One of my favourite characters in children’s literature is Roberta (Bobby) from The Railway Children. The Railway Children, originally serialised in 1905 and published in book form in 1906, is a fascinating novel. And God, but Bobby is just a perfect perfect creation.
She’s introduced as Roberta which is then swiftly changed into the derivative form of Bobby. In my edition of 267 pages, she is known as Roberta for 29 pages and then referred to as Bobbie for the rest save for a brief interlude of three pages upon her birthday where both names are used interchangeably.
I find Bobby so massively appealing because of how the character is represented. She is growing up and she is unsure as to who / what she is meant to be. One way this is expressed in the novel, is through Bobbie’s wish to be a boy. A notable moment for this is the moment where she’s stuck in the tunnel with Jim, the injured ‘hound’. Bobbie, left in the darkness, addresses herself thusly: “‘Silly little girl!’ said Roberta to Bobbie and felt better (218). It’s fascinating the way she splits herself into two personas, the more feminine Roberta and the masculine Bobbie. Note here how the ‘feminine’ side of her addresses the ‘masculine’ side of her with a deliberately scornful comment.
There is another key moment for me with Bobbie and it is when she sees the Russian cry. Bobbie acts firstly in a in a masculine manner by offering him her handkerchief – a direct parallel to Peter’s actions to Phyllis earlier in the text. The man gives the woman their handkerchief. However this gesture is also reminiscent of a mother giving her child her handkerchief. Therefore she acts in both a masculine manner and also a feminine manner – at the same time. Bobbie is a striking mixture of gendered characteristics and also old/young characteristics. She does not comment on the man crying nor bring this to public attention (showing a particularly adult form of social awareness and empathy). Instead she blocks him from public view and allows him time to recover. However when she is explaining the situation to the Doctor who smiles, she says, “’please don’t. You wouldn’t if you’d seen him. I never saw a man cry before. You don’t know what it’s like.’” (95) It’s an incredibly poignant episode and one where Bobbie shifts from adult to child, from girl to boy, from mother to daughter, all at once.
And I think that’s what I love about Bobbie. She’s such a complicated character and one of the few representations of girls growing up that struck me as incredibly astute.
The Railway Children is deceptively deep. I read it first when I was very young and when I reread it recently I was struck at how stunningly sharp it is. It is perceptive and it is anarchic in a very subtle way. It is, to be frank, brilliant and has an ending that leaves me weeping each and every time.
The Railway Children is available for free on Project Gutenberg.