E Nesbit: Queen of Children's Literature
As founding member of The Fabian Society and mistress of George Bernard Shaw, E Nesbit’s life was as dramatic as any of her adventure tales. On the 150th anniversary of her birth, Nicola Lisle from Rare Book Review looks at the literary legacy and collectability of the Queen of Children’s Literature.
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 £50.
She was born Edith Nesbit in Kennington, Surrey, on 15 August 1858. She had an unconventional and frequently unhappy childhood; her father died suddenly when she was four, and the ill-health of her elder sister, Mary, meant that the family was constantly travelling in search of a beneficial climate. The young Edith – or Daisy, as she was known to her family – 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.
After Mary’s death in November 1871, at the age of 19, the family settled at Halstead, in Kent, and at last managed to achieve some sort of normality. Edith loved the Kentish countryside, and it is here that she began to write poetry, with some of her early efforts being published in the Sunday Magazine.
Behind the Nesbits’ house ran a railway line, which had a magnetic attraction for Edith and her two brothers, Alfred and Harry. In obvious echoes of The Railway Children, the three loved to wave at the commuter trains, or walk along the sleepers to the next station. Alas, this rural idyll lasted barely four years, as financial difficulties forced Mrs Nesbit to move her family back to London. Soon after the move Edith became engaged to a young bank clerk, Stuart Smith, but it was not to last; while visiting Smith in his office one day, she was introduced to another bank clerk, Hubert Bland, and was immediately captivated by him.
Three and a half years her senior, Bland was a tall, handsome young man with a lively personality and sense of humour, who shared Edith’s literary aspirations. They married in April 1880, by which time Nesbit was seven months pregnant, and was already signing herself ‘Daisy Bland’. Their son, Paul, was born two months later, followed by a daughter, Iris, in 1881, and another son, Fabian, in 1885.
From the start, it was an unconventional marriage. Bland already had a son by his mother’s paid companion, Maggie Doran, and produced a further two children from a long-standing affair with the Blands’ housekeeper, Alice Hoatson. Edith seemingly accepted these affairs, and brought the children up as her own. She later had affairs of her own, most notably with playwright George Bernard Shaw.
It is a wonder the Blands’ marriage survived, but one of the things that bound them together was their shared political allegiance. Both were admirers of the arts and crafts’ pioneer and socialist William Morris, and in 1884 became founder members of The Fabian Society, the forerunner of the Labour Party.
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, with Bland. As a member of the Pamphlets Committee, she helped publish the society’s first socialist leaflet, and with her husband co-wrote a novel, The Prophet’s Mantle (HJ Drane, 1885), and a short story, Something Wrong (AD Innes, 1893), under the name Fabian Bland.
Nesbit’s first children’s books were the rather fanciful and unremarkable Doggy Tales (Marcus Ward, 1895) and Pussy Tales (Marcus Ward, 1895), but in 1899 came her first major success – The Story of the Treasure Seekers, the first to introduce the Bastable children, who come up with a series of madcap ideas to restore the family fortunes. Originally serialised in the Pall Mall magazine in 1898, the book was eventually published at Christmas the following year by T Fisher Unwin, using the original magazine illustrations by Gordon Brown. It was an instant success, and is still one of her most popular and most collectable books.
By this time, the Blands had moved to Well Hall House in Eltham, Kent, where they became known for their lavish parties. Hubert was still working as a political journalist, but Edith’s success as both children’s storywriter and poet meant that she was, unusually in those days, the household’s main earner. For nearly two decades, she produced a steady stream of children’s stories, as well as continuing to write poetry and books for adults.
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.
In 1911, Hubert began to suffer health problems, and died three years later, in April 1914. Edith was grief-stricken, and later that year was taken ill with violent stomach pains. A duodenal ulcer was diagnosed, and she was rushed into hospital. Gradually she recovered, but her literary output dwindled. She wrote no more children’s books after Hubert’s death, but managed two more adult novels – The Incredible Honeymoon (Hutchinson, 1921) and The Lark (Hutchinson, 1922), the latter based on Well Hall House.
In 1917 she married 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 about E Nesbit, visit the E Nesbit Society website, www.edithnesbit.co.uk