Tuesday, 28 February 2012

And now for something completely different...

I just had to post this, so here are my flimsy reasons:

1.  It has gems of information useful to a historical novelist.

2.  It contains references to classic literature.

3.  It proves that if you 'suffer' from night time wakefulness, you shouldn't worry, but get up and read a historical novel or neglected classic!

The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep

Saturday, 18 February 2012

More than red flannel petticoats: Edith Nesbit Part 2

Edith Nesbit’s most popular children’s novels are still available; several, such as The Railway Children, have never gone out of print since their publication over a hundred years ago.  On the other hand few, if any, have heard of her adult novels.  It’s more than just an irony of fate, however, that this unconventional author, who longed for recognition of her serious, adult novels, should be remembered for works that celebrate the conventional Victorian family.  Through her young characters, she speaks for the new middle classes spreading out of London into the garden cities, and which would become the backbone of England after the First World War destroyed the ‘gentleman’ class that had previously dominated life and culture.  That is, she speaks for us.

I’m an ardent fan of Edith’s children’s books.  My favourites, in roughly descending order, are: Five Children and It; The Enchanted Castle; The Railway Children; The Treasure Seekers; and The Phoenix and the Carpet (sequel to Five Children and It).  Others, for instance the sequels to The Treasure Seekers, are more hack work.  Here’s a taste of why I find them so delightful:

The ‘It’ of Five Children and It is a Psammead, a sand fairy the children accidentally unearth in a quarry.  The Psammead (a squat, furry creature with eyes on stalks) must grant the children one wish a day, that lasts until sunset – and of course, the disgruntled fairy takes their words very literally.  The children get to discover the truth of the proverb “be careful what you wish for.”  What, for instance, is the point of being “as beautiful as the day” if your own friends and family can’t recognize you, or having a pile of gold coins if they aren’t actually legal tender?

The Enchanted Castle is another fantasy with roots in real life.  Imaginary games of enchantment take on new life when a group of siblings and their friend discover that their ‘magic’ ring really is magical – and that real magic can be both delightful and dangerous.  Apparently, Noel Coward had a copy of it by his bedside when he died.

In The Treasure Seekers, the five Bastables, eager to help their widowed father ‘restore the fortune of the House of Bastable,’ look for ways to get rich, from digging for treasure to selling sherry to trying their hand at being highwaymen on Blackheath.  This novel earns the distinction of being one of only a few books that make me laugh out loud.

There’s no need to introduce The Railway Children to most English readers.  To those who haven’t had the chance to fall under its charms:  this is the story of three children living in relative luxury in London, whose father suddenly has to ‘go away.’  Their mother is forced to move the family to a shabby home in the country.  They begin to make friends with the railway workers and commuters, leading to a series of coincidences that change the family’s fate.  Though a children’s book, it highlights the real plight of dissidents and those caught up in the spy fever of the early twentieth century.

What I love about Edith Nesbit’s work is her feel for the sibling dynamics of her large families that might bicker and quarrel, but know that family sticks together.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I also love the way she explores the consequences of magic colliding with everyday modern life.  It’s interesting, I think, that the children are most often thrown on their own resources due to an absent or deceased parent and reduced family circumstances.  Edith certainly understood the latter, but tended to be the child sent away to school while her mother concentrated on her other, invalid daughter.  Perhaps even the realism of her stories, then, is part the fantasy of a childhood she herself rarely got to enjoy, and perhaps why her heart shines through the distance of a century to make these stories real for us today.

Friday, 3 February 2012

More than red flannel petticoats: Edith Nesbit (Part 1)

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.

Since I ran out of space here, I’ll talk about her novels in a follow-up post, but if you’re already interested, the E. Nesbit Society has an overview of her work, and Julia Briggs’s 1987 biography, A Woman of Passion is back in print.