Having covered the controversy of Jacqueline Wilson writing a new Faraway Tree book, and then reviewing that book you may be tired of seeing her name popping up here. Regardless, I have just recently read The Primrose Railway Children – a modern reimagining of E Nesbit’s classic The Railway Children – and am going to review it while it is still fresh in my mind.
The Railway Children
I know that I should really review the original book first, but as I said above this is fresh in my mind. If I don’t review it now it’ll end up languishing in my drafts for goodness knows how long with the other 40 or so posts I’ve started but never finished.
I have at least read the original, though I had to check whether or not I definitely had. I have watched the two films many times over, so many, in fact that not only do I confuse them with each other, it would also have been entirely possible for me to believe I had read the book even if I hadn’t.
But I have – back in 2017, though I have already forgotten what I learned in terms of how it differs from the films.
I couldn’t pick a favourite of the two films. The first is the 1970 version with Jenny Agutter as Bobbie and Bernard Cribbins as Perks. The there’s the 2000 remake which I believe was a straight to TV version. That has Richard Attenborough as the Old Gentleman, but more importantly the brilliant Jemima Rooper as Bobbie. It also features Jenny Agutter as Mother. I really love it when actors return for a remake and play a parent or other character. Also of interest is that Georgie Glen is in the 2000 film, and she would go on to star in Call The Midwife alongside Jenny Agutter.
Jenny Agutter has also returned for a sequel to The Railway Children, playing a grown-up Bobbie in the 1940s. I can’t wait to watch it!
Jacqueline Wilson reimagines
JW ‘has form’ if you will, for reimagining classic children’s books.
I have read another of her E Nesbit reimaginings – Four Children and It and thought it was very enjoyable. I actually read it before I had read the original, though I was familiar with the story from the 1991 TV mini-series.
She has also done the Faraway Tree, of course, as above, and also Katy as in What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. I have read the original Katy books a long time ago so I’d like to read this as well.
I know a lot of people criticise Jacqueline Wilson and ask why she can’t ‘come up with her own ideas’ and so on, but she has written hundreds of imaginative books of her own already. Besides, she really is passionate about the books and authors she reimagines. I didn’t know this until the other day but she is the president of the Edith Nesbit Society. So I don’t see these books as her cashing-in on previous writers’ successes at all, but a celebration of classic stories which will hopefully encourage children to seek out the originals too.
In the original book we have Phyllis, Roberta and Peter whilst JW gives us Becks, Perry and Phoebe. The original Father only appears for about one page – repairing a toy engine – until he arrives at the train station at the end of the book (Daddy, my Daddy! always makes me cry, regardless of what version I read or watch), while we spend some time with Mr Robinson him in the first chapters before he disappears.
Mr Robinson is a bit of a dreamer, still harking back to when he had a popular children’s TV series based on Robinson Crusoe. Mum works full time supporting the family while Dad works on and off but always comes back to wanting to reboot the show or make a film.
We get an idea fairly early on that everything is not OK – Mum and Dad are stressed and there is some gossip at school but no detail.
Knowing the original story I was immediately trying to work out what was going on. Was Dad going to prison, if so, what for? He tells them he is off for a job interview one morning, and doesn’t come back. Mum tells them he has got the job and has had to travel for it, and won’t be contactable for some time.
The story is told from the perspective of Phoebe, the youngest, and so she guesses he’s gone off to a deserted island to film a new TV series or movie and this idea carries on through the book, lending a similar mystical, imaginary sense to the ‘dragon’ train taking the
Of course in 1905 it is much ‘easier’ to avoid gossip and rumour by moving from a city into the country. It’s also easier to tell three children that their father has gone away, and tell them not to ask questions. Of course the Robinsons don’t play at being Poor though Mum does say they have a debt to pay off, and money does become a worry when she loses her job later. Mum uses the internet to find as remote a holiday rental as she can, for the whole summer plus the last few weeks of term before that.
(I was still trying to work out what was Going On at this point, and wondering if it could really be prison if they plan to return to normal in around three months.)
Mum plans to work from home during the holidays (a very familiar concept these days) only when they arrive at the house she’s rented it turns out she didn’t take the woman seriously enough on the phone when she said it was dilapidated and basic. It’s so basic that it has an outside toilet. OK, so it does have an old-fashioned indoor one as well, but for a moment thought they had found an authentic 1905 Railway Children house. There’s no shower and only a hip-bath. The kitchen has an old-fashioned range in it, and a small boiler that isn’t really sufficient for four people. I love the idea of the old range cooker but prefer the convenience of a nice modern oven. Getting to grips with a different oven is usually the hardest part of any holiday, even when they leave the instructions. Everything always seems to take about 50% longer to cook than it says it should.
Disastrously for phone-obsessed Becks there’s no Wi-Fi and no phone signal. (I’d have been devastated if I’d been without a phone signal at Becks’ age, though that predates smart phones and WiFi. At 14 I was still texting away on 2g at 10p a message…)
By 1905 standards it’s comfortable enough, even if Perry has to (and actually prefers to) sleep in a large cupboard off the landing. For modern teens and preteens, it’s horrific. The original family’s house is much larger actually, but even they would have been happy enough with this cottage as they weren’t expecting Wi-Fi or even electricity.
There must be electricity at the house as nobody seems to use candles or torches, but there’s no TV and no toaster, but Mum mentions wanting to go out to the café to charge her laptop and phone. Working from home – as an editor for a publishing house – is a very tricky prospect when there’s no internet at home. It’s not immediately clear how she plans to get around this, but the problem is ‘solved’ when the publishing house let her go. It isn’t said why, and could initially be put down to her not being contactable, but as reporters were contacting them before they left London it’s very possible there’s some scandal too.
The lack of technology is helpful for the story in two ways. Firstly it keeps the children in need – and want – of activity, leading them to the Primrose Railway and making that an important place for them. Secondly, it reduces their ability to see news or gossip online. Becks does get a signal at the railway but spends most of her time talking to the young guard there, so she doesn’t accidentally or purposely find out anything about Dad.
In the end it is Phoebe who accidentally finds out the truth – she sees something in a magazine that tells her that her father is in prison, much like Bobbie finds out the truth about her father from a newspaper. The difference is that Bobbie’s father has been unjustly accused of being a spy, while Phoebe’s father is guilty of his crime. There are some mitigating circumstances but it really destroys Phoebe’s hero-worship of her father for a long while.
Naturally, in 1905, small railway stations in rural locations were ubiquitous (and well-staffed).
In the 2020s this is very much not the case. There would be little joy to be found at a railway station for children today. JW neatly gets around this by introducing something I love – a heritage railway.
The Primrose Railway of the title is a section of track reopened in the 1980s by some enthusiastic volunteers and is still going when the Robinsons arrive. It sounds like a great railway with a station at each end, the far end being close enough to the town to visit it. There’s a cafe (and free WiFi) at the main station, a friendly station master who befriends the children, and lots of other friendly volunteers who are happy to talk to Perry about the trains (he develops something of an obsession with trains while they stay there, while Peter was always interested in trains.) They also dress up in Edwardian clothing, giving a lovely sense of the time the original book was set.
The station-master – Mr Thomas Brown tells them about the railway –
“The Primrose Railway is authentic in every single way. This small branch line was opened in 1906. It was closed down by the infamous Dr Beeching in 1964, but twenty-five years later a group of railway enthusiasts got together and worked tirelessly to get the branch open again.”
I wondered if he was going to fulfil the Old Gentleman role, or perhaps Perks. In the end it turned out he was more like Perks as he does become a good friend of the children and helps them out quite a bit. He also laments a bit about what Beeching did to the country’s railways – a man after my own heart.
That was taken the day the Primrose Railway was closed down. July the second, 1964, one of the worst days of my life. That Dr Beeching – the Chairman of British Railways – closed down thousands of stations and branch railways in the 1960s. Thousands! He closed this station and all the others on the line and left them to moulder!”
Beeching aside, the children visit the railway quite a lot. There isn’t much else to do where they are. Becks likes the teenage boy volunteering as ticket collector, Perry is obsessed with how many wheels each model of train has and so on, and Phoebe likes Mr Thomas Brown and the railway in general.
They get into trouble once, for exploring the track and going through the tunnel. In the original book they also enter the tunnel – to rescue the boy in the red jersey when he doesn’t appear at the other side during the paperchase. Of course a train comes along and they have to squeeze into the manhole in the walls. The same happens to the Robinsons though they are just in because Perry ran in to take a look.
The Robinsons are in deep trouble for doing such a dangerous thing, while the original children are praised for their rescue. They are also seen by the workmen clearing up from the earlier landslide. They remark that it’s against by-laws to cross the track, but make no attempt to stop them or tell anyone – a slightly different attitude to today!
The landslide in JW’s book happens after they are in trouble for going through the tunnel and so is a way to redeem themselves. Becks is on the train, giving Phoebe and Perry extra impetus. Perry tries to run back to the station to warn them, but doesn’t make it in time while Phoebe waves her red Manchester United t-shirt as a flag (petticoats being in short supply in recent years). It’s not quite as dramatic a scene, I preferred the original as they watch several trees slowly ‘walking down the slope’ before they realise what is going on. In the new book just one large tree falls.
Some Blyton references
Jacqueline Wilson continues to show her affection for Blyton and her books by making several references, though some are more oblique.
“I read a book once about some runaway children and they hid inside a hollow oak.”
That’s obviously Hollow Tree House.
‘Perhaps there was a farm somewhere? That’s what children in books did when they went to the country. They bought cans of milk too, and freshly churned butter, and there was always a friendly farmer’s wife who gave them a cottage loaf still warm from her oven.’
Phoebe’s musings could be about many books but several Famous Fives certainly fit the bill.
“You’ve been reading too many of those Enid Blyton boarding school books,”
Phoebe says this to Becks when the latter plans to stuff clothes under the bedding to make it seem as if she was in bed. I don’t remember them really doing that in any of the boarding school books. Block definitely did it, though!
It’s possibly more Pollyanna-ish as they discuss the possibility of her falling and breaking her neck as she climbs down the tree.
“Half the time I wasn’t me anyway. I was Charlie in the chocolate factory… I lived up the Faraway Tree or in Narnia…”
This is one from their dad.
“His own made-up Robinson Island had been as colourful and cosy as Noddy’s Toytown.”
And lastly another one from Phoebe.
Parallels and differences
I would say that this book is more different to the original than it is the same. She has not merely taken the original story and modernized it.
The bare bones are there – father disappearing to ‘work’, a move to a much less comfortable house. Finding the railway and spending time there, making friends. Saving the line from the landslip. Finding the truth out about their father and being reunited with him in the end.
The main difference is that the dad is guilty, and the children have to come to terms with that. Their reunion with their father is in a prison visiting room, rather than a station platform as a free man. There is hope, however, as his sentence is to be reduced due to good behaviour and he used his time in prison helping other inmates with their reading. After he gets out they stay near the railway, mum gets a much less high-pressure job and Dad writes a best-selling book about his prison experience, and continues to work with young offenders.
The children are also more perceptive, I think. They know that something is wrong, despite Phoebe trying to maintain the fantasy that he’s on a desert island. They have theories like their parents are splitting up, that he’s in debtor’s prison and so on. The original children are much more in the dark.
The parallels are often quite subtle. Mr Thomas Brown fulfils some of Perks role. He gets offended when Mum offers him money for the work he has done in the garden, a subtle nod at the way Perks gets offended when the children bring a range of birthday presents for him and he thinks its charity.
Not being able to find the house (or the boiler in it) echoes them not being able to find their meal the first night.
Similarities and differences aside, this is a good read. There’s the mystery of what happened to their father as well as the usual sort of family dramas that JW writes so well. Each family member is realistic and has their own little story as part of the bigger one, keeping the plot moving on as they work towards finding out what has happened to Dad.
Whether or not you have read (or watched) the Railway Children this is an enjoyable story.