Two years after the events in The Magic Bedknob, Carey and Charles and Paul return to the little village of Much Fresham for the summer, only to discover that Miss Price really has given up magic. Her workshop has been given over to her wholesome new hobby of canning fruits and vegetables. Even the bed which used to belong to their now-deceased aunt has been sold. And the children had brought the bedknob with them and everything.
But then they discover that Miss Price herself bought that bed at the estate sale. And then they catch her using the bedknob to take the bed for a test-drive. Finally she relents and allows the children one adventure, because they have never yet tried the feature of going into the past.
They end up in the time of Charles II (half a century after the death of Shakespeare, shortly after the end of the Cromwells’ Commonwealth), and encounter a fraud of a necromancer named Emelius who is deeply impressed that they have real magic. Adventures ensue, involving the Great Fire of London, Emelius ending up in 20th century England, Emelius nearly getting burned at the stake back in 17th century England, and finally Emelius and Miss Price falling in love and settling in the past.
Though still fairly derivative (this book most strongly resembles a few chapters in The Ship that Flew, 1939, as well as Nesbit’s works), Bonfires is a more engaging, original book than Bedknob. This is largely because of the characters — they have personality quirks and real human concerns, and we care about what is going to happen to them next. It’s fun to read about the hunt for the half-forgotten bedknob in the tool-drawer and the box of old door handles, and about Miss Price piling the bed for its final journey with things she can’t live without, like her hot water bottle, egg beater, and best tea cloth. And about how it falls to Charles as the oldest boy to explain to Emelius how to take a bath and why he really has to do it.
I do have sympathy for the publishers — the second book is worth keeping in print, the first is not. But the second book makes no sense without the first. The compromise is the combined volume Bed-Knob and Broomstick, which many children already familiar with the genre will probably quit out of boredom before they get to the good parts.