The Railway Children by E Nesbitt is one of the most enduring classics of children’s English-language literature. Published as a novel in 1906 after it was serialised in The London Magazine the previous year, it follows Roberta, or Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter who move out of London with their mother to a small country cottage when their father mysteriously leaves. The 1970 film adaptation starring Jenny Agutter has also given generations endless joy (and got them blubbing). Now a new sequel, The Railway Children Return, is about to be released, again starring Agutter as Bobbie, now a grandmother, and it’s just as tear-jerking as its predecessor. But why is it so loved? We asked five children’s authors to tell us why they – and we – adore it.
The Railway Children is one of my favourite children’s books; I am a little in awe of it, because it has power and bite so infinitely greater than its small size. Most of its power comes, quietly and unobtrusively, from the central secret at the heart of it: Bobbie’s father has been falsely accused of wrongdoing, and the children’s mother is hiding it from them. In the moment Bobbie accidentally discovers the secret, she becomes a child exiled from childhood, who must keep a terrible, adult silence. It’s what gives the glorious ending such power, for in the moment her father returns, she is transformed – the gates back to her childhood faith are re-opened. In the 1970 Lionel Jeffries film, the camera shows not her face, but her feet, lifted off the ground as she is swept up in his arms, a child again: “Oh Daddy, my Daddy!”
And the book has an urgent truth to tell. I love the Railway Children for its wit, and its honesty about how annoying most of us truly are. Sometimes, the book tells us, the world goes wrong. There are domestic accidents: a burnt kettle, a boy with a broken leg, illness. There are grudges, and misunderstandings, and shames: Peter is caught stealing coal, the children blunder in trying to throw a birthday party for Perks. Sometimes, the book knows, the days are tiresome, and you bicker, and all your grand attempts at sweet-tempered magnanimity fall by the wayside.
But, in its magnificent ending – perhaps the most perfect moment in all of British children’s writing? – the book also makes a promise. It promises that sometimes, on rare occasions, the mist will clear, and the thing that your heart aches for will stand in front of you. Sometimes your heart’s greatest desire sees you, and you name it, and you fly into its arms. Sometimes, the book tells you, though very rarely – the miracles do come.
I read The Railway Children when I was about 12, and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t my favourite E Nesbit because I preferred magic and fantasy and things like that, but I loved the way she wrote.
However, I saw the film when it came out, and I loved it, because to me, they’d left out what I thought was the boring bits. I particularly loved this interaction between three children. And I very much (although she was older than me) identified with the Jenny Agutter character, Roberta or Bobbie.
That film stayed with me. I think that I had a more emotional reaction when I saw it again as an adult, and I think the bit that – in the book as well, but also in the film – that really grabs you by the heart is when Bobbie is reunited with her father. She’s having to be the grown up of the three. But then suddenly, when the daddy reappears, she can be a child again.
That’s the heart of it: it’s her longing to be reunited with her father. And I think that may be why the film has such an appeal, because that’s brought out so beautifully. But also the book, and that’s why it’s lasted. I think it’s a sort of wish fulfilment.
Frank Cottrell Boyce
Edith Nesbit wrote a bag full of masterpieces but The Railway Children is the one that really resonates in our national memory and I’ve been trying to figure out why it has so much power.
Part of it is that incredible ending, with the father appearing out of the smoke on the platform and Bobbie taking a moment to recognise him before shouting “Daddy! My Daddy!” The line is so simple but even just typing it brings me fairly close to tears.
The line has such power because in the middle of the book Bobbie finds out the truth about her father – the fact that he’s in prison. And she keeps that knowledge to herself. In a way she has to become an adult. When Dad comes back it allows her to become a child again. “Daddy! My Daddy!” is the sound of Bobbie being given back her childhood. It’s joyous and heart-breaking.
But I think it had another resonance too. A lot of the parents taking the kids to see the film in 1970 had been children during the war. The image of a much-missed father stepping off the train and coming home surely reminded them of their dads coming back from the war. And the story of the railway children themselves – sent away from the city to the country, learning to cope with unexpected hardship and unexpected freedom – must surely have chimed with their own wartime experience. Nesbit had accidentally written a great book about the Evacuation. So I think it’s really interesting – and hopeful – that the new movie picks that as the setting for the sequel.
I read The Railway Children as a child and was a massive fan of E Nesbit, because there weren’t very many great writers writing much for children in those days.
I saw the film in my 20s. I also loved that... and cried of course. When Bobbie sees her daddy? That’s heartbreaking. I mean, it’s so beautiful: she runs onto the platform. There he is and my eyes are prickling. That’s the bit that I remember most. And I’m sure that’s the bit that most people remember; it was very, very poignant, and Jenny Agutter did a beautiful job of that.
When I heard that there was going to be another film I was a bit old fashioned about it. I don’t like the idea of a remake, particularly because I so loved the original. But this is a sequel, and it really looks rather nice. It’s nice that Agutter is there and is now the grandmother. I think it’s absolutely acceptable that there’s another story, as long as it’s another story.
In all art forms there is a holy grail – the work that stays in the memory when others fade like smoke in a breeze. We all recognise the extraordinary when we see it, but no one can quite explain quite how those ingredients came together to produce that memorable piece. The Railway Children movie is one of the cinema’s iconic, unforgettable – and unforgotten – gems.
It would take a brave artist to attempt to update and recreate the Mona Lisa. It’s a brave film company that produces a modern Railway Children. I wish them every success and I’ll be first in the cinema queue to see it.
The Railway Children Return is out in cinemas from today