When I was a child, my favourite author by far was E. Nesbit. I have absolutely no memory of how she came to my attention first, or when I realized she was a woman called Edith, but I know for certain that I discovered her books in my local library. Although Nesbit wrote her best-loved stories during the early years of the twentieth century, and set them in Victorian England, they seemed utterly accessible to this shy, bookish child from Dublin who picked them up eight decades later. The book I loved best was her time-travelling tale of adventure, The Story of the Amulet. I borrowed it so frequently that it may as well have been mine and I only bought a copy of my own in recent years.
As was the case for many girls of the era, Nesbit, a Victorian child, was inadequately educated, but she was an insatiable and indiscriminate reader. Her favourite books in childhood were by “Mrs. Ewing,” the magnificently named Juliana Horatia Ewing, whose moralising tales drew heavily on her strong Anglican faith. Yet Nesbit’s own stories are far more subversive than those written by Ewing and other Victorian writers who were popular when she was a child. In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch, an influential commentator on children’s literature, explains how Nesbit “threw away their [Victorian writers for children] strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children’s novel”.
In 1905, one reviewer praised what he recognised as Nesbit’s “almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood”. Although her fictional children seem utterly authentic, she had a way of weaving impossible magic into their everyday lives. In Wings and the Child, a work of non-fiction published in 1913, when Nesbit was at the height of her popularity, she explained, “only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children”. Describing the characters in her books, she insisted: “The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things”.
Nesbit’s own childhood was unsettled and deeply unconventional. The death of her father, John Collis Nesbit, an eminent agricultural scientist and principal of an agricultural college in London, when his youngest daughter was just four years old, put an end to the contentment of her early years. She spent the remainder of her childhood and her early adolescence trailing around continental Europe after her mother and older sisters, missing out on an education and oscillating between boredom and terror at the unfamiliarity of it all. An exceptionally nervous child, she possessed a vivid imagination that tortured her but fuelled the very best of her writing. To her, the phantoms she imagined seemed all too real. She had no trouble conjuring up their fictional counterparts. Her Ugly Wuglies in The Enchanted Castle, animated assortments of empty clothes with terrifying paper faces, which she based on dummies she made during one of her frequent entertainments, are as chilling as anything Edgar Alan Poe ever dreamt up.
Today, Nesbit is celebrated almost exclusively as a children’s author, but her abiding passion was for poetry with a socialist theme. She rarely had time to indulge this. An ill-judged marriage to Hubert Bland, a pompous philanderer and unreliable provider, obliged her to write for money rather than personal satisfaction. For decades, she supported her husband, their three children and two more he had with her friend Alice Hoatson, who also lived in. She made ends meet, barely, by writing saccharine verse to accompany greeting cards she painted to order, getting a few pence for each one she completed.
In time, she moved on to writing serialised stories for children, and she resented the tight deadlines she was required to meet. Every day, she would work feverishly, filling page after page, often so late with her copy that she had to ask her illustrators to go ahead without her. She promised she would bend her stories to fit their images. Perhaps that’s why Gerald Spencer Pryse, who illustrated The Magic City when it was serialised in The Strand Magazine, drew the dogs in it as Dalmatians even though Nesbit clearly describes them as “dachshunds, very long and low”. H.R. Miller did the same in the book version. When her popularity waned during the war years, 1914-1918, she kept things going by selling fresh vegetables and flowers that she grew in her garden in Well Hall, on the outskirts of London.
The influence Nesbit continues to have on some of our favourite writers cannot be overstated. Many of them discovered her when they were children. As Marcus Crouch asserts, “no writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman”. One early devotee was C.S. Lewis, who modelled his wardrobe portal on a magical wardrobe Nesbit included in her story ‘The Aunt and Amabel’. The extraordinarily successful J.K. Rowling, who also locates her realistic children in magical landscapes, insists that she identifies with Nesbit more than any other writer. Joan Aitkin, author of so many children’s favourites including The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, once declared that Nesbit’s “strongest point is her marvellous capacity for combining magical and fantastic ingredients with comic realistic situations”.
When I was researching my first biography, Wilde’s Women, Nesbit popped up as a socialist poet who Wilde encouraged and published in The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited. I was astonished to encounter her in this new guise. Just two full biographies have been devoted to her and both are long out of print. It was clear to me that she deserved a third. It has been my great pleasure to write The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, published this month by Duckworth in Ireland and the UK, and by Abrams Books in the US. Nesbit has entertained and inspired generations of children with her brilliant books. Her own life, which was filled with liaisons and intrigues, progressive politics, and tenacity in the face of grinding penury, is just as compelling as any of the plots she dreamt up. Early reaction has been positive and I’m hopeful that fellow devotees will enjoy discovering more about this remarkable woman.
(c) Eleanor Fitzsimons
About The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit:
Edith Nesbit is considered the inventor of the children’s adventure story and her brilliant children’s books influenced bestselling authors including C.S. Lewis, P. L. Travers, J.K. Rowling, and Jacqueline Wilson, to name but a few. But who was the person behind the best loved classics The Railway Children and Five Children and It? Her once-happy childhood was eclipsed by the chronic illness and early death of her sister. In adulthood, she found herself at the centre of a love triangle between her husband and her close friend. She raised their children as her own.
Yet despite these troubling circumstances Nesbit was playful, contradictory and creative. She hosted legendary parties at her idiosyncratic Well Hall home and was described by George Bernard Shaw – one of several lovers – as ‘audaciously unconventional’. She was also an outspoken Marxist and founding member of the Fabian Society. Through Nesbit’s letters and deep archival research, Eleanor Fitzsimons reveals her as a prolific activist and writer on socialism. Nesbit railed against inequity, social injustice and state-sponsored oppression and incorporated her avant-garde ideas into her writing, influencing a generation of children – an aspect of her legacy examined here for the first time.
Eleanor Fitzsimons, acclaimed biographer and prize winning author of Wilde’s Women, has written the most authoritative biography in more than three decades. Here, she brings to light the extraordinary life story of an icon, creating a portrait of a woman in whom pragmatism and idealism worked side-by-side to produce a singular mind and literary talent.
Order your copy online here.