The Life and Loves of E Nesbit: Insightful and lively
Eleanor Fitzsimons’s biography portrays the children’s writer as a contradictory figure
E Nesbit. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty
When Noël Coward was a small boy, he was so desperate to read one of E Nesbit’s books that he stole a necklace from a friend of his mother, sold it, and used the proceeds to buy a copy. In the early 1920s Coward bought a cottage near the Kent coast and was thrilled to discover that his childhood heroine was one of his new neighbours. The promising young playwright and the now frail older woman became friendly, and he told her she had inadvertently driven him to crime in his youth. “I regret to say,” wrote Coward in his 1934 memoir, Present Indicative, “that she was delighted”.
If, like Coward – and like me – you grew up on the books of E Nesbit, this is just how you would hope the creator of the Bastables and the Psammead would react to such a confession. At the dawn of the 20th century, Nesbit essentially created modern children’s fiction, writing sophisticated, hilarious, wildly imaginative stories full of child characters who acted, spoke, argued and thought like real children. Although her poetry, of which she was very proud, now seems almost painfully of its time, her children’s stories have lost little of their vitality and freshness; as Noel Streatfeild wrote, one would recognise the Bastables today if one saw them on the bus.