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This was originally two books entitled, The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks. The first book is about the three Wilson children, Carey (about 10) and Charles (about 9) and their 6-year-old baby brother Paul, who looks like an angel but is really a mischievous little devil. The three of them are being raised, apparently, by a single mother who works full-time, and during their summer holidays she doesn’t have time to look after them at home, so she sends them to an old aunt’s house in Bedfordshire (same region as in her Borrowers novels).
There they soon discover that their next door neighbor, a proper British lady who teaches piano lessons and works for the Red Cross, is also a real-live, broomstick-riding witch. Learning to be one, anyway. In order to make sure they keep her secret, Miss Price enchants one of Paul’s bedknobs so that, if they twist it one way, the bed will fly them anywhere in the world they wish (provided there is room for the bed to land) and, if they twist it the other way, it will take them to any period in English history (beginning with the Norman conquest of 1066). The spell can only be broken if the children renege on their promise to keep Miss Price’s secret.
What you would expect is more like Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It, where the children go on one ill-starred but hilarious adventure after another, and finally realize that they’re better off staying away from magic. What you get is something else. They don’t have quite as many adventures, and they’re much more serious ones (well, at least one of them is). In The Magic Bedknob they only go on two adventures with the magic bedknob, which is a surprise because there are three children to begin with, so only two of them actually get a wish (though actually, Paul is the only one the spell works for).
First baby Paul wishes to go to where his mother lives, so he can see her. The bed ends up in the middle of a street outside the house, which is locked, and their mother isn’t there. There they are at dusk in a London street in a brass bed and pajamas, while the fog rolls in and passersby wonder at the scene. Things go from bad to worse when a policeman barks his shin on the bed in the fog, and takes the children to jail until he can get hold of their mother. Fortunately the children manage to escape on the bed again, and the next time they convince Miss Price to come with them.
She brings along her broomstick just in case, and they go to a Pacific island that is supposedly uninhabited and enjoy an idyllic day. But at evening they find out that the incoming tide has cut them off from the bed, and then they discover that the island is inhabited after all, with cannibals who intend to cook and eat them, and a witch-doctor who engages Miss Price in a magical showdown.
The result of this hair-raising incident is, long story short, the Aunt’s maid walks in on three filthy, sunburned children in tattered pajamas and a bed saturated in sea water that is running all over the floor. The maid quits, the Aunt sends the children home…but Paul keeps the bedknob, just in case.
The second book, Bonfires and Broomsticks, begins two years later when the same three Wilson children are about to be sent away for another summer holiday, when they discover an ad in the London Times indicating that Miss Price wants to board a couple of children for the holidays. They prevail on their mother and end up in Bedfordshire once again, where (their aunt having died and her estate having been auctioned off) Paul’s old brass bed, minus one bedknob, is now in Miss Price’s bedroom.
Of course, Miss Price has sworn off magic by now. But the children once again prevail on her to let them have one more wish, since they never got to go back in time. They take their best shot at getting back to the time of Queen Elizabeth (Shakespeare, and so on), but instead they turn up in 1666, the reign of Charles II, a week before the Fire of London. They turn up, in fact, in London near where the fire started, and this confuses them because they expected to land in Bedfordshire where they started.
Wandering around lost in 1666 London, they encounter a professional necromancer named Emilius Jones (who is actually a very nervous humbug–nervous because he could be burnt at the stake if any of his clients, suspecting that he was a humbug, decided to turn him in for doing sorcery). At first Mr. Jones is terrified by their strange appearance, but eventually they coax him back to the 20th century with them (the story, I believe, takes place in the 1940s). Whereupon Miss Price and Mr. Jones take a fancy to each other, and after returning him to his own time, Miss Price decides to go back and check up on him.
It turns out that he is about to be burnt at the stake for witchcraft during the hysteria following the Fire of London. So the conclusion of the adventure is fairly gripping, with a dash of romance and, finally, a bit of melancholy as the opportunity to fly magical adventures on the bed is permanently taken away. Plus there’s a lot of historical color, such as the scene of a 17th-century London riot and a comparison of standards of hygiene at different points in English history.
I am even more confused now than I was, before I read this book, as to whether the movie I remember is Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’m sure I’ve seen both of them. I know that Dick van Dyke singing “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and Julie Andrews flying with the aid of an umbrella are from Mary Poppins, and that Angela Lansbury played Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But I also have a recollection of a rugby game played by cartoon animals and I’m pretty sure it was in one movie or the other, yet I can’t for the life of my remember which. It certainly wouldn’t be like anything in the book Bedknob and Broomstick, but I have a feeling that movie was wildly different from the book.
I guess both “books” in Bedknob and Broomstick were very popular in their day, but together they make a single book that, as such, is really better than either of them separately. A whole-hearted recommendation!