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A Thrice-Told Tale

The warm security of a comfortable, middle-class family is shattered in a single night. A middle-aged mother, suddenly alone with no means of support, must find a way to feed her three children and protect them from shame and disgrace: and her eldest daughter, uprooted from all things familiar, finds herself coming of age in the face of a most uncertain future. Beginning from these frightening circumstances, Edith Nesbit spins out her ultimately sunny and optimistic classic, The Railway Children.

Conjuring up the dark fears of abandonment that sometimes beset all children who grow up amid relative affluence in a world that they know is not always safe, Nesbit drew on her own life experience as well as fantasy to help her young readers imagine how they might meet such adversity, should it come upon them. (There's more about Edith Nesbit's own childhood in "A Woman Between Worlds," another feature on this Web site.)

This exercise of imagination in the face of catastrophe is the magic that sustains The Railway Children's perennial appeal. Nesbit's young heroines and hero -- Roberta, Phyllis, and Peter -- discover they have the inner resilience, courage, and loyalty to make do, and ultimately to prevail in a harsher, more challenging world. That this new, more difficult world may also hide unsuspected resources of goodness and generosity is the novel's equally important message. Without the ability to trust that most people are essentially decent and good, faith in oneself is harder to come by. That fundamental, salt-of-the-earth goodness is something Nesbit makes very vivid and very real in the characters the children encounter in their new life, whether they be upper crust or working class.

Originally published in 1906, The Railway Children has never been out of print, but most adults familiar with the tale today probably remember it best from the famous 1970 movie in which Jenny Agutter gave an unforgettable performance as the eldest daughter, Roberta (Bobbie).

That earlier film version was directed by Lionel Jeffries, until then best known for his work as a character actor. According to Jeffries, he was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to New York with his family when his daughter, Martha, who was reading The Railway Children on the voyage, said, "Daddy, this is a lovely thing. Surely it should be made into a film." He then read the story himself, and upon his return from New York began to write a screenplay. That film premiered in London in 1970 in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, and the then-Royal Children, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. At Christmas that same year the Queen and the whole Royal Family held a private showing at Windsor Castle. The film is now included among the best 100 British Pictures of the past century by the British Film Institute.

Now, 30 years later, Agutter returns to give an equally touching and compelling performance as Roberta's mother in a new and equally distinguished version of the tale. This version has been scripted by Simon Nye (best known for his hilarious Men Behaving Badly, but equally at home with the classics) and is directed by Catherine Morshead. The new Roberta is Jemima Rooper. This new production should ensure that the adventures of Nesbit's long-ago trio cast their spell over a new generation of grownups-to-be.

Agutter's performance in this version is quite different, and in some respects far more believable to a modern audience than the equally wonderful portrait drawn by Dinah Sheridan in the first film. To learn more about the contrasts between the two interpretations, read "A Talk With Jenny Agutter," also available on this site.

The new film of The Railway Children is a Carlton production and is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. The producer is Charles Elton. The executive producer is Jonathan Powell. Rebecca Eaton is series executive producer for Masterpiece Theatre.

Thanks to Carlton Online ( and Pete Coleman of the 'Edith Nesbit and The Railway Children' site (

Images: (1) Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf Publishing

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