It is interesting to conjecture whether we would still remember E. Nesbit today if she had not penned The Railway Children. Undoubtedly her greatest success, it is the one book that everybody has heard of, even those with little more than a passing interest in her life and works. This is in no small part due to the successful 1970 film adaptation starring Jenny Agutter, Dinah Sheridan and Bernard Cribbins.
But take away The Railway Children, and there is still a remarkably rich legacy, which includes 10 novels and 11 short story collections for adults, 29 volumes of poetry and nearly 40 books for children.
Of greatest significance is the fact that her adventure stories for children established a new genre in children’s literature. Nesbit’s tales of real children in realistic settings, combined with magical beings and adventures, challenged the vogue for the escapist, fantasy worlds created by the likes of JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carroll, and influenced generations of later writers, including CS Lewis, PL Travers, JK Rowling and Michael Moorcock.
Nesbit today is highly collectable, with first editions of The Railway Children commanding prices of £1,000 or more. Other popular works can set you back several hundred pounds, but it is also possible to pick up some first editions for as little as £100.
She was born Edith Nesbit in Kennington, Surrey, on 15 August 1858. She had an unconventional and frequently unhappy childhood; she was shunted off to a succession of boarding schools, where her tomboyish character rebelled against the strictures imposed upon her. Of one school, she wrote, ‘I venture to think that I would have preferred a penal settlement.’ She later recalled the horrors she experienced in My School-Days, which was serialised in The Girl’s Own Paper from October 1896 to September 1897.
Throughout the 1880s, Nesbit seemed set for a career as a political activist rather than a children’s author. She became a prominent lecturer and writer on socialist issues, and for some years edited the Fabian Society’s journal, Today, along with her first husband, bank clerk Hubert Bland, whom she married in April 1880. As a member of the Pamphlets Committee, she helped publish the society’s first socialist leaflet, and, again with Bland, co-wrote a novel, The Prophet’s Mantle (published by HJ Drane, 1885), and a short story, Something Wrong (AD Innes, 1893), under the name Fabian Bland.
Among her most popular and successful books are The Wouldbegoods (T Fisher Unwin, 1901), another story about the Bastables; Five Children and It (T Fisher Unwin, 1902), the first to introduce the ‘odd-looking creature’ known as the Psammead, and its sequels, The Phoenix and the Carpet (Newnes, 1904) and The Story of the Amulet (T Fisher Unwin, 1906); and, of course, The Railway Children (Wells Gardner Darton, 1906), the only one of her bestsellers to be set firmly in reality.
After Hubert Bland's death in 1914, Nesbit married once more, this time to marine engineer Thomas Tucker, a fellow socialist she had first met through Hubert. The pair enjoyed a happy but brief union, living first at Friston in East Sussex, and later St Mary’s Bay at Romney Marsh, Kent. It was here that Edith’s many years of heavy smoking finally caught up with her, and she died of lung cancer on 4 May 1924, aged 65.
She was buried in the churchyard of St Mary-in-the-Marsh, and her grave was marked by a wooden memorial carved by Tucker, giving both her androgynous professional name, E Nesbit, and her first married name, Edith Bland. This was replaced with a new memorial in 1998, and the original placed in the church alongside a brass memorial plaque.
Nesbit is still a widely-read children’s author, her books an irresistible mix of warmth and humour, which charmingly evoke the Edwardian era.
First editions are not easy to find, and those that do come up for sale tend to get snapped up very quickly. It is even more difficult to find copies in their original dustwrappers. Many of the first editions were delightfully produced, often with gilt lettering and pictorial decoration to the spine and front boards, top edge gilting, charming illustrations throughout and often with illustrated endpapers.
Later impressions and editions are a little easier to find, but can still fetch high prices. Notable later editions include those by the Folio Society (which also published omnibus editions), Ernest Benn, Methuen, Frederick Warne, Macmillan, BBC Books, Walker Books, Dent & Sons, and Whiting and Wheaton (which featured illustrations by Edward Ardizzone).
Particularly worth tracking down is the centenary edition of The Railway Children, issued by Silver Link, Kettering, in 2005, which features a foreword by Jenny Agutter, a history of the book and author by the Edith Nesbit Society, authentic Edwardian pictures and black and white railway photographs. A first edition can be picked up for as little as £50, in its original dustwrapper, and is a good investment as this is sure to be a collectable of the future.
For further information, visit the E Nesbit Society website, www.edithnesbit.co.uk
The above article has been abridged. The original full text was kindly provided to AbeBooks by Nicola Lisle from Rare Book Review.