The Writing of E. Nesbit

After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own. Yet Nesbit’s books are relatively unknown in the United States. Publishers attribute her failure in these parts to a witty and intelligent prose style (something of a demerit in the land of the free) and to the fact that a good many of her books deal with magic, a taboo subject nowadays. Apparently, the librarians who dominate the “juvenile market” tend to be brisk tweedy ladies whose interests are mechanical rather than imaginative. Never so happy as when changing a fan belt, they quite naturally want to communicate their joy in practical matters to the young. The result has been a depressing literature of how-to-do things while works of invention are sternly rejected as not “practical” or “useful.” Even the Oz books which had such a powerful influence on three generations of Americans are put to one side in certain libraries, and the children are discouraged from reading them because none of the things described in those books could ever have happened. Even so, despite such odds, attempts are being made by gallant publishers to penetrate the tweed curtain, and a number of Nesbit’s books are currently available in the United States,* while in England she continues to be widely read.

Born in 1858, Edith Nesbit was the daughter of the head of a British agricultural college. In 1880 she married Hubert Bland, a journalist. They had a good deal in common. Both were socialists, active in the Fabian Society. Yet the marriage was unhappy. Bland was a philanderer; worse, he had no gift for making a living. As a result, simply to support her five children, Nesbit began to write books about children. In a recent biography, Magic and the Magician, Noel Streatfeild remarks that E. Nesbit did not particularly like children, which may explain why the ones that she created in her books are so entirely human. They are intelligent, vain, aggressive, humorous, witty, cruel, compassionate…in fact, they are like adults, except for one difference. In a well-ordered and stable society (England in the time of the fat Edward), children are as clearly defined a minority group as Jews or Negroes in other times and places. Physically small and weak, economically dependent upon others, they cannot control their environment. As a result, they are forced to develop a sense of communality which though it does not necessarily make them any nicer to one another at least makes it possible for them to see each other with perfect clarity, and it is part of Nesbit’s genius that she sees them as clearly and unsentimentally as they see themselves, making for that sense of life without which there is no literature at any level.

Nesbit’s usual device is to take a family of children ranging in age from a…


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