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Classic books are considered with a fresh eye. Returning to the authors' original manuscripts and letters, expert writers and performers bring their personal insights to these great works.

Station: BBC Four (GB)
Rating: 0/10 from 0 users
Status: Running
Start: 2016-07-04

The Secret Life of Children's Books Air Dates

S01E01 - Five Children and It Air Date: 04 July 2016 19:30 -

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Edith Nesbit is probably best known these days for The Railway Children, but her earlier book Five Children and It was even more influential, its blend of magic and the everyday paving the way for the Narnia stories and Harry Potter. A classic fantasy story about a group of siblings who discover a creature that can grant wishes, Nesbit's warm, witty children's fable was shaped by her own troubled family life. In this film, actress and Nesbit fan Samantha Bond discovers how a rootless childhood and terrible personal tragedy influenced Five Children and It, delving into the origins and legacy of a book that can be arguably said to have kick-started modern children's fiction.

S01E02 - The Water-Babies Air Date: 11 July 2016 19:30 -

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Written in 1862 by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies tells the story of a young chimney sweep called Tom who finds redemption amongst the pulsing life of the open ocean when he is transformed into an aquatic creature.

Church of England vicar and former pop star Rev. Richard Coles dives beneath the surface of this children's classic to reveal the revolutionary science behind the story, the influence it had on social reform in Victorian England, and how the author's racist viewpoints impacted its reputation.

Charles Kingsley was a man of endless contradictions, as changeable as the tide. He was a passionate outdoorsman who had to lock himself away during bouts of depression; an inspirational public speaker who suffered from a lifelong stammer; a social reformer who distrusted democracy; a sensitive scholar with the instincts of a street-fighter. And his most famous book - The Water-Babies - is every bit as eccentric and utterly compelling as he was.

Richard finds out how the book was born out of a sense of outrage at the suffering of young sweeps, and how its popular success led to a change in the law. He grapples with the dark side of The Water-Babies, exploring how the book's "muscular Christianity" was tainted by racial prejudice. And he discovers how at the same time Kingsley's classic contained a sense of feminine spirituality seemingly at odds with whiskery Victorian stereotypes.

And perhaps, most surprisingly, given Kingsley's religious background, we also discover how the book's satire supports the radical evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, whose Origin Of Species Kingsley had been one of the first to praise.

In the film, Richard meets author and geneticist Prof Steve Jones, to discuss the close friendship between Charles Kingsley and Charles Darwin. He also talks to fellow Church of England priest, Rev Marie-Elsa Bragg, about the books mystical, mysterious side, and visits the Hampshire rectory where Kingsley wrote the first chapter of the work in half an hour under the insistence of his young son.

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