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Red petticoats & more with Nesbit’s Railway Children

I’m reading E Nesbit’s The Railway Children (an old Puffin film tie-in edition with Jenny Agutter on the cover) to my eldest daughter as our book at bedtime at the moment. I didn’t read this book, first published in 1906, when I was a child so it’s something new for both us. To be honest, I was finding the novel a little difficult to read a loud until last night when we came to the famous chapter where the children stop the railway engine from crashing into the landslide across the track.

I had to explain what a petticoat was to my daughter. “Well, it’s sort of like an underskirt worn by girls in the olden days,” I said.

“Why did they wear them?”

“Um, I don’t know. They just did.” (Wikipedia says petticoats were worn for warmth or to give dresses fashionable width.)

It was a genuinely exciting chapter and my daughter loved the idea of the train rushing down the track, packed full of passengers, towards the blocked line and the girls yanking off their red petticoats to wave at the engine driver. One of the girls faints in the all the excitement – no-one faints nowadays in modern books. Did anyone faint in those Harry Potter books? I don’t think so.

This book was published five years after the death of Queen Victoria and truly comes from a different age. Earlier in the novel, the children’s mother asks her kids to not walk on the railway line. Peter, Bobbie and Phyllis are horrified at the request because they’ve grown to love the railway. The mother then relents and then practically says: “OK then, you can walk on the railway line but just look out for trains.”

I almost started laughing after reading that bit – I was wondering what modern mothers and parenting experts would make of that. Also last night, the kids and the station porter were discussing the merits of ‘foreigners’ and the porter being a ‘working class’ sort of fellow was naturally very suspicious of them, especially the ‘Japs.’

“What are Japs?” asked my daughter. I explained and tried to add that British people didn’t have high opinions of many countries in those days before World War I.

I have a feeling there’s going to more things to explain before we finish this book.

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