World Literature

Edith Nesbit

 

BORN: 1858, Kennington, England

DIED: 1924, New Romney, England

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Grim Tales (1893)

The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune (1899)

The Wouldbegoods, Being the Further Adventures of the Treasure Seekers (1901)

Five Children and It (1902)

Oswald Bastable and Others (1905)

The Railway Children (1906)

 

 

Edith Nesbit. © Mary Evans Picture Library / The Image Works

 

Overview

Edith Nesbit, one of the most prolific writers of fantasy both for children and adults, is best known for two series of children’s stories, the Bastable books and her ‘‘magic’’ series, which were praised in her own time by Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells. Her stories distinguish themselves from many of the children’s fantasies produced in the nineteenth century in their focus on children as members of families, in contrast to the solitary adventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice or the various heroines and heroes of George MacDonald’s stories.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Longing for Stability. Nesbit was the youngest of the six children of John Collis Nesbit and Sarah Green Nesbit. Her father, who single-handedly administered an agricultural college—the first of its kind, founded by his father— died when Nesbit was three years old. Although she could not have had many memories of her father, the return of the absent father becomes a poignant moment in many of her fantasies. Her mother—indulgent toward all her children— took over her husband’s work for a time. Failing finances and the onset of tuberculosis in her oldest child, Mary, occasioned a series of moves, both in England and continental Europe. Consequently, Nesbit’s concern with stability of place and her nostalgia for the scenes of childhood play and relative calm were to remain intense throughout her life.

Nesbit published ‘‘My School-Days’’ in a series of articles for The Girl’s Own Paper during 1896-1897; many of these memories—adventures with her much-loved elder brothers, Henry and Alfred—were to be transformed into the escapades of her fictional children.

Nesbit was born and raised in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in urban factories instead of on farms, as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with the rules of proper behavior in society and a celebration of the innocence of childhood. This was reflected in the many popular periodicals of the time that focused on home and family life, such as the ones in which Nesbit’s work was published.

Early Writings and Marriage. In 1880, Nesbit married Hubert Bland. Shortly after their marriage Bland contracted smallpox, and during his illness his business partner abandoned him, taking their joint capital. Nesbit, with her first child as well as her husband to support, wrote verses and painted pictures for greeting cards. She began writing short stories as well. The first of these was accepted by Alice Hoatson, a manuscript reader for a minor publication, Sylvia’s Home Journal. Hoatson later gave up her job and lived with the Blands, giving Nesbit needed assistance with her writing and with household tasks.

Nesbit’s first published novel, The Prophet’s Mantle (1885), was written in collaboration with her husband under the pseudonym Fabian Bland; it was not well received. After Bland’s recovery, he began a successful journalistic career in which Nesbit also collaborated. However, it was Nesbit’s steady and increasing production of verse and short narratives that supported their growing family, which eventually included the two children of Bland and Alice Hoatson. This was not Bland’s first infidelity; he had maintained a mistress during his courtship of Nesbit and continued to have affairs throughout his life. Nesbit’s reaction to the revelation of the paternity of Hoatson’s children was complex, yet she acquiesced at Bland’s insistence that Hoatson remain with them. It is possible that Nesbit realized, although not consciously, that by taking upon herself the household management and a great deal of the child rearing, Hoatson was helping to facilitate Nesbit’s increasingly demanding career.

Nesbit and Bland were active members in the Byron and Shelley societies, and they became influential in the newly founded socialist group, the Fabian Society. These activities brought them into contact with many of the leading intellectuals of their time, notably H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

An Independent Voice. Nesbit was almost forty before she began to publish fiction outside of serial collections edited by others. Her own first ventures were two collections, Grim Tales and Something Wrong, both published in 1893; these books included stories from various serial publications. Both collections received cautiously positive reviews and are the earliest evidence of Nesbit’s work as a writer of the fantastic. Between 1894 and 1899, Nesbit published more verse, and continued to produce minor children’s books such as Pussy Tales and Doggy Tales (both 1895), which resembled Beatrix Potter’s more famous animal stories, although Nesbit’s characteristically astringent tone was already present in parent/child exchanges. These were almost the last such books she produced. She also wrote children’s versions of William Shakespeare’s plays and a series of historical narratives, Royal Children in English History (1897), although her own historical novels would not appear for several years.

Success with Children’s Books. The deep fund of memory tapped first by her Bastable stories, beginning with The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and continued in The Wouldbegoods (1901) led to success that was instantaneous and lasting. The highest royalties Nesbit ever received were the eleven hundred pounds she earned for The Wouldbegoods in its first year. It was not until she was commissioned by the editors of the Strand Magazine to write a series of stories, at thirty pounds per episode (as opposed to fifty pounds for a single book), that she began the series of fantastic tales upon which much of her fame as a writer would rest.

These seven stories, collected in The Book of Dragons (1899), are Nesbit’s playful variations on dragon stories, and they contain almost all of the elements, excepting only time travel, that were to become the hallmarks of Nesbit’s fantasies for children. On occasion, Nesbit favored a mathematical or logical solution to the narrative dilemma, and an early case in point is ‘‘The Island of the Nine Whirlpools,’’ in which the dragon can be defeated only when all of the whirlpools are stilled. The hero discovers the equation that determines the crucial moment and is able to claim that he has won the princess by ‘‘love and mathematics.’’

“The Crowded Years’’. Nesbit called her next collection of stories Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901). The title is appropriate since Nesbit exploits the fairy tale for structure while interpolating her own, distinctively improbable, content. These stories may have been, in part, a reaction against the conventionality of the tales she had contributed to other collections. Nesbit departs almost completely from the fairy tale into the fable in ‘‘Whereyouwanttogoto; or, the Bouncible Ball,’’ the story of two children who spoil a perfect vacation by bickering and, in a fit of pique, cut open the magical ball that has provided their adventures.

Nesbit’s biographer, Julia Briggs, calls the 1900s ‘‘the crowded years.’’ because not only was Nesbit completing the Bastable books and writing several minor stories, she was also embarking on a new children’s series, her ‘‘magic’’ series, beginning with Five Children and It. This book, again a collection of tales first published in serials, was the beginning of Nesbit’s most influential contribution to fantasy literature.

The course of Nesbit’s fiction from 1909 until 1923 recapitulates the sequence of her earlier career, as she tried her hand again at Gothic stories for adults.

Nesbit died in New Romney, Kent, England, on May 4, 1924, of heart disease and possibly lung cancer; she was buried in Jesson St. Mary’s, Kent. Her daughter Rosamund published a posthumous collection, The Five of Us—and Madeline in 1925.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Nesbit's famous contemporaries include:

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898): Author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a distinguished Oxford don.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946): The author of many science- fiction novels, including The Time Machine.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): A British author and Christian scholar; creator of the famous Narnia series for children.

P. L. Travers (1899-1996): An Australian author best known for her Mary Poppins series.

 

Works in Literary Context

Nesbit’s plots are often motivated by the desire not merely for amusement but for marvels. She introduces her fantastic creatures into the contemporary reality of her characters, whose adventures are inspired by their reading books about Atlantis or Babylon, besieged castles, or the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Finally, she adds the element of time travel; her fantastic voyages are inspired by works of F. Anstey, such as Tourmalin’s Time Cheques (1891) and The Brass Bottle (1900), as much as by H. G. Wells.

Fantasy and Fairy Tale Conventions. Oswald Bastable and Others shows contradictory tendencies in Nesbit’s fiction; certain tales seem to look beyond affirming the status quo, while elsewhere in the collection the reader encounters stories that are conventional, if not reactionary. For example, the story ‘‘The Ring and the Lamp’’ presents a twist in the usual genie story because the servants of the two magical objects reject their assigned roles—‘‘No one really likes being in service,’’— form a company, and employ the fathers of the two girls who originally summoned them.

Unlike the Bastable stories, which suffer from a lack of real variety in adventures, the ‘‘magic’’ series shows Nesbit at her most consistently inventive. Especially effective is the distinctive character of each magical creature. The dominant trait of the phoenix in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), is vanity, which makes careful flattery the children’s most effective way of getting wishes granted and which also leads to their final adventure. The phoenix, convinced that a theater to which the children have taken it is one of its own temples, starts a fire that brings the adventures to the brink of disaster. The children are forced to become objectively critical, and the renunciation of magic becomes as inevitable as their invoking it. Yet, Nesbit was a pioneer in the use of time travel in children’s fantasies, and her work influenced the writings of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Edward Eager.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Time travel is a recurrent theme in much of Nesbit's work. In many other works of literature, time travel is used as a plot device and a way to explore different, often fantastical worlds. Here are a few other works in which time travel plays a role:

The Time Machine (1895), a novel by H. G. Wells. In this novel, the main character, an inventor, creates a machine with which he travels forward in time to what he at first assumes is a utopian future society.

Back to the Future (1985), a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. A teenager travels back in time, meets his parents, and then must ensure that they fall in love so he can be born.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), a novel by J. K. Rowling. In this third book of the famous series, the title character and his magic friends travel back in time to save themselves from imminent harm.

 

Works in Critical Context

Modern critics such as Eleanor Cameron and Roger Lancelyn Green attest not only to Nesbit’s influence on other writers but also to the number and diversity of testimonials her work has received—for example, it has been highly praised both by Noel Coward and by Gore Vidal. Valuable for its own sake, Nesbit’s fantastic fiction has much to offer those who study the craft of fiction either as readers or as creators, as well as those who seek insight into the literary culture of the late nineteenth century.

Five Children and It. One testimony to children’s responses to Five Children and It is found in a letter from Rudyard Kipling to Nesbit, dated March 11, 1903. Speaking of his children, aged five and seven, he writes: ‘‘Their virgin minds never knew one magazine from another till it dawned upon Elsie that a thing called the Strand with a blue cover and a cab was where the Psammead tales lived.... I have been sent for Strands in the middle of the month, I have had to explain their non-arrival; and I have had to read them when they came. They were a dear delight to the nursery.’’

In writing for children Nesbit proved her ability to combine humor and sympathy, the personal and the universal. Not only does her popularity in this genre continue today, she also served as a major influence upon other writers for the young, including Edward Eager and C. S. Lewis. Her work, in turn, owes much to Victorian authors, so that in reading Nesbit’s productions one gets a glimpse of a much wider range of literature beloved by young and old alike. She thus stands as an important transitional figure, both participating in the final years of an era often referred to as the golden age of children’s books and anticipating the children’s literature of the later twentieth century.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Archetypes are symbols that are more or less universal. Choose a few of Nesbit’s stories and make a list of the archetypes you find. Are they used traditionally, or does Nesbit alter the typical function of these archetypes somehow?

2. Give examples of the feminist ideas found in Nesbit’s middle works.

3. C. S. Lewis borrows from Nesbit’s work in his Narnia series, particularly The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew. Find two instances in these books where Nesbit’s influence is obvious (see her The Island of the Nine Whirlpools in particular).

4. Using your library or the Internet, find out more about the Fabian Society in London. Write a paper summarizing its history.

5. Look at the way children are portrayed in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children. Does Nesbit see children as victims or as instigators? Is that view prevalent in her other books?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bell, Anthea. E. Nesbit. London: Bodley Head, 1964.

Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

Cameron, Eleanor. ‘‘The Green and Burning Tree: AStudy of Time Fantasy.’’ In The Green and Burning Tree: On The Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Crouch, Marcus. Treasure Seekers and Borrowers: Children’s Books in Britain, 1900-1960. London: Library Association, 1962.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Tellers of Tales: Children’s Books and Authors from 1880 to 1968. London: Kaye & Ward, 1969.

Prickett, Stephen. ‘‘Worlds within Worlds: Kipling and Nesbit.’’ In Victorian Fantasy. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester, 1979.

Schenkel, Elmar. ‘‘Domesticating the Supernatural: Magic in E. Nesbit’s Children’s Books.’’ In The Victorian Fantasists: Essays on Culture, Society, and Belief in the Mythopoeic Fiction of the Victorian Age. Edited by Kath Filmer. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

Streatfield, Noel. Magic and the Magician: E. Nesbit and Her Children’s Books. London: Benn; New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958.

‘‘Women Writers and Writing for Children: From Sarah Fielding to E. Nesbit.’’ In Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie. Edited by Gillian Avery and Briggs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.