E Nesbit: JK Rowling identifies with her more than any other writer
Many of us are deeply indebted to the Fabian and inspirational writer of junior fiction
Edith Nesbit: “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.” Photograph: Culture Club/Getty
The house I grew up in was not bookish so I’ve made amends by filling my home with novels, biographies, travel books, works of popular science; every conceivable genre. When I was a child it worried me that I might not manage to read every book in the world. Now it seems entirely possible that I won’t even get to read every book in my house. A recent brush with cancer brought this fear into sharp focus but I’m on the mend now. My book stacks seem less daunting, although they never grow shorter since I add to them every week.
My definition of wealth is having the wherewithal to buy any book that takes your fancy, including hardbacks. All I remember from my childhood home are random editions of those Readers Digest condensed books, anthologies of abridged bestsellers of the day. Decades later, I still recall the searing heat and harshness of the Australian outback as Neville Shute described it in A Town Like Alice. Abridgement made the shark attacks more frequent in Peter Benchley’s enthralling Jaws. I can trace my passion for crime fiction back to a bookcase stuffed with battered Agatha Christie novels that stood in a corner of my grandmother’s sitting room. I worked my way through them over the course of a rainy summer.
When I was about nine years old, my mother changed my life by steering me in the direction of our local library in the Dublin suburb of Terenure. Her small act of kindness was transformative. I remember swapping my junior library card for an adult one, green for blue, or perhaps it was the other way around, and starting shyly on the shelves just inside the door. With no one to guide me, thank goodness, early choices included Asimov and Austen. The books that stayed with me, I left behind in the junior library. My favourites, borrowed so frequently that they may as well have been mine, were gripping tales of magic and adventure written by a person called E Nesbit. I’m not sure when I discovered that E stood for Edith.
The best of these was a time-travelling thriller with the intriguing title The Story of the Amulet. Lost between its covers, I accompanied Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother, Hilary, known fondly as the Lamb, back in time to ancient Egypt. In historical Mesopotamia, we stood awestruck before the gates to Babylon as they shone like gold in the rising sun. We marvelled at the beauty of the Temple of Poseidon in the lost city of Atlantis. In their company, I encountered Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of occupied Gaul gazing across towards England. I too longed to live in Nesbit’s verdant, utopian London of the future, where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone wears comfortable clothing.
‘Psychology of childhood’
At the height of her popularity, literary magazine John O’London’s Weekly declared, “Take a book by E Nesbit into a family of young boys and girls and they will fall upon it like wolves.” A profile from the September 1905 issue of the Strand Magazine, where her stories were serialised, praised her “almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood”. The key to Nesbit’s appeal, the enduring devotion she engenders in children, is her ability to write just like one of us. The adventures she describes, though clearly impossible, feel utterly authentic. Surely, they could happen to you or me if we were fortunate enough to dig up a grumpy Psammead or stumble upon a broken amulet in an old junk shop.
In Wings and the Child, Nesbit’s manual for a successful childhood, she explained how she achieved this: “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.” Of the children in her Psammead trilogy – Five Children and It, The Phoenix and The Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet – “second cousins once removed” to the Bastable children from her earlier books, she wrote: “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 came of age in the Victorian era but she had no interest in leaving us more of the moralising tales she was exposed to as a child. In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch, English librarian and influential commentator on children’s books, explained how she “threw away their [the Victorians] 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”. Nesbit wove her whimsy into the everyday lives of children in such a convincing fashion that we, her devoted readers, will not easily let it go. She offered us the potential for magic at a time in our lives when the boundary between reality and imagination is at its most porous.
Nesbit’s own early experiences fueled a vivid imagination capable of conjuring up phantoms at every turn. A nervous, solitary child, she experienced loss and displacement from the age of four. Circumstances conspired to deny her a formal education, but she read voraciously and indiscriminately during her peripatetic early years. As a teenager, she wrote poems, which her mother sent to the editor of Sunday Magazine. He published several. “When I got the proof I ran round the garden shouting ‘Hooray!’ at the top of my voice, to the scandal of the village and the vexation of my family,” Nesbit recalled.
In Secret Gardens, Humphrey Carpenter described the adult Nesbit as “an energetic hack, keen to try anything to support her wayward husband and her odd household”. Her abiding passion was for poetry with a socialist theme but she rarely had time to indulge this since she was obliged to write for money, a constraint that generations of children have reason to be grateful for. It fell to her to support her charismatic but unreliable husband, Hubert Bland, and their three children. The first of these, Paul, arrived two months after his parents were married, suggesting reluctance on one side at least. Nesbit added to her household by adopting the two children Bland fathered with her close friend Alice Hoatson, and taking Hoatson in as well.
After Bland’s business failed and he fell victim to smallpox, Nesbit would put her small children to bed then stay up late, composing verses to accompany the greeting cards she painted for Raphael Tuck & Sons. Later, when she was commissioned to write stories for the Strand Magazine, she would work feverishly to meet looming deadlines, filling page after page of the glossy paper she favoured before flinging each one to the floor until her desk became an island in a sea of unedited work. At the end of each session, she would gather these pages together to revise them. Literary success came relatively late. The first of her Bastable books, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, inspired by her childhood adventures with her brothers, Alfred and Harry, was published in 1899 when Nesbit was in her early 40s.
Nesbit’s experience of poverty engendered a strong sense of social justice, which she channeled into her stories. During a time of astonishing political upheaval, she was instrumental in introducing socialist thinking into British intellectual life. A founder member of the Fabian Society, she counted fellow members George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells among her closest friends. One practical manifestation of her campaign for the alleviation of poverty in London was the annual party she hosted for impoverished children living just beyond her doorstep in Deptford. She was an early environmentalist and some of her finest writing celebrates the natural beauty of the English countryside. She detested creeping urbanisation, “the ugly little streets crawled further and further out of the town eating up the green country like greedy yellow caterpillars”.
Edith Nesbit is one of the world’s most important writers. She has entertained and inspired generations of us. She put the best of herself into her books for children. Some of her closest friendships were with her young fans and she often wrote them into her stories. A strikingly attractive woman with a keen sense of fun, she attracted a circle of admirers who left fascinating accounts of her in their letters and memoirs. As Marcus Crouch points out, “no writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman”. CS Lewis borrowed his wardrobe from one of her stories. JK Rowling identifies with her more than any other writer.
Jacqueline Wilson brought the first installment of her Psammead series up to date with Four Children and It. I was astonished to discover that just two full biographies had been devoted to E Nesbit, both long out of print. It has been my great pleasure to write a third, The Life and Loves of E Nesbit, published by Duckworth this month.