Camp Caribu, Family, Publishing

What’s The Story Behind ‘The Railway Children’?

By Beth S. Pollak

Curious about the history behind the mysterious book The Railway Children, featured in #CampCaribu’s Week 2 ‘Father Figures’ Reading List?

The tale begins in a decadent Victorian home, where the children Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis have everything they want. However, the story continues ominously, “on Peter’s eighth birthday, the trouble began.” 

Father must leave quickly “on business” Mother says, leaving readers with a cliffhanger: Where does Father go? Mother and the children must sell all of their expensive possessions, and move to the countryside, where the kids chase adventure by the train tracks. One day, Bobbie reads in the newspaper that their father has been found guilty of being a spy, and will face five years in jail. She reaches out to a neighbor to request his help in securing her father’s release. 

Upon first reading The Railway Children, you might ask yourself: is it based on a true story? What is the history of this time period? 

Title Page from 1906 edition

A Turn-Of-The-Century Original

The original version of The Railway Children was published in 1906 by British author Edith Nesbit. Nesbit wrote and collaborated on more than 60 children’s books and 11 adult novels from 1885-1923. She was recognized by her biographer Julia Briggs, as “the first modern writer for children” since her stories capture some of the realistic and unvarnished truths of turn-of-the-century family life. She also is credited with writing the first children’s adventure stories. Even when Nesbit included fantasy elements in her stories, they were grounded in modern settings. Her writing would influence the authors of books like Mary Poppins, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Harry Potter

Nesbit’s 1906 novel tells an expanded version of The Railway Children picture book featured in Caribu, which has been adapted by Susanna Davidson and illustrated by Alan Marks. It highlights the family’s struggle when their father is arrested and imprisoned for being a spy. It was adapted for film in 1970 and recreated as a TV movie in 2000. 

A Journey Back In Time

Dreyfus in an 1895 newspaper

According to Lyn Gardiner, who wrote about a stage version of The Railway Children for The Guardian, the original book is “specifically grounded in the political and social realities of its time.” She says that the Father character’s unjust conviction was based on the true story of the 1894 treason conviction of French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly sharing French military secrets with Germany. The divisive accusations against Dreyfus eventually were proven to be false, and Dreyfus was exonerated and released from jail in 1906. 

One theme present in The Railway Children is the pain the family feels in their father’s absence. This reflects Nesbit’s own experience: Her father died when she was four. In many of Nesbit’s stories, the children’s characters can be found on a quest for missing parents. In the case of The Railway Children, it seems that the eventual return of the Father character provides a longed-for sense of closure that Nesbit herself never experienced in the wake of losing her own father. Perhaps associating the Father character with the Dreyfus case also allowed Nesbit to imagine that her father’s death might have served a higher purpose. 

Breaking With Tradition

Edith Nesbit

The Mother character in The Railway Children is a mirror of Nesbit’s domestic life as both the breadwinner and the caregiver in her household. In the book, Mother must maintain her family’s external appearances and internal stability while faced with sudden poverty. Nesbit’s married life was not so different. Her first husband, Hubert Bland, became sick with smallpox shortly after they married, leaving Nesbit to provide for herself and a newly born son. Although Bland survived, he and Nesbit lived much of their lives separately, and Nesbit had to support herself financially with her writing. 

Moreover, Nesbit’s family life was not a traditional one. As Gardiner states: “The real tension in her [Nesbit’s] life was between what was expected of a respectable woman of the era and the realities of her life.” Although Nesbit was often the breadwinner of the household, her “view of women was highly traditional” says Gardiner. This is reflected in the Victorian role-playing typical of the characters in many of her books. 

One final piece of history? Nesbit and her husband were active members of English socialist groups. Many of Nesbit’s stories, including The Railway Children, depict the contrasts between the bourgeois lifestyles of the middle class and the stark existence of the working classes during her lifetime. Her characters often occupy a middle ground between the two, and the children in her stories find joy and fun despite the economic challenges that they face. 

Exploring The Pages

With these details in mind, it’s clear that Nesbit’s lifetime provides the true backdrop to the story The Railway Children. Though the narrative reflects her 100-year-old experiences, many families still face similar challenges today: navigating social class differences, questioning injustices in the legal system, and re-defining gender roles in the home. While you turn the pages of the book in the Caribu app, take some time to notice details that reference key themes:

  1. How does Mother look on Pages 1-2 compared to Page 4? What do you notice about her expressions and her dresses? What has changed for her? Why is she “hardly ever” at home?
  2. What differences do you notice in the family’s house at the beginning of the book compared to the family’s house in the middle of the book?
  3. How do the children try to make the most out of their new situation?
  4. How does Bobbie try to fight against injustice?

Whether you choose to read the book from an historical perspective or not, what will grab you is the tenacity of the family’s bond in the face of uncertainty. Even while they face catastrophe, the characters fight for each other and focus on small victories. Most notably, Bobbie’s persistence in her quest to vindicate her father and reunite with him demonstrates her unconditional love and filial devotion. Like so many of us who struggle to connect with a parent physically or metaphorically, she never gives up. And so, while the events in The Railway Children are particular to that time and place, the characters’ feelings and journey continue to resonate in 2020. 

Take some time this week to read Caribu’s illustrated edition of The Railway Children with a grandchild, and treasure your family’s own connections together.  

Beth S. Pollak is a writer and educator based in California. In addition to working with Caribu, she consults with educational organizations and EdTech companies. Beth has worked as a teacher and journalist in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. She holds degrees in journalism, bilingual education, and educational leadership. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, picnics, and dance.