When I was casting round for a literary detective for a cosy mystery novel, I came up with the idea of using Edith Nesbit, the author of some of my most favourite children’s novels. Perfect, I thought –– until I did a little biographical investigation. I found to my shock that the author who merged magic, fun and happy families, and penned such ‘immortal’ lines as “Get off the line, Bobby!” and “Daddy! My Daddy!”* was in fact a hard-left, swinging, smoking modern lady of the twentieth century. Definitely NOT cosy material.
To British readers and authors Nesbit is a friend and inspiration. I’m filing her under ‘neglected classics’ because I’ve been surprised at – or perhaps educated by - how many of my American friends haven’t read her. It’s made feel like she’s a well-kept British secret I have to divulge!
I’m not the only one to be surprised at the dichotomy between Edith’s novels and her life – the disagreements over detail and perspective on her life in various biographies speak, I think, to her fans’ struggle over Edith as narrator/writer and person. So, some facts (to the best of my knowledge!): Edith’s father died when she was only four, and her mother, left to deal with supporting her family and a sickly daughter, moved the family back and forth from England to the Continent, and sent Edith to various schools. This instability may account for the rosy pictures of sibling life she so often portrayed in her novels – and for the often absent parent.
As a young woman, she became involved with the handsome, philandering Hubert Bland, marrying him when she was 7 months pregnant. The couple’s socialist convictions, along with Edith’s intelligence and sociability, brought them into contact with influential people such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They were founder members of the Fabian society, a left-wing think tank – in fact, they named their second son Fabian.
Edith showed a proclivity for courting attention. Unconventional, she took up smoking, cut her hair short and supposedly (some disagree about this) had an affair with Shaw. She apparently more than tolerated her husband’s lover, Alice, living with them, and even raised the resulting illegitimate children as her own.
Edith had always loved writing; she published her first poems at fifteen and continued to write poetry and novels to support her family. She courted three audiences – the conventional, moralizing crowd, those who loved popular, sensational works, and the new left intelligentsia. But she found her voice in writing for children. In 1899, the publication of the children’s book The Treasure Seekers at last brought fame and enough steady work to move to a grander house in the country. House parties included the likes of H.G. Wells, Laurence Houseman and G.K. Chesterton.
Her husband’s sudden death in 1914, along with the First World War, brought a change in Edith’s circumstances (Fabian had also died shortly before when a routine operation to remove his tonsils went wrong). Although she married again, the couple had to move to a more modest home in Dymchurch, characterized as “Lymchurch” in her work. When she died in 1924, she requested that no tombstone be laid, and a simple, wooden panel marks her grave.
Nesbit was one of the first authors to develop fantasy novels for children, her strength being in fantasies that intersect, often to great comic effect, with everyday life. She also very clearly writes from a child’s perspective. For the researcher of the Edwardian period, her novels are a proverbial goldmine, full of the little details of everyday life and current slang.