My new series, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, is set in 1911-1912 and as such, takes us out of the Edwardian era proper and into the pre-First World War period. But before saying farewell to all things Edwardian, I realised I’d never written anything here about one of the most important influences on the Sinclair’s Mysteries – some of my favourite Edwardian era-set children’s books.
Here are ten of my favourites. Some of these were actually written in the Edwardian era itself – which although a relatively short time period was a golden age for children’s literature, in which the likes of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit all first appeared. Others were written more recently but are set in the 1900s and speak to that tradition. There are lots more I could mention but these ten are the books that had the biggest influence on the Sinclair’s Mysteries and that sum up the Edwardian ‘feel’ I wanted to evoke.
One thing I should say about all of these books is that almost without exception they focus on the experience of white middle class (or upper class) characters. It’s also worth bearing in mind that those written in the 1900s often demonstrate attitudes to gender, class, disability and especially race that will not sit well with contemporary readers. Without wanting to suggest there’s any sort of ‘easy fix’, it’s for this reason that I wanted to depict a wider range of characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries – from the working class half-Chinese Lim family to mixed race housemaid Tilly and disabled aristocrat Leo – and in doing so represent a broader spectrum of Edwardian society than we might typically encounter in these books. How successfully I’ve done this I’m not sure (perhaps unsurprisingly there are fewer accounts of mixed race Edwardian children in the East End to draw on than there are of those living in comfortable middle-class suburbs!) but I hope the Sinclair’s Mysteries therefore reflects some of the diversity of 1900s London.
The Railway Children by E Nesbit
Edith Nesbit always seems to me to be the ultimate Edwardian children’s author. From her unconventional family life to her hand-rolled cigarettes and Fabian politics she was very much a radical – and yet her books have a particularly cosy quality. The Railway Children is probably the most famous (perhaps in part because of the classic film version) and follows Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis as they are forced to leave behind their comfortable middle-class home in the London suburbs for a new life with their mother in a country cottage after their father suddenly disappears one night. In their new home they soon become involved in all the doings of the nearby railway station – but meanwhile, what has happened to father? It’s peak Edwardiana, from the iconic red flannel petticoats to the toes of Phyllis’s (usually untied) boots. There are so many delightful scenes – the moving house picnic with marmalade and sardines! Bobbie’s birthday tea! All the handkerchiefs waving from the train! – but it’s the final chapter of the book and especially the last lines that bring me to tears every time.
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit
It may not be as well known as some of her other books, but to my mind this is one of Nesbit’s most brilliant. This is the story of the Bastable children who set out with the ambition of ‘restoring the fallen fortunes of the house of Bastable’. From their home on the Lewisham Road, and with a bit of help/hindrance from Albert Next Door (and occasionally Albert Next Door’s Uncle) they try various inventive schemes for making money – from publishing their own newspaper to digging for treasure to becoming highwaymen. Needless to say most of them go disastrously wrong. It’s funnier than The Railway Children but there is plenty of pathos here too. The first few pages are a masterclass in narrative voice and perfectly demonstrate the qualities that make Nesbit such an exceptional children’s writer.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
There are plenty of downtrodden yet plucky orphans in Edwardian children’s fiction, but Sara Crewe is one of the stand-outs. At the start of this story she leads a life of luxury as the heiress to diamond mines and the star pupil at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. She has a fabulous wardrobe of rose-pink dancing frocks, gorgeous and glamorous dolls, and all the sponge cakes she can eat. But when her beloved father dies and her fortune vanishes overnight, she soon finds herself having to work as a maid for the deeply unpleasant Miss Minchin. Sara will need all her strength and powers of imagination if she is to continue to behave like ‘a little princess’. Although it may be highly sentimental, this is a truly delightful read and contains one of the most magical scenes in children’s literature (if you’ve read it, you know).
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My other Frances Hodgson Burnett pick is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. Interestingly at the time it was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was Hodgson Burnett‘s most popular book (of which more later) whereas today it’s probably The Secret Garden which is the most beloved – by me at any rate. Here, another orphan, the sulky and sour Mary Lennox, is sent from India to live with her unknown uncle at his Yorkshire home, Misselthwaite Manor. There she discovers long-buried secrets, including a forgotten garden that she sets about bringing back to life. A tribute to the transformative power and magic of nature, it’s a glorious book – and again the final pages are guaranteed to move me to tears, no matter how many times I have read them.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
This one is a bit of a cheat as it’s strictly speaking not a children’s book at all, though read by many children both in the 1900s and today. But I couldn’t write about the Edwardian books that influenced the Sinclair’s Mysteries without giving a nod to the quintessential Edwardian detective story: Holmes and Watson might not have a great deal in common with Sophie and Lil, but there’s certainly an important connection. I always enjoy the smoggy, murky atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s London and as with Conan Doyle’s stories, I was keen for the Sinclair’s Mysteries to show the reader some of the different faces of the city – from the grimy East End to the ritzy and glitzy world of the Edwardian upper classes.
A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild
Noel Streatfeild is well-known for Ballet Shoes and her other (wonderful) books set in the world of theatre and dance, but this story is a little different, being closely based on her own childhood in the 1900s. Growing up in a vicarage, Vicky is the ‘difficult’ middle child sandwiched in between her pretty and talented older sister Isobel and spoilt younger sister Louise. Out of place and often in trouble both at school and at home, only her cousin John seems to really understand her. Full of intriguing period detail, this is a moving and compelling story which paints a vivid picture of Edwardian girlhood – it’s an absolute must for Streatfeild fans but fascinating for anyone interested in ‘ordinary’ life in the 1900s.
Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild
When she is sent to live at a miserable orphanage, spirited Margaret Thursday soon befriends the shabby but genteel Beresford family – Lavinia, Peter and Horatio, who have lost their mother and fallen on hard times. Lavinia is sent to become a scullery maid at a local Manor house, while Peter and Horatio join Margaret at the orphanage – but soon, the three of them decide to run away. There is unexpected help from a canal bargeman and his family and before long they’ve found employment as ‘leggers’ on a barge – before taking to the stage in a travelling production of Little Lord Fauntleroy where Margaret quickly becomes a star turn. But can Lavinia track them down and let them know about the unexpected and dramatic change in their fortunes? A clear tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, this is one of Streatfeild’s less well-known books (and looks to be currently out of print) but is thoroughly enjoyable, with all the elements of a rags-to-riches Edwardian story – from plucky orphans to long-lost relations to pleasingly unpleasant villains.
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
There’s more shades of Hodgson Burnett in this utterly gorgeous book from one of my favourite children’s authors, Eva Ibbotson. Orphan Maya is excited when she is sent away from her ordinary life at school in England to live in South America with some unknown relatives – but her new life soon proves fraught with challenges. Yet the lush Amazonian jungle offers unexpected consolations – and before long, a wild adventure beckons. A touring play of Little Lord Fauntleroy once again makes an appearance here, alongside another brave orphan heroine, some vile villains, and a particularly wonderful governess in Miss Minton. A truly joyous read.
Flambards by KM Peyton
There’s another orphan/heiress at the centre of this story for older readers, which is the first in a trilogy. Christina is sent to an impoverished country house, Flambards, where she is to live with her tyrannical, brutish uncle and her cousins Mark and Will. Life at Flambards is tough and sometimes unpleasant, but Christina soon discovers a passion for horses and hunting she never imagined. But while Mark shares her love of hunting, it’s Will – who hates riding and instead dreams of flying aeroplanes – with whom Christina strikes up a close relationship. Far from a cosy country-house novel, this is a powerful young adult book, tackling the subject of class as well as the challenges of adolescence. There are two sequels which follow Christina and Flambards into the First World War and beyond.
The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis
C.S. Lewis knew exactly what he was doing when he set this, my favourite of the Narnia books, at the time when ‘Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road’. In doing so he immediately evokes the spirit of Edwardian children’s literature – and Edwardian London. The story follows Polly and Digory who live next-door to each other in terraced houses with interconnecting attics. An encounter with Digory’s rather sinister Uncle Andrew whisks them away via a magic ring to the mysterious Wood Between the Worlds – and then to the land of Narnia where they encounter Queen Jadis. The influence of Christianity (and here, in particular, the story of Genesis) on Lewis’s writing is well known but I think it’s interesting to note that E Nesbit is also a clear inspiration for Lewis. In particular The Magician’s Nephew has a lot in common with Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet which also features magic jewellery and a powerful ancient queen transported to 1900s London.
And one final book I want to mention which is absolutely not a children’s book at all…
The Children’s Book by AS Byatt
Adults who are interested in the history of Edwardian children’s literature should absolutely read this captivating and completely engrossing novel by AS Byatt which won the Booker Prize. An extraordinary portrait of the period from the end of the 19th century until the First World War, it’s rich with references to everything from the suffragettes to the Arts and Crafts movement. At its centre is the children’s writer Olive Wellwood (loosely inspired by E Nesbit) and many real writers including JM Barrie and Kenneth Graeme also appear in its pages. Amongst many other things, Byatt’s novel is a powerful exploration of Edwardian childhood and what it might mean to write for and about children – including the darker sides of fairy-tale and children’s fiction.
What are your favourite Edwardian-set children’s books? If you have any recommendations please do let me know in the comments. And you can find out more about the real Edwardian history behind the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series here.