a mess. I checked the Gutenburg Project original, and the mess began there, it’s where the iBook came from. Yes, it’s free, and one has to applaud that, but the book is full of confusing mistakes: lots of missing punctuation, for instance. Nesbit often used em dashes ( — ) in her writing. They’re all missing in the online version, making for some very odd sentences. For instance, in the original:
“I’m not—I’m alive—I’m talking to you.”
In the iBook: “I’m not I’m alive I’m talking to you.”
Many other errors; missing commas and periods, probably words and lines dropped out, though I didn’t check for that. Not to mention things like words italicized for emphasis that aren’t in the iBook. It’s great to have Nesbit’s work available to anyone with a computer, but too bad it’s such a mangled version. Having read it many times, I could enjoy it anyway, but someone reading it for the first time would find many things puzzling I think. And the original illustrations by H. R. Millar are also not in the iBook, though in the printed book I have they’re reproduced quite badly, so that’s not good either.
In any case, if you like adventures with magic in them, this is a classic. Highly recommended.