While perusing a shelf in the children’s section of the downtown Berkeley Library, looking for a book by local writer Anne Nesbet (see my review of The Wrinkled Crown), my eye fell on a book next to it: Wet Magic, by E. Nesbit. Intrigued by the title, and that it was a turn-of-the-century fantasy, I whimmed it and checked it out. After I’d finished reading Anne’s The Wrinkled Crown, I decided to give Nesbit’s hundred-year-old tale a try.
I had several decidedly different reactions to this undersea adventure as I read along. In the beginning, Nesbit displays cheeky British humor in her scenes describing four young siblings on vacation as they set off to rescue a mermaid captured by a circus. A parentless boy from the circus joins them, and in a memorable scene the mermaid displays princess-like airs as the children finally release her back into the sea.
As a gesture of goodwill, the princess uses magic to transport the children to her underwater land. At this point the story turns into more of a standard wonder-filled collection of fantasy tropes. War erupts between competing tribes of Mer people, and of course the children all play a critical role in ending the war. Nesbit’s world here is less convincing than the interplay of her young characters, and at times I was confused about who was doing what and why. The war itself made no sense, and Nesbit would agree, for the story’s main moral is that war is meaningless, and one should do one’s best to bring peace to all parties.
One part of the war that illustrates how the author relies on humor more than plot is when she describes a sortie between the Mer people and characters who escape from a cave made entirely of books and come to life:
Then slowly, terribly, without words, the close ranks of the Book People advanced. Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. Markham, and Mrs. Barbauld led the van. Closely following came the Dragon of Wantley, the Minotaur, and the Little Man that Sintram knew. Then came Mr. Murdstone, neat in a folded white neckcloth, and clothes as black as his whiskers. Miss Murdstone was with him, every bead of her alight with gratified malice…Mrs. Markham had turned a frozen glare upon them, Mrs. Fairchild had wagged an admonitory forefinger, wave on wave of sheer stupidity swept over them [the children], and next moment they lost consciousness and sank, each with his faithful Porpoise, into the dreamless sleep of the entirely unintelligent.”
Upon reading this I laughed and thought, did children reading this back then actually know who all these characters are? Because doubtless every one of them came from actual literature, the sort that people nowadays don’t know anything about, even English majors. (I’m an English major and I recognized the Murdstones as being Dickensian, and of course I knew the Minotaur, but that was it.)
This invasion of literary demons is but a brief interlude, though, in a rather pedestrian conflict. I did rather enjoy her humor, though—as a kidult—and Ms. Nesbit is to be commended for promoting peace at a time when the world was about to explode into global war. As I finished the book I was left with a feeling that, no matter how different children’s books were back then, their writers had some of the same profound concerns that writers—and citizens of the world—do today.