The House of Arden
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The House of Arden was first published 93 years ago but its narrative voice and dialogue still come across with freshness and modernity. (Perhaps there was something special in the literary air of 1908: it also saw the launch of The Wind in the Willows, Anne of Green Gables and the weekly boys' paper, The Magnet.)
The House of Arden is another of Nesbit's stories of children who are catapulted backwards and forwards in time. The real time of the story is 1907. Brother and sister, Edred and Elfrida, live with an aunt who has to take in lodgers to eke out the meagre family income. Their mother died years earlier and their father has never returned from a South American exploration and is also presumed dead. When a distant male relative also shuffles off this mortal coil Edred inherits the house and castle of Arden, and the children soon embark on a search for Arden's legendary lost treasure.
Their ingenuity brings them into contact with a waspish magical mole - the Mouldiwarp - who sends them off on thier time-travels. They do not find the treasure, but something much better - their father, whom they rescue from the brigands who have captured him.
The plot is a well-used one, but Nesbit's lively approach carries the reader persuasively through the children's improbable adventures. Mysteries are unravelled as they press their intelligence and investigative skills into action. The book's main delight, however, is the way in which the author questions the logistics of the time-shifts which she so exuberantly employs. The children ask exactly the questions which may readers must put to themselves: for example, does the time-travellers' behaviour have any direct influence on historical happenings? As Elfrida reflects rather bitterly when she is precipitated into the England of King James I and ordered by her nurse to sew her sampler, 'Whatever is the good of working at a sampler that you haven't time to finish, and that would be worn out, anyhow, years and years before you were born?'
The House of Arden is a rewarding read, and so too is another reprinted classic, Charlotte M Yonge's The Little Duke. This originally appeared as long ago as 1852 but, after a slightly self-consciously 'historical' beginning, it settles down into an exciting narrative.
The setting is tenth-century France: the eponymous hero is Richard, the eight-year-old orphaned Duke of Normandy who is under constant threat from his enemies. The author vividly recreates political and military power struggles between the Normans and the Franks, and the effects of these on the small, vulnerable child. Yonge does not pull her punches. There is gore and mayhem in and around dark and murky castles and palaces, all of which is atmospherically conveyed.
The action is occasionally inhibited by philosophising which hammers home the importance of Christian values, particularly forgiveness of one's enemies. Nothing wrong in this, of course, but the Victorian nature of Yonge's expressions of love and honour and chivalry sits strangely in the story's bloody and thunderous medieval action.