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I have a fondness for the books of E Nesbit. The Phoenix and the Carpet was one of my favourite stories as a child and I also remember enjoying a BBC dramatization of it in the 1970s. So when I found that the book was available free for Kindle, I didn't hesitate to add it to my collection.
The Phoenix and the Carpet is the second book in a trilogy that begins with Five Children and It and ends with The Story of the Amulet. It is about five children - Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother known as The Lamb (because "baa" was the first thing he ever said) who go on a series of magical adventures.
Although the first book of the trilogy does get referred to, I really don't think it is necessary to have read this before embarking on The Phoenix and the Carpet. All you really need to understand is that in the first book the children met a character called the Psammead (a sand fairy) which could grant wishes, so that you can understand the role played by the Psammead in the second book. You very quickly get to know the children in The Phoenix and the Carpet, without having to read of their prior adventures.
The Phoenix and the Carpet tells us how the children get a new carpet for their nursery. Wrapped up inside the carpet is a mysterious egg which falls into the fire and hatches into a golden phoenix. The phoenix tells the children that the carpet is magic and will grant wishes. So the children and the phoenix travel to many different places and have all kinds of exciting adventures and near-calamities along the way.
The novel was written in 1904 and is very of its time and very middle class. Phrases like, "don't be so jolly clever" and "you young duffer" abound. The gender stereotyping made me cringe, as the boys are portrayed as the fearless, adventurous ones and the girls are easily upset and more afraid. Particularly irritating is Jane, the youngest, who has a tendency to burst into tears and say, "I wish we hadn't come" whenever things become tricky. However, there is one episode in which Jane takes the lead and shows herself to be less of a timid, wet blanket. It goes without saying that when the magic carpet becomes patchy and threadbare, it is the girls who set about darning it. Even more blatant is the racial stereotyping. When the magic carpet transports the children to a tropical beach, they encounter "brown coppery people" referred to as "savages."
The book certainly offers an insight into life in Edwardian England and the values which prevailed, which I find fascinating, even if the sexist and racist elements made me feel uncomfortable. It does show how far things have moved on. I think a child (or indeed an adult) who was learning about Edwardian history could read this book and gain a very good understanding of what the suffragettes were up against in their struggle for equality, and you can also see examples of the proud, nationalistic mentality that existed in the glory days of the British Empire.
It is interesting to pick up little details about everyday life in this era. There are references to old money, cold mutton dinners, whooping cough, servants, etc., which all show what a different world it was. As you might expect in a children's novel from this period, there is a strong moral focus. The children are concerned with doing good deeds in the course of their adventures. Some of the children are not comfortable with the idea of keeping secrets from their mother and there are many references throughout to the importance of not telling lies, having good manners, being honourable, etc. However, despite their strong sense of right and wrong, the children are still spirited characters and their battle between their own wishes and their sense of duty adds an interesting dimension to the story.
I love E Nesbit's narrative style with little asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, as if she is speaking directly to the reader, making them feel involved in the story. For example, she tells the reader, "I'm sure you would rather wait till the next chapter before you hear about THAT" and at one stage, when describing the children in the book, she tells the reader, "They were not bad sorts on the whole; in fact they were rather like you." There is something cosy about the way she makes the reader feel as if the story is especially for him/her.
I am not sure how well-received this book would be by modern children. It certainly contains some quite obscure references that would have no doubt been very familiar to children living in the early years of the 20th century, but not so now. For instance, when the children visit India on the magic carpet, we are told it looked "like in Mr Kipling's books." There are also references to Arabian Nights, The Count of Monte Cristo, Westward Ho and other books that probably are not read much by today's children. There are some weird religious references too. At one point in the story, the children are burning fragrant oils and trying to light a magic fire and they start singing, "The hymn of the Moravian Nuns at Bethlehem", whatever that is! The book's language does seem quite archaic at times. The phoenix, in particularly, speaks in a rather scholarly manner which takes a bit of getting used to. There is also a quite tedious scene involving a couple of stereotypical villains, whose cockney dialogue left me baffled. I felt like I needed an interpreter.
However, in spite of the antiquated writing style, I still find this quite a charming book with fast moving, exciting story-lines. It captures the reader's attention from the start when the children decide to 'test' their fireworks before 5th November and end up setting fire to the nursery carpet. It is a dramatic opening chapter and it introduces the theme of fire which is to run throughout the book. I love the descriptions of journeys on the magic carpet. I could really imagine the dizzying heights and the exhilaration of feeling as if you were tobogganing through the air. The children visit lots of atmospheric locations. Whether they are exploring dark, secret passages in an old tower or a golden beach surrounded by palm trees, flowers and basking turtles, the scenes are wonderfully vivid and created some colourful pictures in my mind.
I think this novel will be of interest mainly to adults wanting to relive a story from their own childhood, but I would not rule it out for children who are particularly interested in this period of history, perhaps as something to read in conjunction with history text books. If you can get your head round some of the unfamiliar language and outdated concepts and focus on the magical elements, it is an entertaining story. The story of the phoenix is always an intriguing one and is found in legends and sacred texts from cultures all around the world. The book has plenty of humorous moments too and I particularly enjoyed the comparison between children's readiness to believe in magic and adults' inability to do so, assuming it must be a dream or madness instead. Each chapter brings in a new adventure, which keeps things interesting, with no one adventure going on for too long. The book has quite a moving ending, without being over sentimental.
In some ways it is a pity that this book can't renew itself, phoenix-style, as its datedness will no doubt put some readers off. However, for others I suspect that the old-fashioned style and the quirky combination of a mystical character and Edwardian London will just add to the book's charm.