Academic journal article Style

Partners in Crime: E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving

Academic journal article Style

Partners in Crime: E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving

Article excerpt

Catching a burglar in the act of creeping into her family's nursery, the youngest heroine of E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) "kn[ows] better" than to succumb to fear (192). For Jane, despite her youth, "had read a great many nice stories about burglars, as well as some affecting pieces of poetry, and she knew that no burglar will ever hurt a little girl if he meets her when burgling" (192). Elaborating on the conventions of this Victorian mini-genre, Nesbit explains that

in all the cases Jane had read of, [the thief's] burglarishness was almost at once forgotten in the interest he felt in the little girl's artless prattle. [... But Jane] could not at once think of any remark sufficiently prattling and artless to make a beginning with. In the stories and the affecting poetry the child could never speak plainly, though it always looked old enough to in the picture. And Jane could not make up her mind to lisp and "talk baby," even to a burglar. And while she hesitated he softly opened the nursery door and went in. (192-93)

Even as Nesbit parodies the tendency of other authors to domesticate the figure of the burglar, she enthusiastically purloins and reproduces this scenario, both here and in her other works. Just as the burglar Jane discovers gets converted into a family friend (later referred to as "that nice chap--our own burglar"), the thief caught by the child protagonists in The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) is quickly adopted and transformed into "our own dear robber" (Phoenix 210, Story 201). (1) Such encounters, I will argue, testify to Nesbit's self-conscious sense of herself as an author who plunders or colonizes the realm of childhood, as well as the work of other authors of children's literature. Yet Nesbit optimistically insists that children too can fruitfully practice the art of thieving, as indicated by the fact that these burglars are themselves seized and exploited by the very youngsters whom they hope to rob.

Far from being artless prattlers, Nesbit's child heroes are artful dodgers, adept at appropriating and recycling the work of adult authors. But as Julia Briggs, Erika Rothwell, and Mavis Reimer all point out, Nesbit's young protagonists frequently misinterpret or misapply the material they steal, experiencing a great deal of trouble as a result of their naivete. These difficulties, however, do not indicate that Nesbit believes children should cease such stealthy operations entirely. Rather, they convey her conviction that young people must learn to pull off more savvy and sophisticated heists, ones that more closely resemble Nesbit's own appropriations.

By simultaneously lampooning and propagating literary conventions--such as the burglar motif in the passage quoted above--Nesbit models for her readers the kind of balancing act she wants them to master; even as she encourages children to take pleasure from and make use of texts, she coaxes them to become more critical readers. Keenly aware of the power that adults and their narratives wield over children, Nesbit incites young people to commandeer more completely the scripts they are given, to revise rather than simply reenact them. Tracing how she repeatedly employs the trope of reciprocal robbery to encourage such piracy both confirms and complicates recent efforts to conceptualize children's literature as a form of colonization. (2)

A number of critics have noted the extraordinary extent to which Nesbit's child characters are saturated in and fascinated by all kinds of literature. (3) In book after book, Nesbit portrays young people as irrepressible mimics who shape their games, ideals, behavior, and even speech around texts created by adults. In The Story of the Treasure Seekers, for example, the Bastable children swipe scenarios for their activities from Kipling, Conan Doyle, Marryat, Edgeworth, de la Motte Forque, Pope, and the Arabian Nights, as well as assorted picture books, newspaper stories, and advertisements. …

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