Great Books of the World 29

“Tomorrow comes daily.”

Narayan Tushar Kaudinya
writer and filmmaker
of the Himalayas

Today’s post is back to the world of kindness, appreciation, and gratitude. All the books are about the daily lives of families that had to work hard to survive events that included civil wars, political upheavals, and bad luck. They are linked by the idea of “plain living and high thinking,” and the extraordinary talents of the writers which draw the readers in by reminding them of their own families and their lives. And, overwhelmingly, how these stories can tell readers about human nature – and about the compassion, friendships, generosity, and gratitude that good books can breed.

EDITH  NESBIT
1858  –  1924

Edith Nesbit was born in London and educated in England, France, and Germany, travelling with her mother and sister after her father’s death. Her father died when she was four, and it marked her for life – in many stories, Daddy is missing, or dead. Shunted around Europe by her mother – Edith’s sister had a chest complaint and attended a string of continental spas – she was packed off to a succession of schools she hated. She escaped from one by jumping through a window.

At 19 she met the handsome, womanising Hubert Bland. He had a waxed moustache and a monocle, and although he was a Cockney brush salesman, he shared her intellectual enthusiasm. They married weeks before their son, Paul, was born. Shortly after the wedding, while Bland was seriously ill with smallpox, his partner in the brush company absconded with all the money.

From then on, Edith supported the family; for the 34 years of their marriage, she was the financial mainstay. For 15 years, she churned out stories, novels, and poems that were as marketable as they were forgettable. It seems that it was not until Edith was pregnant with her second child, Iris, that she discovered that Hubert had been having an affair with a “fiancee” called Maggie who had a child by him. Edith eventually forced herself to meet Maggie and befriend her.

Edith Nesbit and her children

Then, when Edith’s best friend, Alice Hoatson, became pregnant, Edith invited her to move in with them as a housekeeper to hide the stigma of illegitimacy. Not until six months after Alice’s child was born did Edith discover that Hubert was the father. There was a bitter row, but when Hubert threatened to leave with Alice, Edith agreed to let her stay on.

Edith and her daughter

Edith’s writing made money, but not until she wrote as a child – Oswald Bastable who relates the adventures of the Bastable family – did she strike gold. Perhaps, because she had the emotional qualities of a child, she spoke to children as intellectual equals. The Treasure Seekers, published in 1899, was written with unprecedented directness, unlike any children’s book before it.

The stories Edith produced at the start of the 20th century, gulping gin and water as she wrote, were not only unsentimental but downright seditious by the standards of the time. Edith’s girls are as brave and adventurous as boys, and she was one of the first children’s writers to make a working-class boy the hero.

Her own children, and Alice’s, revelled in the freedom of their moated mansion in Eltham, but this carefree existence had its price. Edith’s youngest son Fabian choked to death during an operation for adenoids because no one had told him not to eat before the anaesthetic. It was after this tragedy that Edith began writing her masterpieces.

The Skipper, Edith’s second husband Thomas Tucker

Hubert died in 1914 and Edith later married a retired marine engineer she called Skipper. Unlike Hubert, he believed in fidelity, and gave her seven years of happiness before she died, in 1924, her fame assured.

THE  RAILWAY  CHILDREN

The story features one of the most famous scenes in all of children’s literature when young Bobbie takes off her red flannel petticoat and waves it at an oncoming locomotive heading towards a crash. Its brakes squealing, the train stops inches away from the overwrought girl, who faints dead away.

E. Nesbit, as she always dubbed herself, spent much of her life waving a red petticoat at society, daring it to stop her. Impulsive, tomboyish, and strikingly attractive, it was part of her charm that in some ways she never grew up. One biographer described her as having “all the caprices, the intolerances, the selfishnesses of a child; and with them went a child’s freshness of vision and hunger for adventure.”

Her free-living attitudes shocked the straight-laced Victorian era into which Edith was born. She lived in a menage a trois with her husband and home help in Eltham, south London. With her hair in a bob and bangles clattering on her arm, she’d ride her bike in her bloomers. She was an industrious and wholly original woman, whose stories read as though they were written yesterday. The Railway Children’s father is in prison, and the story is about their efforts to get him back.

The house in Yorkshire, where The Railway Children lived

One evening after dinner, Roberta’s, Peter’s, and Phyllis’s father, a government official, is visited by two men, who escort him away from their London home. Soon afterward, their mother announces that they must move to a cottage in the country and, once there, she becomes terribly busy writing stories for magazines to support them all. The children find solace in watching trains on the nearby railway line, and make friends with the station porter and guard.

Over the summer, they are caught up in several adventures, rescuing people from a fire and preventing a disastrous crash, but still, they pine for their father. What has become of him? And who is the old gentleman they wave to every day on the 9.15 Green Dragon?

Her stories deal with family life, often based on her own childhood, and the mother working to support her family is directly reflected in Nesbit’s own experience. There were many film adaptations, the latest is going to be shown in 2022.

An extract from The Railway Children:

“And then came the distance rumble and hum of the metals, and a puff of white steam showed far away along the stretch of line.

‘Stand firm,’ said Peter, ‘and wave like mad! When it gets to that big furze bush step back, but go on waving! Don’t stand on the line, Bobbie!’

The train came rattling along very, very fast.

‘They don’t see us! They won’t see us! It’s all no good! cried, Bobbie. The two little flags on the line swayed as the nearing train shook and loosened the heaps of loose stones that held them up. One of them slowly leaned over and fell on the line. Bobbie jumped forward and caught it up, and waved it; her hands did not tremble now. It seemed that the train came on as fast as ever. It was very near now.

‘Keep off the line, you silly cuckoo!’ said Peter fiercely.

‘It is no good,’ Bobbie said again.

‘Stand back!’ cried Peter, suddenly, and he dragged Phyllis back by the arm.

But Bobbie cried, ‘Not yet, not yet!’ and waved her two flags right over the line. The front of the engine looked black and enormous. Its voice loud and harsh.

‘Oh, stop, stop, stop!’ cried Bobbie. No one heard her. At least Peter and Phyllis didn’t, for the oncoming rush of the train covered the sound of her voice with a mountain of sound.”

But afterward, she used to wonder whether the engine itself had not heard her. It seemed almost as though it had  –  for it slackened swiftly, slackened and stopped, not twenty yards from the place where Bobbie’s two flags waved over the line. She saw the great black engine stop dead, but somehow she could not stop waving the flags. And when the driver and the fireman had got off the engine and Peter and Phyllis had gone to meet them and pour out their excited tale of the awful mound just around the corner, Bobbie still waved the flags but more and more feebly and jerkily. When the others turned towards her she was lying across the line with her hands flung forward and still gripping the sticks of the little red flannel flags. The engine driver picked her up, carried her to the train, and laid her on the cushions of a first-class carriage. ‘Gone right off in a faint,’ he said, ‘poor little woman.”

 

“Don’t limit yourself.
You can go as far as your mind lets you.
What you believe, you can achieve.”

Mary Kay Ash

 

LOUISA  MAY  ALCOTT
1832  –  1888

Louisa May Alcott was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the second of four daughters of a notable proponent of Transcendentalism, Bronson Alcott. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a friend of the family, as were Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sharing the ideals of many of their circle, the Alcotts devoted themselves to “plain living and thinking.”

Despite her transcendentalist pedigree, however, Louisa May Alcott always kept her feet on the ground, working as a seamstress, a governess, a nurse, and, eventually, an author to contribute to the household income. Her most famous work, Little Women, is drawn from her own family life: it is among the most cherished and popular children’s books of all time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a family friend

Within its comfortable domestic compass, many readers first discovered the importance of the questions:

Who am I, and who do I want to be?

Little Women (1868) was an immediate success on publication, selling a then-unprecedented 2,000 copies. The story is based on the author’s childhood memories of her parents and three sisters, and the character of Jo is said to be semi-autobiographical. The publisher urged her to produce more in the same vein, so Good Wives and Little Men followed, as well as many other novels.

Little Women (1933)

Alcott campaigned for several political reforms during her lifetime, especially the women’s suffragette movement. She was dogged by ill-health, after she contracted typhoid while serving as a nurse during the Civil War and was treated with a mercury compound that effectively poisoned her; it was the cause of her death in 1888. There have been several screen versions of the novel, the most famous is the version starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo; a more recent one was released in 1994 with Winona Ryder in the role.

LITTLE  WOMEN

The central figure of the novel is Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, a spirited fifteen-year-old tomboy who yearns to become a writer the way other girls dream of getting married. She lives with her three sisters at home with their mother, surviving on very little money, while their improvident army chaplain father is away during the American Civil War.

There is Meg, who’s beautiful but prone to vanity; hot-tempered Jo, who wants to be a writer, frail Beth, the sweet, quiet one; and Amy, who can be selfish at times. It is Christmas as the book opens, and Jo and her sisters – Meg is the oldest at sixteen, and Beth and Amy are thirteen and twelve respectively  – are at home with their beloved mother, Marmee, while Mr. March is away. Initially, the girls pity themselves for being poor at Christmas, but a letter from their father prompts a pledge to improve themselves by working on their faults – vanity, temper, shyness – in order to make him proud when he returns:

“I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman,’ and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else,’ said Jo.

From the first line – ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’, grumbled Jo – Alcott taps a vein of realism and colloquial expression that was ahead of its time and that still retains its attraction. What follows is a tale of life, love, friendship, illness, and coming of age, one in which the ‘little women’ prove to have more courage, resourcefulness, and character than the adults who ostensibly hold sway over them.

More tellingly, Little Women is the story of four archetypal girls whose personalities remain familiar today; rare is a reader who doesn’t see herself, if only for an episode, as a Meg, a Jo, a Beth, or an Amy, fascinated by her reflection. The story will have you laughing one moment and crying the next. It is easy to understand why this is one of the most popular children’s books of all time.

An extract from Little Women:

“The clock struck six and, having swept up the hearth, Beth put a pair of slippers down to warm. Somehow the sight of the old shoes had a good effect upon the girls, for mother was coming, and everyone brightened to welcome her. Meg stopped lecturing and lighted the lamp. Amy got out of the easy chair without being asked, and Jo forgot how tired she was as she sat up to hold the slippers nearer to the blaze.

‘They are quite worn out. Marmee must have a new pair.’

‘I thought I’d get some with my dollar,’ said Beth.

‘No, I shall!’ cried Meg.

‘I am the oldest,’ began Meg, but Jo butted in with a decided,

‘I’m the man of the family now papa is away, and I shall provide the slippers, for he told me to take special care of mother while he was gone.’

‘I’ll tell you what we will do,’ said Beth, ‘let’s each get her something for Christmas, and not get anything for ourselves.’

‘That’s like you, dear! What will we get?’ exclaimed Jo. Everyone thought soberly for a minute, then Meg announced as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, ‘I shall give her a nice pair of gloves.’

‘Army shoes, best to be had,’ cried Jo.

‘Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed,’ said Beth.

‘I will get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it, and it won’t cost much, so I will have some left to buy something for me’ added Amy.

‘How will we give the things?’ asked Meg.

‘Put them on the table, bring her in and see her open the bundles. Don’t you remember how we used to do on our birthdays?’ answered Jo.

‘I used to be so frightened when it was my turn to sit in the big chair with the crown on, and see all of you come marching round to give the presents, with a kiss. I liked the things and the kisses, but it was dreadful to have you sit looking at me while I opened the bundles,’ said Beth, who was toasting her face and the bread for tea at the same time.

‘Let Marmee think we are getting things for ourselves, and then surprise her. We must go shopping tomorrow afternoon, Meg.”

 

“Optimism is a happiness magnet.
If you stay positive good things
and good people will be drawn to you.”

Mary Lou Retton

LUCY  MAUD  MONTGOMERY
1874  –  1942

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island, Canada, and was raised by her strict grandparents after her mother died when she was two. She trained as a teacher and worked at schools on Prince Edward Island in the late 1890s until her grandfather died when she had to return home to look after her ailing grandmother.

Birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery in Clifton

It was during this period that she wrote Anne of Green Gables (1908) but it was originally rejected by several publishers. The company that finally took a chance on it made a wise decision because it would later be translated into more than twenty languages, filmed several times, and even adapted for the stage. Montgomery produced six sequels, covering Anne’s later years, as well as several other novels and short stories, many of them featuring feisty orphans.

Green Gables in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island

In 1906, she became engaged to a Presbyterian minister but they couldn’t marry until her grandmother died in 1911. She moved to rural Ontario with him and then, in 1935, to Toronto. She passed away in 1942.

ANNE  OF  GREEN  GABLES

It is hard to imagine a young heroine more appealing than Anne Shirley, the joyful, smart, happily indefatigable orphan who supplies both the name and the heart of this perenially popular novel. Like Tom Sawyer, the red-haired, freckle-faced Anne lingers in readers’ imaginations as an embodiment of childhood’s anticipations and adventures.

The story is simple: aging siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who live together in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, seek to adopt an orphan to help them with endless chores on their farm, Green Gables. But the child who arrives from the orphanage in Nova Scotia is not a boy, as they expected, but a spirited and imaginative eleven-year-old girl.

Once the shock wears off, Matthew and Marilla adapt to the surprise – which proves good practice, since Anne will continue to deliver surprises to their doorstep on an almost daily basis; in one episode she dyes her hair green!

Strong bonds soon develop between the three as Anne embraces life in Avonlea, and as a staid community, a bit more cautiously but ultimately with great affection, embraces her. Covering a period of five years filled with much laughter, and some tears too, the book chart Anne’s school days, friendships, and budding romance with Gilbert Blythe, unravelling threads of plot that Montgomery will follow in subsequent books.

Her books have inspired not only many films, stage, and television adaptations, but also a booming Green Gables tourism industry on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, the setting for her tale.

Anne Shirley is one of the funniest, most loveable characters in literature, with a uniquely quirky worldview.  From its first long, intricately constructed sentence, which combines a storytelling intimacy with sophisticated attention to character and setting, that leaves you eager to know what happens next, Anne of Green Gables balances its innocent cheerfulness with an appraising intelligence that has a lot to tell readers young and old about human nature – and about the sympathy, compassion, gratitude, and generosity good books can breed.

An extract from Anne of Green Gables:

“Well, of all things that ever were or will be! ejaculated Mrs. Rachel when she was safely out in the lane. ‘It does really seem as if I must be dreaming. Well, I’m sorry for that poor young one and no mistake. Matthew and Marilla don’t know anything about children and they will expect him to be wiser and steadier than his own grandfather, which is doubtful. It seems uncanny to think of a child at Green Gables somehow; there’s never one there, for Matthew and Marilla were grown up when the new house was built – if they ever were children, which is hard to believe when one looks at them. I wouldn’t be in that orphan’s shoes for anything. My, but I pity him, that’s what.’ So said Mrs. Rachel to the wild rose bushes out of the fullness of her heart; but if she could have seen the child who was waiting patiently at the Bright River station at that very moment her pity would have been still deeper and more profound.

Matthew Cuthbert and the sorrel mare jogged comfortably over the eight miles to Bright River. It was a pretty road, running along between snug farmsteads, with now and again a bit of balsamy fir wood to drive through or a hollow where wild plums hung out their filmy bloom. The air was sweet with the breath of many apple orchards and the meadows sloped away in the distance to horizon mist of pearl and purple; while

The little bird sang as if it were
The one day of summer in all the year.

Matthew enjoyed the drive after his own fashion, except during the moments when he met women and had to nod to them – for Prince Edward Island you are supposed to nod to all, and sundry you meet on the road whether you know them or not. Matthew dreaded all women except Marilla and Mrs Rachel; he had an uncomfortable feeling that the mysterious creatures were secretly laughing at him. He may have been quite right in thinking so, for he was an odd-looking personage, with an ungainly figure and long iron-grey hair that touched his stooping shoulders, and a full, soft brown beard which he had worn ever since he was twenty. In fact, he had looked at twenty very much as he looked at sixty, lacking a little of the greyness.

When he reached Bright River there was no sign of any train; he thought he was too early, so he tied his horse in the yard of the small Bright River hotel and went over to the station-house. The long platform was almost deserted; the only living creature in sight being a girl who was sitting on a pile of shingle at the extreme end. Matthew, barely noting that it was a girl, sidled past her as quickly as possible without looking at her. Had he looked he could hardly have failed to notice the tense rigidity and expectation of her attitude and expression.  She was sitting there waiting for something or somebody and since sitting and waiting was the only thing to do just then, she sat and waited with all her might and main.

Matthew encountered the station-master locking up the ticket office preparatory to going home for supper, and asked him if the five-thirty train would soon be along.

‘The five-thirty train has been in and gone half an hour ago,’ answered that brisk official. ‘But there was a passenger dropped off for you  —  a little girl. She is sitting out there on the shingle. I asked her to go into the ladies’ waiting-room, but she informed me gravely that she preferred to stay outside.

‘There was more scope for imagination,’ she said. ‘She’s a case, I should say.’

‘I am not expecting a girl,’ said Matthew blankly. ‘It is a boy I’ve come for. He should be here. Mrs. Alexander Spencer was to bring him over from Nova Scotia for me.’

The station-master whistled. ‘Guess there is some mistake,’ he said.

‘Mrs. Spencer came off the train with that girl and gave her into my charge. Said you and your sister were adopting her from an orphan asylum and that you would be along for her presently. That is all I know about it – and I haven’t got any more orphans concealed hereabouts.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Matthew helplessly, wishing that Marilla was at hand to cope with the situation.

‘Well, you’d better question the girl,’ said station-master carelessly. ‘I dare say she’ll be able to explain  – she has got a tongue of her own, that’s certain. Maybe they were out of boys of the brand you wanted.’

 

 

66 thoughts on “Great Books of the World 29

  1. Thank you, Henrietta, very kind of you! Good to know that that you liked the post.
    I hope, you didn’t think that I was being flippant about everyday frustration, but looking at the problems of the world facing today, I am just glad to be alive.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I did not think you flippant at all Joanna, in fact I thought your post was written to inspire. Thank you

    Like

  3. Thank you, Lisa, for your kind comments, and apology for being so late. As I wrote previously, reading good books does influence people.
    I thank you for your appreciation.
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Joanna, I’m ashamed to say that I have not read any of these books! However, I have seen all of them on the television, the BBC I’m sure, probably serialised for a Sunday early evening! The Railway Children was brilliant as we lived 100 yards from the main north-south railway line and steam trains too! My wife just loved Anne of Green Gables and maybe that’s where we should travel to for our 50th anniversary! Another great read, you put so much into your posts! 💐💐💖

    Like

  5. Thank you, Ashley, everyone loves steam trains; today we had the famous Scottsman passing through all local towns for the first time and so many people wanted to see it that apparently looked like a big accident happened, with the fire engine and ambulances outside the station.

    Going to Canada would be wonderful but will you be able to?

    Joanna

    Like

  6. Thank you, greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  7. Another fabulously detailed post, filled fascinating information about amazing writers! Loved all your wonderful photos and illustrations, as always. 👏👏👏

    I grew up reading Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery and both are firm favorites of mine.

    Edith Nesbit is new to me. What an amazing life! Her life story has everything from tragedy to comedy and she sounds much ahead of her time. I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a film about her. I have added The Railway Children to my must-read list. 💕

    Like

  8. Thank you for such a generous comment!! I think the film The Railway Children is excellent. Edith’s dramatic life is a warning of what happens when a blind passion turns some women into doormats.

    You will have a big surprise this Saturday!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you again. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A fabulous post as always with beautiful pics, quotes and excerpts! To say in short a ‘Perfect’ one for every book lover. Although I admit 80% percent of today’s post is entirely new to me but I’ve read a little bit of Edith’s “The railway children”. I saw the title for the first time in my school library but at that time I was more interested to complete Swift’s ” Gulliver’s Travel”. Since then never got a second opportunity to read it.

    Like

  11. Thank you, Shayan, for such wonderful comments. The new, entirely different post on Saturday might be of interest, I hope to see you then.

    Joanna
    PS Must dash to finish it!

    Like

  12. Thank you again. Greatly appreciate.

    Joanna

    Like

  13. Our 50th is not until December and we’ll have a small celebration then. Probably wait until early next year for travelling! Steam trains on Prince Edward Island??

    Like

  14. Thank you, Shayan, an apology for replying so late but I am in the hospital, I hope not for too long.

    Joanna

    Like

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