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Literature / The Railway Children

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Classic British children's novel by E. Nesbit, first published in 1905.

Three children, Roberta (aka "Bobbie"), Peter and Phyllis Waterbury, relocate with their mother to the country after their civil servant father is arrested on charges of espionage for the Russians. Their cottage is near the railway and they make friends with some of the people involved.

Oh, and they prevent a rail accident by use of red petticoats.

Adapted for stage and screen a number of times. The stage version performed at a new purpose-built theatre at King's Cross Station in London in 2015 featured an actual steam locomotive.

In 2021, Jacqueline Wilson published a modern take on the tale called The Primrose Railway Children, told from the perspective of Phoebe Robinson, a twenty-first century version of Phyllis Waterbury.

In 2022, a sequel film was released, which saw the return of Jenny Agutter as Bobbie, set during the Second World War (Peter is explicitly confirmed to have died, and Phyllis is referenced in a manner that leaves it open if she is dead or simply elsewhere).

Not to be confused with The Boxcar Children.

This story contains examples of:

  • Adorably Precocious Child: Phyllis who Bobbie describes as "she means well" but is prone to coming out with odd things.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: When the children want to get the attention of the old gentleman who travels on the train every day, they make a sign beside the railway saying "Look out at the station". Did they mean "Beware at the station"? Fortunately, the sign has the right effect, and people do look out of the train, including the old gentleman.
  • Author Appeal: Like many of Edith Nesbit's children's stories, this one shows children dealing with sudden poverty as well as the loss of a parent.
  • Author Tract: Edith Nesbit's socialist politics make an appearance in the plot from time to time, from Perks' discussion of British politics to the Old Gentleman's praise of Szezcpansky, an exiled Russian intellectual who had been imprisoned in Siberia for his "fine book".
  • Brainy Brunette:
    • Bobbie in the sense of being very perceptive and quick-thinking.
    • Mother is also a writer, and good enough to sell many stories. She also speaks French and acts as a tutor to her children.
  • Call-Back: Bobbie finds out about her father by seeing a headline in the newspaper. This gets twisted around at the end where everyone tells her the good news they read in the paper but she doesn't find out until her father arrives.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The red petticoats Bobbie and Phyllis wear prove very useful when they need to signal that there's been a landslide on the line.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The children invoke this as the old gentleman they only know by waving is asked for help several times and turns out to be quite important to the plot later on.
  • The City vs. the Country: Subverted. While Plot B is there, the children don't dislike the countryside at all and, aside from a couple of instances of worrying about money, they enjoy living there. It's implied they get to go home to London in the end.
  • Clear My Name: For the father.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The old gentleman the children wave to on the train just happens to turn out to be Jim's grandfather. Phyllis lampshades this.
  • Cute Clumsy Girl: Phyllis, who is always knocking things over or tripping on her bootlaces.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bobbie gets a few dry lines once in a while.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: There's a bit of a Culture Clash between the Waterburys and the country people. Mrs Viney leaves the key under the mat because that's what everyone does and she has no reason to believe the Waterburys wouldn't know. The children also get presents for Perks' birthday, not thinking he'd see it as charity.
  • Deus ex Machina: The Old Gentleman, who is influential enough to help secure their father's release. His name is not given, but it's strongly implied that he is the Prime Minister.
  • Disappeared Dad: The children's father is taken away over Christmas and they are told he is away on business. It's later revealed he was falsely accused of treason and thrown in prison.
  • Door-Closes Ending: The book ends with the children's father reuniting with his family, a reunion which the readers are not privy to as the door to the house is closed once he gets in.
    Narrator: "He goes in and the door is shut. I think we will not open the door or follow him. I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away."
  • Everybody Cries: In the book, when Mother finds out how the children asked the Old Gentleman for the hamper, she is at first very angry, then she cries, and so do the children; and it all became a huge crying party.
  • Faint in Shock: Bobbie Waterbury, via clever use of red petticoats, manages to prevent a train from careening into a landslide, but has to stand on the tracks to do so. The train finally manages to stop just inches in front of her, and she very understandably collapses in a dead faint. Jenny Agutter's rendition of the scene in the 1970 Film of the Book is iconic.
  • Free-Range Children: Since Mother is usually busy writing stories in the house, the children are free to wander around the area.
  • Good Parents: Both of the Waterbury parents but Mother gets most of the emphasis, since the father is absent. Not only is she a kind and patient mother but she's also good fun, making up poems and stories to entertain her children. The children's father meanwhile is described as "never cross, never unjust, and always ready for a game."
  • Impoverished Patrician: The family become this after Father is taken away. They end up moving to a nice house in the countryside, with a woman hired as a cleaning lady. They can't however afford medicine or too many luxuries.
  • Insult of Endearment: Peter thinks nothing of calling Bobbie silly and doesn't consider it as insulting her.
    Peter: "I mean it's just a — what is it Father calls it? — a germ of endearment!”
  • Laborious Laces: A Running Gag is that Phyllis's bootlaces keep coming undone, causing the children to be in a hurry.
  • Last-Name Basis: Perks is only called by his last name. Phyllis finds out his first name Albert so they can use it for his birthday.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: At the beginning of the story, after Father is taken away, Phyllis muses to Bobbie how much they've always wished something would happen "like in books." Towards the end of the story (the thirteenth chapter) Peter starts talking to his mother about how nice it would be if this were all one of the mother's stories.
    Mother: Things do happen in real life that are rather like books, sometimes.
  • Lemony Narrator: Nesbit sometimes addresses the readers directly, such as when she gets tired of calling Bobbie by her full name and later discusses her qualities with the readers, admitting how fond she's growing of her. At another time she says she won't write a speech down word-for-word because the readers would find it dull and refuses to give the Old Gentleman's real name because that's who he is to the children.
  • Less Embarrassing Term: Peter calls it "mining" rather than stealing, when he takes coal from the middle of the coal heap at the station.
  • Maiden Aunt: Aunt Emma, who is unmarried, and is off to India to become a governess.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Mother is a writer and she sells stories to make extra cash. At one point, there's a Take That! when it's mentioned that the editors aren't always "sensible" and sometimes don't publish her stories. Which is surely not a jab at her own editors.
  • New Job as the Plot Demands: Through the course of the story Mother works as a writer, translator, teacher and nurse. All without leaving Three Chimneys. Justified in that she's trying to support her family.
  • No Name Given: Mother and Father's names are never revealed.
  • Noodle Implements: The children always have the right tools on hand to save the day:
    • The red petticoats the girls wore were used to save a train from running into a landslide.
    • Peter's stamp collection was in his pocket when they needed to figure out which country Szezcpansky was from.
    • Phyllis had a shuttlecock in her pocket when they needed to burn feathers to revive Jim, the young man who tripped in the tunnel and hurt his leg.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Old Gentleman.
  • Parents as People: Bobbie slowly starts to realise that her mother is trying to keep the family together and make ends meet after Father is taken away.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: The aforementioned red petticoat incident and the part where the boy in the red jersey gets injured inside a tunnel. The second one fortunately doesn't involve a race against a train.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Peter's engine breaking coincides with the family being split up, and foreshadows their eventual situation living by the railway.
  • Ship Tease: Bobbie and Jim, as the two are similar in age and he's the only young male she gets time with. He holds her hand as he departs on the train, promising to write.
  • Slice of Life: The book is essentially the day-to-day life of the children once they get to the countryside.
  • Sneakers of Sneaking: The station master wears an old pair of sand shoes which he had worn at the seaside, to lie in wait for Peter stealing coal.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mother hides her true feelings from her children and maintains a happy front for them. Bobbie, and later Peter and Phyllis, gradually become aware of this and avoid asking questions about their father, recognising that she doesn't want them to know she's unhappy.
  • Tomboyish Name: Both the girls. Roberta is called "Bobbie" and Phyllis is often just called "Phil".
  • Track Trouble: The children see a landslide which blocks part of the train tracks. They rush to warn the incoming train of the danger ahead, successfully preventing it from crashing.
  • Two Girls and a Guy: Girls Bobbie and Phyllis, guy Peter.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not entirely "unreliable," but several things which are clear to an adult reader are just skipped over or ignored by the children. Justified since they are, well, children.
  • Wham Episode: One chapter has the children witnessing a landslide and the train is in danger of crashing. So they have to tear up their petticoats and try to warn people.

Various adaptations provide examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: Most of the engines in the film adaptations are post-1905.
  • Bitch Alert: Ruth gets this in the film where she snaps at Cook for playing with the children.
  • Bowdlerise: When the film appears on TV, some scenes have been edited out including the children kissing Aunt Emma, Peter stealing the coal and Perks and his wife in bed.
  • Cerebus Retcon: A porter jokes about reprimanding the grammar school boys for running through the tunnel. Becomes less funny when Jim gets trapped in the tunnel and nearly loses his leg to a train.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The film conveniently shows Phyllis and Bobbie wearing their red petticoats a couple of scenes before they're actually needed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Phyllis and Peter get this at times. When Pete gets caught stealing coal Phyllis remarks "at least we can burn the evidence".
  • Empathic Environment: When Bobbie sees the headline about her father in the paper, it starts to rain and thunder is heard.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The two men who arrive to arrest the children's father have a moment of this between themselves while they wait at the front door.
    First man: I hate doing a job like this.
    Second man: Especially at Christmas.
  • Gag Echo: In their first morning at Three Chimneys, they find the apple pie Mrs Viney left for them to have the previous night. They express surprise that they're to have supper for breakfast. When Mrs Viney arrives, she says "I see you've found the supper I left for you. Curious time to have it though."
  • Intimate Hair Brushing: A rare Pet the Dog moment for Ruth the maid is when she's shown brushing Phyllis's hair before bed.
  • Key Under the Doormat: It's remarked that everyone leaves their keys under there when the Waterburys arrive.
  • Losing Horns: A whole scene in the 1970 film is accompanied by a "wah wah" Leit Motif. Perks has to deliver a massive hamper to the Three Chimneys, and has to get through a very narrow stile with great difficulty. He does this by balancing the hamper and his hat on top of the stile, and squeezing underneath.
  • Manly Tears: Bobbie notes that the Russian gentleman looks like he's been crying, and she feels sorry for him. She's even annoyed when the doctor looks like he wants to laugh.
  • Mood Whiplash: The dreamy scene of Bobbie getting her birthday presents suddenly turns bittersweet when she says "wouldn't Daddy have loved this?"
  • Ominous Walk: When Ruth falls victim to a booby trap of a bucket of water balanced on a door, she walks slowly towards the children, accompanied by a crescendo of scary music, before eventually raising her hand to slap Peter.
  • Oop North: Used by the locals to contrast with the RP of the Waterburys.
  • Running Gag: After the landslide, the Waterburys are being presented with watches. A brass band is trying to play a routine for them but there's a running gag of them messing up each time they try. They get it right on the fourth try - but everyone has left the station.
  • Scenery Porn: Plenty of beautiful shots of the English countryside. Yorkshire is a beautiful place, and the filmmakers want you to know it.
  • Stepford Smiler: Implied with the mother, especially in the film. One scene has Bobbie coming downstairs and hearing her mother crying in the living room. The ITV version, too, with Jenny Agutter as the mother.
    • Bobbie does the same after learning of her father's fate, not sharing the news with her siblings.
  • Unreveal Angle: When the mother is ill, the children write to the old gentleman. Although the book tells that they have asked for things to make their mother better, the film does not, and the next scene is Perks delivering a large hamper to the Three Chimneys. When the children open the hamper, their cries of delight are heard, but the view of the contents is blocked by the lid, and is never shown.