Best known as the author of such children's novels as The Railway Children and The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, the English writer E. Nesbit (1858-1924) also authored fiction, drama, and poetry for adults. In addition she was active in political causes and together with her husband, Hubert Bland, the play wright Bernard Shaw, and others, founded the Fabian Society in England to further socialist aims.
Nesbit was born August 15, 1858, in London to Sarah and John Collis Nesbit, a chemist who taught at an agricultural college in south London that had been established by his father. Nesbit's earliest years appear idyllic as she and her brothers, Arthur and Harry, were free to roam and play on the expansive grounds of the school. This period came to an abrupt end, however, with the sudden death of her father at age 43 in 1862. Nesbit's mother assumed the role of providing for her family, remaining connected with the college as an administrator until the ill-health of Nesbit's elder sister Mary prompted the family to relocate to the seaside. For the remainder of her childhood Nesbit alternated between terms at boarding school and summer holidays in the country, either in England or abroad. The depiction of one-parent households and siblings spending time together away from adult supervision that characterizes her later fiction is seen to stem directly from the experiences of her own childhood. When she was nineteen years old Nesbit met Hubert Bland, a young man who shared her socialist political ideals. The two wed in April 1880, two months prior to the birth of their first child, Paul.
After their marriage, Bland developed smallpox, an illness that prevented him from working, and Nesbit undertook the financial responsibility of providing for the household. During the 1880s, a period when she gave birth to two more children, Iris in 1881 and Fabian in 1885, she began contributing short stories to magazines and writing verses for greeting cards. It was also during this time that the couple participated in the founding of the Fabian Society, a group dedicated to social justice that proposed the gradual reform of society rather than revolutionary tactics. In addition to the Blands and Shaw, the early Fabians included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Annie Besant, H. G. Wells, and Havelock Ellis. The society remains active in British politics more than a century after its founding, with Prime Minister Tony Blair and many Cabinet ministers counted among its members.
Nesbit's liberal outlook extended even to her own domestic arrangements. Bland, who at the time of their marriage was simultaneously engaged to another woman with whom he had a child, proved to be an unfaithful husband, and Nesbit raised as her own the two children he fathered with a third woman, Alice Hoatson. According to biographers, Nesbit also entered into a series of sexual relationships outside her marriage with other writers, including Shaw, Noel Griffith, and Oswald Barron, with whom she collaborated on the short story collection The Butler in Bohemia (1894).
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Nesbit produced numerous volumes of poetry, romances, horror stories, children's fiction, and several plays, and edited a series of anthologies of poetry and sketches with Robert Ellis Mack. For the most part Nesbit's works throughout this period are considered conventional by critical standards though they provided necessary financial remuneration. She and Bland, who after recovering from his illness had turned to political journalism, also collaborated on a novel, The Prophet's Mantle, published under the joint pseudonym Fabian Bland in 1885. In 1899 Nesbit published her first novels, the Gothic romance The Secret of Kyriels for adult readers and The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, her groundbreaking children's work.
Success as a Children's Novelist
The Story of the Treasure-Seekers was published serially, beginning in 1897, and traces the fortunes of the impoverished and motherless Bastable children, who undertake various attempts at increasing their family's income. The novel represented a significant departure from Nesbit's previous works and comprised her most notable success. The appeal of the Treasure-Seekers owed much to its point of view, which refrained from direct moral instruction, and to the humor stemming from its lively narrator, Oswald Bastable, considered Nesbit's most memorable character. Alison Lurie, commenting in Writers for Children, described Oswald as "a child much after [Nesbit's] own pattern: bold, quick-tempered, egotistic, and literary." Unlike other children's works of the era, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers provided a realistic rather than sentimental view of sibling relationships, including squabbling among the family and the resistance of the younger members to be dominated by the elder. Following on the success of the Bastable stories Nesbit issued two additional volumes of their adventures, The Wouldbegoods (1901), in which the children, now comfortably settled in a fine home, try different means of doing good for others, and The New Treasure-Seekers (1904), considered the most serious of the series.
Children's Fantasy Novels
At the same time that Nesbit was issuing realistic stories of childhood, she wrote a number of fantasy works, including the popular Book of Dragons (1900). In 1902 she published Five Children and It, another children's work that would bring her renown. In it she depicted a family of children—Cyril, Robert, Anthea, Jane, and their baby brother (known as "the Lamb")—who undergo a series of adventures, but in this case the adventures are magical. During their summer holidays, the children encounter a Psammead, or sand fairy, who has the power to grant them one wish per day. The wishes, including having the ability to fly or possessing great beauty, all have unforeseen, humorous consequences, and the novel has proved enduringly popular: it remains in print more than a century after its first appearance. In a sequel, The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), the mythological bird hatches in their nursery fireplace and leads the children on a number of magic carpet adventures. The Story of the Amulet (1906) continues the story, when the children, who are staying with a relative while their parents are out of the country, rediscover the Psammead in a London pet shop, and his gratitude at being rescued leads them on a time-travel adventure to ancient Atlantis and to a utopian future based on Fabian ideals. Their quest throughout the journey is to recover the missing half of a magic amulet that will grant their heart's desire: the restoration of their family.
The Railway Children
Returning to the realistic adventure tale, Nesbit published The Railway Children in 1906. Her most beloved work, the novel has been adapted for stage, musical theater, cinema, and television. In the story, Roberta ("Bobbie"), Peter, and Phyllis are the children of a government worker imprisoned as a suspected spy. During her husband's absence, the children's mother moves the family from their comfortable London home into a rural cottage to reduce housekeeping expenses, and she supports the family through free-lance writing. With little else to occupy them, the children find entertainment in the nearby railway and befriend its station workers. They ultimately become known to an "Old Gentleman" who rides the train each morning and who is instrumental in clearing their father and restoring their family.
The House of Arden (1908) and Harding's Luck (1909) center on Edred and Elfrida Arden, who use magic to visit the past in hopes of finding where their family fortune is hidden. Their adventure brings them into contact with Dickie Harding, an impoverished and crippled cousin. The rightful heir to the Arden title and fortune, he chooses to remain in the seventeenth century, where he is no longer lame. In the novel Nesbit uses the device of time travel to illustrate her socialist ideals, portraying Jacobean England as an era of social harmony in stark contrast to the disparity between high society and the slum life Dickie endures in the Edwardian world.
Fiction for Adults
Despite the popularity and critical regard of her novels for children, Nesbit continued throughout her career to think of herself as primarily a writer for adults. Her most successful adult novel, The Red House (1902) concerns a young couple renovating an old country house, a plot drawn directly from her own life and the restoration of Well Hall, the Blands' home in Eltham. Among her other works for adults are The Incomplete Amorist (1906), a romance centering on an English art student in Paris, and Daphne in Fitzroy Street (1909), a fictionalized account of her relationship with Shaw. Dormant (1911) shares some elements of fantasy with her more successful children's works. In the story a scientist inherits an estate and falls in love with a woman he discovers in an enchanted sleeplike state in a secret chamber. Her final novel, The Lark (1922) is a realistic depiction of two unmarried women struggling to maintain their financial independence by operating a boarding house.
Nesbit's husband, Hubert Bland, died in April 1914. She published few new works after that time, and interest in her works declined after World War I. She married Thomas Terry Tucker, a sea captain, in 1917. Financial difficulties and illness plagued her later years, and she died May 4, 1924, in New Romney, Kent.
Reputation and Legacy
In the decades since her death, Nesbit has come to be regarded as one of the most innovative writers for children of the early twentieth century. Her importance, particularly in the development of fantasy literature for children, has prompted numerous critical appraisals. As Daria Donnelly has noted in Commonweal, "Before Nesbit, such literature fell into two types: either the entire action took place in an exotic or fantastical setting, or the child character (Dorothy or Alice) traveled from this world into a fantastical one. But in Five Children and It, a group of middle-class Edwardian children find a prehistoric, ill-tempered thing called a Psammead right in the gravel pit behind their house. And each day, corresponding to each chapter, he reluctantly grants them a wish that results in a new adventure in their very neighborhood. Locating the fantastical in everyday life was Nesbit's great and enduring innovation." Colin N. Manlove, writing in MOSAIC X/2, added that "Nesbit's fantasy is not what one would call great literature… . [Her] work is fanci ful rather than imaginative. But fancy has its place: and one could claim that in Nesbit's work it reaches a high point of wit and ingenuity." Nesbit's realistic stories, too, continue to please young readers, and new admirers are brought to her works through television and theatre productions of The Railway Children. Summarizing Nesbit's achievement, Claudia Nelson concluded in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "in writing for children Nesbit proved her ability to combine humor and sympathy, the personal and the universal. Not only does her popularity in this genre continue today, she also served as a major influence upon other writers for the young, including Edward Eager and C. S. Lewis."
Briggs, Julia, A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924, New Amsterdam Books, 1991.
Lurie, Alison, Writers for Children, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.
Moore, Doris Langley-Levy, E. Nesbit: A Biography, Rev. Ed., Chilton Books, 1966.
Nelson, Claudia, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 141: British Children's Writers, 1880-1914, edited by Laura M. Zaidman and Caroline C. Hunt, The Gale Group, 1994.
Nesbit, E., Long Ago When I Was Young, Macdonald and Jane's, 1974.
Streatfeild, Noel, Magic and the Magician: E. Nesbit and Her Children's Books, Abelard Schuman, 1958.
Commonweal, November 5, 1999.
MOSAIC X/2, Winter 1977.
New York Review of Books, December 3, 1964.
"Edith Nesbit and the Railway Children," http://www.imagix.dial.pipex.com (February 9, 2003).