A Woman Between Worlds
by Louise Valleau
"She was exceedingly lithe and athletic, and even after the birth of four children far more adept than the average Victorian woman in riding, swimming and running.... Dressed in aesthetic clothes, daringly corsetless, she would lie at full length on the rug before the fire with the dogs beside her -- so oblivious to the extreme unconventionality of her attitude that she charmed the young people, and disarmed the elderly.... Her manner was as gay and careless as a child's. Indeed she had a child's flexibility almost all her life in recovering from every possible distress..."
-- Doris Langley Moore, from E. Nesbit: A Biography
Living and writing across the threshold of the 20th century, Edith Nesbit wrote poetry, romantic novels, short stories, reviews, and articles on daily life and politics, but it's because of her children's stories that her reputation has endured. She had the gift of seeing the world as children see it, and voicing her stories in a manner that put her young readers at ease.
In stark contrast to the circumstances of her own childhood, the children she wrote about were rooted in fairly conventional middle-class families. As she writes of the railway children: "They were just ordinary, suburban children, and they lived with their father and mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa." By contrast, Nesbit's father died when she was four, and she spent much of her childhood quite uprooted. As an adult, too, her family life was anything but ordinary. She wrote to help support an extended family, which included her husband, his mistress, and their combined six children.
An Unconventional Childhood
Called Daisy by her family, Nesbit was born on August 12, 1858. The youngest of five children, she considered her early years, when her father was still alive, idyllic. A few years after his death, her family moved several times in an effort to find a suitable climate for a sister who had contracted tuberculosis. Nesbit, an imaginative, high-strung child, was sent to a succession of wretched boarding schools, which she later described in her autobiography, Long Ago When I Was Young, as mostly cruel, inhospitable places. In 1870, her mother settled the family in Brittany, France, where Nesbit was sprung from the misery of school life. "My mother...," she wrote in her autobiography, "allowed us to run wild.... Sometimes when visitors were expected, we were seized and scrubbed, and clothed and made to look something like the good little children we were not.... But as a rule, we were left to go our own way, and a very happy way it was."
Following her sister's death a year later, the family returned to England and rented Halstead Hall in Kent, which Nesbit remembered fondly. The railroad track that ran through the field behind the house was the scene of many adventures with her siblings, which, in turn, inspired the escapades in The Railway Children. Nesbit's first literary undertaking -- a poem -- was published while she was growing into adulthood at Halstead Hall, and it is surely no accident that the emotional center of The Railway Children is Bobbie, a young girl who finds herself approaching womanhood without a father and watches her single mother struggle to establish her own livelihood as a writer. Though she wrote in many genres over the years to provide much-needed income for her family, Nesbit continued always to write poetry, and for the rest of her life thought of herself primarily as a poet.
Family and the Fabians
She may have reinstated "ordinary" circumstances for her fictional children when their adventures ended, but that normalcy would never be Nesbit's own. She was seven months pregnant when, in April 1880, she married Hubert Bland, a handsome, passionate man who shared her love of poetry and collaborated with her on many writing projects. It was an unorthodox and tumultuous marriage. Bland lived with his mother part of the week and also fathered a child by his mother's companion, Maggie. To further complicate matters, Nesbit's friend Alice Hoatson came to live with the family when she, too, became pregnant with Bland's child. Hoatson, in fact, had two children by Bland, whom Nesbit adopted and raised with her own brood of four children. While Nesbit wrote, Hoatson served as secretary and managed the household.
In January 1884, Bland became a founding member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization that advocated social change through democratic reforms and, as the society itself stated, "the emancipation of land and industrial capital from individual class ownership." Nesbit was intrigued by the Fabians and befriended many of its members, including George Bernard Shaw (with whom she had an affair) and H.G. Wells. Also in the circle were Annie Besant, the noted Theosophist, and Charlotte Wilson, who challenged conventional attitudes about women. Adopting the nonconformist style of these "advanced" women, Nesbit cut her hair short, smoked cigarettes, and wore looser, less restrictive clothing than Victorian fashion dictated. Inspired by the ideas of the Fabians, she wrote and lectured on socialism throughout the 1880s.
Although Nesbit relished the personal freedoms encouraged by many of the Fabians, she was nevertheless a product of the Victorian age. She shared Bland's views on the natural inferiority of women, even going so far as to caricature the Suffragettes in her book The Magic City. When Nesbit and Bland became more prosperous in the early 1900s (due largely to her growing success as a writer), they moved to ever finer homes with greater numbers of servants. They finally settled in Well Hall, an imposing mansion with 30 rooms and a moat in the Kent countryside. H.G. Wells's son, Anthony West, later wrote in his biography of his father, Aspects of a Life: "The Blands lived there expansively and generously, and never seemed to turn a friend away. The money that flowed in from her children's books was spent as fast as it came in, and sometimes faster than that, but the continuous house party went on as if it could go on forever."
It's not surprising that some of the philosophical and psychological tensions of Nesbit's life would find their way into her children's books, including The Railway Children. Although the mother in Nesbit's classic says they have to "play at being poor," she is quick to engage a servant when they move to a new home. In keeping with the Victorian attitude that childhood should preserve innocence and be spared the cares of the world, the children are sheltered from real hardships, including knowledge of their father's imprisonment. Victorian influences also filter through at the end in Roberta's famously sentimental reunion with her father:
"Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.
Sentimental or not, one can't help wondering whether the emotional force of Roberta's cry comes also from Nesbit's own past -- from the heart of that little four-year-old girl whose loving and protective father would never return. Her treatment of the lower classes, however, is neither sentimental nor condescending, and she projects her Fabian-influenced commitment to justice through her characterization of a Russian refugee, a victim, like their father, of political oppression.
A Literary Legacy
Nesbit and Bland's bohemian existence at Well Hall was interrupted by Bland's increasing blindness and eventually his death in 1914. Three years later, Nesbit married Thomas Tucker, "the Skipper," an affable, loving marine engineer. She continued to write, but following the catastrophe of the First World War, the sensibility she had evoked and served so well had been largely swept away, and she was no longer able to earn enough to support her new marriage in the style to which Bland and she had been accustomed. She and Tucker left Nesbit's beloved Well Hall in 1921 for a far more humble residence -- a pair of converted war office sheds.
Nesbit died on May 14, 1924. In her long and varied career she had produced over a hundred books, including the three books of The Treasure Seekers, written between 1899 and 1904, The Five Children and It (1902), The Railway Children (1906), The Amulet (1906), and The Enchanted Castle (1907). Her work had been admired by her contemporaries and went on to influence subsequent writers as well. "I've been watching your work and seeing it settle and clarify, and grow tender...with great comfort and appreciation, " wrote Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous. Decades later, C.S. Lewis tapped The Amulet for structural devices in his Narnia books. Today, introduced to her work through the two fine Railway Children films, young readers all over the world can continue to identify with the free-spirited children she wrote about.
Images: (2) Courtesy The Edith Nesbit Society.
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