The Enchanted Castle
The Last of the Dragons
The Railway Children
The Story of the Amulet
Five Children and It
The Phoenix and the Carpet
Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. In the most widely read authors of the period—Frances Browne, Mrs. Craik, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Moles-worth—and even in the greatest of them all, George Macdonald, the usual tone is that of a kind lady or gentleman delivering a delightfully disguised sermon.
In the final years of Victoria’s reign, however, a writer appeared who was to challenge this pattern so energetically and with such success that it makes sense now to speak of juvenile literature as before and after E. Nesbit. Though there are foreshadowings of her characteristic manner in Charles Dickens’s Holiday Romance and Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age, Nesbit was the first to write at length for children as intellectual equals and in their own language. Her books were startlingly innovative in other ways: they took place in contemporary England, and recommended socialist solutions to its problems; they presented a modern view of childhood; and they used magic both as a comic device and as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination. Every writer of children’s fantasy since Nesbit’s time is indebted to her—and so are some authors of adult fiction.
The woman who overturned so many conventions of children’s literature was herself a scandalously unconventional member of the Victorian upper middle class into which she was born in 1858. As a child, Edith Nesbit was a rebellious, hot-tempered tomboy and no doubt a trial to her gentle widowed mother. She hated school, and declared later that she had “never been able to love a doll.”1 Her passions were reading, riding, swimming, and playing pirates with her older brothers. At her wedding to Hubert Bland in 1880 she was seven months pregnant; and during the thirty-four years of her marriage she, and not her husband, was the economic mainstay of their large family. Both the Blands were lifelong socialists, founders and prominent members of the Fabian Society. At one time or another, E. Nesbit supported most of the radical causes of her day—and many of its radical fads, including dress reform, psychic research, and the claim that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare.
Throughout their life together the Blands kept open house for what Nesbit’s biographer, Doris Langley Moore, calls “a strange assortment of artists, writers, and politicians,” plus an equally odd lot of poor relations, abandoned and illegitimate children, and penniless authors, artists, and cranks. H. G. Wells described their house in Kent as “a place to which one rushed down from town at the weekend to snatch one’s bed before anyone else got it.” Though most of their guests did not know this, the Blands’ marriage as well as their house was what today would be called “open,” especially at the husband’s end. Hubert Bland was constantly unfaithful; his wife, though hurt by his love affairs, usually ended by taking a sympathetic interest in the women involved. She also passed off two of his illegitimate children as her own and raised them along with her three.
As time went on, E. Nesbit also now and then formed romantic attachments—though the most famous of these, to George Bernard Shaw, never went beyond enthusiastic friendship. Even in late middle age she was the sort of woman men fall in love with: tall, good-looking, impulsive, charming, and completely unpredictable. Part of her charm was that in some sense she had never quite grown up. As her biographer reports, she “had all the caprices, the little petulances, the sulks, the jealousies, the intolerances, the selfishnesses of a child; and with them went a child’s freshness of vision, hunger for adventure, remorse for unkindness, quick sensibility, and reckless generosity.” Her appearance was untidy and strikingly bohemian: she wore loose trailing “aesthetic” dress (and sometimes, for bicycling, pantaloons). Her arms were loaded with silver bangles and her abundant dark hair was bobbed; and in an era when only “fast women” smoked, she was never without tobacco and cigarette papers—a defiance of convention that may have been responsible for her recurrent bronchial troubles and eventually for her death.
Perhaps it was because E. Nesbit remained emotionally about twelve years old all her life that she found it natural to speak as one intelligent child to another, in a tone now so common in juvenile literature that it is hard to realize how radical and even shocking it would have seemed at the time. When she began her career the customary style of children’s fiction was formal, leisurely, and gently didactic. Here, for instance, is a passage from George Macdonald’s last great book, The Princess and Curdie (1882):
The eyes of fathers and mothers are quick to read their children’s looks, and when Curdie entered the cottage, his parents saw at once that something unusual had taken place…. There was a change upon Curdie, and father and mother felt there must be something to account for it, and therefore were pretty sure he had something to tell them. For when a child’s heart is all right, it is not likely he will want to keep anything from his parents.
And here is E. Nesbit’s first classic work, The Treasure Seekers (1899):
Of course as soon as we had promised to consult my father about business matters, we all gave up wanting to go into business. I don’t know how it is, but having to consult about a thing with grown up people, even the bravest and the best, seems to make the thing not worth doing afterwards.
Occasionally, as in the last example, Nesbit adopts the persona of a child. The Treasure Seekers, and its sequels, are ostensibly related by a boy called Oswald Bastable. But when she writes in the third person her tone is the same: informal, direct, that of a sensible child coolly commenting on the world.
People in books never can eat when they are in trouble, but I have noticed myself that if the trouble has gone on for some hours, eating is really rather a comfort. You don’t enjoy it so much as usual, perhaps, but at any rate it is something to do, and takes the edge off your sorrow for a short time….
“Kenneth and the Carp”
It is a curious thing that people only ask you if you are enjoying yourself when you aren’t.
Five of Us—and Madeline
Even today her wholehearted adoption of the child’s point of view sometimes surprises. In “The Cockatoucan,” for instance, Nesbit explains why Matilda doesn’t want to visit her Great-Aunt Willoughby:
She would be asked about her lessons, and how many marks she had, and whether she had been a good girl. I can’t think why grownup people don’t see how impertinent these questions are. Suppose you were to answer, “I’m top of my class, Auntie, thank you, and I’m very good. And now let’s have a little talk about you. Aunt, dear, how much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?”
As might be expected, Nesbit’s children are not types seen by an adult, but individuals coolly observed by their peers, each with his or her faults and virtues and passions. Though she tries to be fair and give everyone an equal chance at adventures and magic, she clearly prefers boys and girls of her own sort: bold, quick-tempered, egotistic, and literary. In her stories, the sort of serious, diffident, well-behaved children who would have been the heroes and heroines of a typical Victorian fairy tale are portrayed as timid and dull—though a few of them can, with proper encouragement from their peers, improve.
One especially radical feature of Nesbit’s tales is her implicit feminism. Her full-length books are full of girls who are as brave and adventurous as their brothers; and even in her more conventional short fairy tales, the heroines never sit around waiting to be rescued. In “The Last of the Dragons,” the Princess remarks: “Father, darling, couldn’t we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon to look at—and then I could go and kill the dragon…? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.” Nesbit also occasionally strikes a blow for what is now called male liberation: this same princess falls in love with “a pale prince with large eyes and a head full of mathematics and philosophy” who has completely neglected his fencing lessons.
In the Victorian fairy tale, class lines tend to be sharply drawn, and the superiority of the upper-class child taken for granted. Carroll’s Alice is glad that she doesn’t have to live in a poky little house like Mabel; and in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies Tom the chimney-sweep has to forgive his cruel master Grimes and be washed as white as snow before he is a fit companion for the good little rich girl Miss Ellie.2
Though the main characters in Nesbit’s books are usually middle-class, some of her most sympathetic heroes and heroines, such as Mabel in The Enchanted Castle and Dick in Harding’s Luck, come from a lower stratum of society (Dick from the worst slums of East London). Yet they are often more intelligent, imaginative, and courageous than anyone else in the story. This is also true of her short fairy tales. “The Mixed Mine,” for instance, reverses the standard Victorian plot in which a poor child is befriended and reformed by a more privileged one. Here it is the shabby Gustus who shows Edward how to get the best out of a magic telescope that enlarges whatever you look at through it; and it is Gustus who jollies Edward out of his fear of the consequences, remarking finally that his friend is “more like a man and less like a snivelling white rabbit now than what you was when I met you.” The implicit Fabian moral seems to be that intelligent artisans can show a scientifically illiterate and nervous middle class how to use the new technology to increase natural resources for the good of the whole society. (At the end of the story Gustus and Edward share a treasure and an Oxford education, and plan to start a school for slum kids.)
Though her working-class heroes and heroines are full of life and enterprise, Nesbit often portrays the extremely wellborn as stupid and dreary. In The Bastable Children Noel gets his wish and meets a real princess, but she turns out to be a dull overdressed little girl who is afraid to play in the park. Most of Nesbit’s fairy-tale kings and queens are comic bunglers, and her court officials tend to be two-faced frauds with an up-to-date command of smarmy rhetoric. When “Uncle James,” in the story of the same name, hears that a dragon has eaten his country’s entire army, he sees an opportunity to get rid of his niece the princess and take control of the kingdom; he speaks to the populace as follows: