Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dear Little Dogs in the Magic City

I know that E. Nesbit week is technically over, but I need to mention at least one more book before I move on to other books that are not about hilarious Edwardian children. It's The Magic City, a children's novel that E. Nesbit wrote in 1910.

 (Cover from the first edition of The Magic City.)

There are two awesome things about The Magic City. One is that it will make you want to build a miniature city out of stuff you have in your house. The other is that two of the characters are adorable dachshunds.

 (Illustration from the 1910 edition of the magic city, by H.R. Millar.)

The Magic City is about two children who build a city out of blocks, toys, and knick-knacks. When the moonlight shines on the city, it comes to life. Edith Nesbit wrote this book after building some of these cities herself. In her non-fiction book on children's education, Wings and the Child, or, The Building of Magic Cities, she says that city-building is the best game because it's one of the few activities that both children and adults love. "Grown-ups suffer a great deal in playing with children: it is not the least charm of a magic city that a grown-up can play it and suffer nothing worse than the fatigue incidental to the bricklayer's calling," she says. "Try the experiment the next time you are spending a wet week-end in a country house where there are children."

 (Edith Nesbit with the magic city that she built, from Wings and the Child.)

After The Magic City was published, so many people wrote to Edith asking how to build magic cities that she decided to build one and exhibit it at the 1912 Children's Welfare Exhibition. And it was pretty spectacular.

 (Wings and the Child has a lot of great pictures like this of Edith's magic city, as well as detailed instructions for building your own.)

I'm not surprised at all by the popularity of magic cities. After I read the book for the first time, I built one. And I stayed up all night to see if it would come to life in the moonlight (this was when I was eight, not, you know, recently). My little brother built one too. And now that I've reread The Magic City, I want to build another one, even though I don't have the gorgeous building materials that the children in the book find in their country estate. Philip, the main builder of the city, goes around the house and filches a bronze Egyptian god, silver candlesticks, rare books bound in white vellum and green morocco, brass fingerbowls, mother-of-pearl card counters, a needle case of filigree silver -- basically all incredibly fancy stuff that I will never own. 

 (I still don't really know what card counters are -- like poker chips, I think? -- but here are some beautiful mother-of-pearl ones from the 18th century. You can see that they would make excellent pavements for a magic city.)

Philip finds himself inside this fantastic city along with another child, Lucy. They meet lots of people, most of whom were originally toys, and they have all kinds of adventures. About halfway through the book -- and this is where the story really takes off -- the dachshunds are introduced. They come from a Noah's Ark set, and they are my favorite characters in the book.

 (H.R. Millar, the illustrator of the 1910 edition of the book, inexplicably drew the dachshunds as dalmatians. So instead, here is a 1910 postcard with a dachshund on it.)

 (And another 1910 card with two dachshunds.)

 (Also there is some great dachshund art from around this time period by Pierre Bonnard.)

The dachshunds in The Magic City are named Max and Brenda. They can talk. They are loyal, but afraid of almost everything, and they are very excited about food. They aren't major characters, but they are so funny. I love the way they keep referring to themselves as "dear little dogs."

"'I wonder,' Brenda said to Max in an undertone, 'I wonder whether it wouldn't be best for dear little dogs to lose themselves? We could turn up later, and be so very glad to be found.'
'My dear,' said Max heavily, 'I could give seven noble reasons for being faithful to our master. But I will only give you one. There is nothing to eat in the desert, and nothing to drink.'"

At one point the dachshunds save the children's lives by licking all the paint off the legs of some Noah's Ark lions, which destroys them. (I think that this was a thing children did -- basically the 1910 equivalent of eating Play-Doh. Except probably more toxic.)

(Seriously, H.R. Millar, dalmatians? What??)

I love Max and Brenda, and I love The Magic City. The only problem with the book is that it contains several poems, and, as you know, I am not a fan of E. Nesbit's poetry, except for the intentionally bad poetry that she has her child characters compose. (But if you read the joke poetry and then her real poetry, it's kind of hard to tell which is which.) In spite of that, The Magic City is wonderful. It made me want to live in a country house with an amazing library, and also to get a couple of dachshunds to live there with me. And that is a beautiful dream.


  1. Dharma the Dachshund has requested this book for her bedtime reading. Since she is such a dear little dog, I am sure she will get her wish. Maybe she could have a doxie-sized magic city, too?

  2. Hi,
    How can I send you a message?

    Mabel Prowse

    1. Hi Mabel! You can email me at elrichey92 at yahoo dot com.

  3. Hi! I have already sent you an email. Thank you!!! Mabel Prowse