Picked up in a second hand bookshop years ago is an illustrated copy of this E. Nesbit Short story The Town In the Library, first published in 1901.
How to Feed Toy Soldiers …
This out of print 1987 Macdonald / Beehive Books edition of the Edith Nesbit story has interesting illustrations of toy soldiers by illustrator Shirley Tourretwho died in 2007.
Some of the aspects of the story are an interesting and magical realist mixture of kaleidoscopic Chinese puzzle ‘box inside a box’ / ‘world inside a fantasy world’ of Lewis Carroll and H.G. Wells Floor Games and Little Wars. It is the familiar floor world of Wells’ Little Wars world of the Edwardian Nursery.
Two children Rosalind and Fabian are quarantined at home with measles on Christmas Eve. They are forbidden to open the top drawers of a bureau / desk but of course do and discover their Christmas treats and toys including blue and red toy soldiers.
The short story from Nesbit’s 1901 book Nine Unlikely Tales is played out amongst buildings and forts made of books, in a H.G. Wells style but ideas of scale are played around with throughout the story and the children appear to shrink into this world or town inside their house’s library.
The blue toy soldiers appear out of their wood and straw box in a novel and exciting way – abseiling down the wood shavings to the floor below, a decorative feat in full Napoleonic gear.
Thus is nicely pictured by Shirley Tourret with the soldier climbing down the side of the text to the book’s floor.
Captured by the blue toy soldiers, the children are persuaded to feed them their Christmas treats in a novel and unusual way. “I suppose you know how tin soldiers are fed?” Edith Nesbit / the narrator asks:
The children are rescued by the traditional red coated heroes (Nesbit’s story was written in 1901 at the height of Empire after all) which Shirley Tourret depicts in almost 18th Century uniform and head gear. They are nicely portrayed amongst a battlement of books.
All very H.G. Wells and Little Wars …
The story cleverly ends with the two children reappearing in their real nursery / library proper sized again but suffering from the fever of oncoming measles. So was it all a feverish dream or was it?
The book is an interesting mix of period uniforms, and absurd ideas for gaming scenarios such as the blue Napoleonic troops abseiling in full dress and shako.
The figures are stiffly posed in a toyness fashion when glimpsed as toys in some pictures but within the world of the bookish “Town in The Library” of the title and the children’s feverish imaginations the Toy Soldiers appear more animated, alive and human. This is cleverly distinguished in Shirley Tourret’s illustrations.
A sad postscript
The things you learn whilst exploring the world of toy soldiers.
As well as finding out about illustrators, you discover interesting things about the authors too.
Exploring Edith Nesbit’s life on Wikipedia, I found that Fabian and Rosamund the two children in the book are named after her own complicated family of birth and adopted children including a son Fabian, who died aged 15 in 1900, the year before this story was published in 1901. She also was one of the nine founders of the socialist Fabian Society in 1884 with her husband Hubert Bland, and her son Fabian was named after the society.
Nesbit’s children were Paul Bland (1880–1940), to whom The Railway Children was dedicated; Iris Bland (1881-1950s); Fabian Bland (1885–1900); Rosamund Bland (1886–1950), to whom The Book of Dragons was dedicated; and John Bland (1898–1971) to whom The House of Arden was dedicated.
Her son Fabian died aged 15 after a tonsil operation; Nesbit dedicated a number of books to him: Five Children and It and its sequels, as well as The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Nesbit’s adopted daughter Rosamund collaborated with her on the book Cat Tales. (Wikipedia source: E.Nesbit)