Saturday, August 19, 2017

Birthday: “There is nothing more luxurious than eating while you read—unless it be reading while you eat. Amabel did both: they are not the same thing, as you will see if you think the matter over.”


Edith Nesbit (1858-1924)
Poet, Author, Activist

“Oh, if I could choose,” said Mabel, “of course I’d marry a brigand, and live in his mountain fastness, and be kind to his captives and help them to escape and-“

“You’ll be a real treasure to your husband,” said Gerald.”

Born to a schoolmaster father and a mother prone to illness, Nesbit lived in 25 places in England and the Continent by the age of sixteen. The family was on an endless search for the right climate for a tubercular sister of Nesbit’s. She was then packed off to a series of boarding school, and, perhaps most horrifically, met a man:

She was seven months pregnant when, in April 1880, she married Hubert Bland, a handsome, passionate man who shared her love of poetry and collaborated with her on many writing projects. It was an unorthodox and tumultuous marriage. Bland lived with his mother part of the week and also fathered a child by his mother's companion, Maggie. To further complicate matters, Nesbit's friend Alice Hoatson came to live with the family when she, too, became pregnant with Bland's child. Hoatson, in fact, had two children by Bland, whom Nesbit adopted and raised with her own brood of four children. While Nesbit wrote, Hoatson served as secretary and managed the household.

In a 1964 appreciation of her work, Gore Vidal noted that, “simply to support her five children, Nesbit began to write books about children. In a recent biography, Magic and the Magician, Noel Streatfeild remarks that E. Nesbit did not particularly like children, which may explain why the ones that she created in her books are so entirely human. They are intelligent, vain, aggressive, humorous, witty, cruel, compassionate…in fact, they are like adults, except for one difference. In a well-ordered and stable society (England in the time of the fat Edward), children are as clearly defined a minority group as Jews or Negroes in other times and places. Physically small and weak, economically dependent upon others, they cannot control their environment. As a result, they are forced to develop a sense of communality which though it does not necessarily make them any nicer to one another at least makes it possible for them to see each other with perfect clarity, and it is part of Nesbit’s genius that she sees them as clearly and unsentimentally as they see themselves, making for that sense of life without which there is no literature at any level.”

In her children’s verse she was noted for turning away from the cosseted view of children in the work of Lewis Carroll and other mid-Victorians, toward a more realistic view of life as kids saw it: Dickens, without the sentimentality, Vidal called it.

In January 1884, Nesbit became a founding member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization that advocated social change through democratic reforms and, as the society itself stated, "the emancipation of land and industrial capital from individual class ownership." Nesbit was intrigued by the Fabians and befriended many of its members, including George Bernard Shaw (with whom she had an affair) and H.G. Wells. She and Bland co-edited its journal, Today, for a time, and the hapless Alice Hoatson served as an assistant secretary to the Society.

Vidal notes, “As a woman, E. Nesbit was not to everyone’s taste. H. G. Wells described her and Hubert Bland as ‘fundamentally intricate,’ adding that whenever the Blands attended meetings of the Fabian Society ‘anonymous letters flittered about like bats at twilight’ (the Nesbit mood if not style is contagious).”

She bobbed her hair; lectured on socialism at the London School of Economics; smoked; and wore loose, decidedly non-corseted clothing, while- ever the Victorian- accepting that women were inferior to men. At forty she turned her hand to children’s novels; The Railway Children series became a hit. Her stories combined real-life adventure with fantastic elements like the Psammead, a grumpy, slightly inept fairy creature- a Victorian version of Bewitched’s Aunt Clara- on whom the intrepid kids endlessly hit on for interventions.

When Nesbit and Bland became more prosperous in the early 1900s (due largely to her growing success as a writer), they moved to ever finer homes with greater numbers of servants. They finally settled in Well Hall, an imposing mansion with 30 rooms and a moat in the Kent countryside. H.G. Wells's son, Anthony West, later wrote in his biography of his father, Aspects of a Life: "The Blands lived there expansively and generously, and never seemed to turn a friend away. The money that flowed in from her children's books was spent as fast as it came in, and sometimes faster than that, but the continuous house party went on as if it could go on forever."

Bland died in 1914, and Nesbit married a marine engineer with whom she enjoyed a happy last decade even as the Great War swept away the public taste for her work and her fortunes declined. Nesbit’s work influenced generations of writers, from P.D. Travers- creator of Mary Poppins- to C.S.Lewis, Michael Moorcock, and J.K. Rowling.

Nesbit’s output was prodigious; she published over sixty books on her own and scores more as collaborations with other writers. Many remain in print, though, sadly, little of the poetry she felt was her great calling. Radio plays of Nesbit’s ghost stories remain in rotation on BBC Radio 4 Extra to this day. Her stories have been made into a number of films. For her 155th birthday, Google UK celebrate her with a doodle.


Even in old age, Nesbit considered herself a child in an adult’s body, writing in her autobiography that if others like her were “ever recognized for what they are, it is when they happen to have the use of their pens—when they write for and about children.”

Related sites:

Henry Bemis Books has Nesbit’s 1890 anthology, Morning Songs and Sketches, in a fine edition at, at Facebook, and on Twitter.
Gore Vidal, “The Writings of E. Nesbit,” The New York Review of Books,” December 3, 1964.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.