Looking on the internet for a plot summary to ease my confusion, I found instead this neat survey of the works of E. Nesbit written by Gore Vidal for the New York Review of Books in 1964. He frames his account by remarking on Nesbit's obscurity in the United States (she seems to be more well-known now, perhaps because of film adaptations of The Railway Children?). He concludes with a spirited defense of imaginative, especially magic, books for children:
"E. Nesbit’s failure in the United States is not entirely mysterious. We have always preferred how-to-do to let’s-imagine-that. In the last fifty years, considering our power and wealth, we have contributed relatively little in the way of new ideas of any sort. From radar to rocketry, we have had to rely on other societies for theory and invention. Our great contribution has been, characteristically, the assembly line.
I do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, wouldn’t it be interesting if…? he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it will be like to own a car and make money. As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American society, and though a reading of E. Nesbit is hardly going to change the pattern of a nation, there is some evidence that the child who reads her will never be quite the same again, and that is probably a good thing."Vidal sees Nesbit's books -- and magical narratives more generally -- as radically transformative, at least for the individual child reader, if not for the nation as a whole. In contrast, another essay* I found by the children's literature scholar Linda Hall critiques the inchoate nostalgia of The House of Arden, pointing out that despite Nesbit's Fabianism, in the text's elegy for "the glory of the old Arden name" "We certainly look in vain for any Marxist endorsement of the necessity of feudalism's collapse in the face of of those economic changes that will lead eventually to the socialism that Nesbit espoused." I think (inasmuch as I could follow the plot of The House of Arden) that Hall is probably right about the incoherence of the novel's politics. Yet the fact that Nesbit doesn't hew didactically to a socialist line regarding the feudal past seems to demonstrate Vidal's point about the pleasures of the imagination in magical narratives: Nesbit creates "a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be."
I still don't fully get what happens in The House of Arden but I like Vidal's belief that regardless of ideological inconsistencies, an "intelligent child" reading magical narratives "begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own." Let's hope it really works this way!
* Linda Hall, "Aristocratic Houses and Radical Politics: Historical Fiction and the Time-Slip Story in E. Nesbit's The House of Arden." Children's Literature in Education (CLE) 1998 Mar; 29 (1): 51-58.