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 baby to a child of ten or eleven and then involve them in adventures, either magical or realistic (never both at the same time). The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods and The New Treasure Seekers are realistic books about the Bastable children. They are told by Oswald Bastable, whose style owes a great deal to that of Julius Caesar. Like the conqueror, Oswald is able through a cunning use of the third person to establish his marked superiority to others. Wondering if his younger brother H. O. is perhaps mentally retarded, he writes, “H. O. is eight years old, but he cannot tell the clock yet. Oswald could tell the clock when he was six.” Oswald is a delightful narrator and the stories he tells are among Nesbit’s best. For the most part they deal with scrapes the children get into while searching for treasure in familiar surroundings, and the strategies they employ in coping as sensibly as possible with the contrary world of grown-ups. In a Nesbit book there is always some sort of domestic trouble. One parent is usually missing, and there is never enough money; although to the twentieth-century reader, her “impoverished” middle-class households, each with its three servants and large house, seem like relics of some golden aristocratic age. Yet many of the children’s adventures have to do with attempts to improve the family’s finances.
To my mind, it is in her magical books that Nesbit is at her best. Her most successful family of children are known, simply, as The Five Children, and their adventures are told in The Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet. In the first volume, the children encounter a Psammead, a small bad-tempered, odd-looking creature from pre-history. The Psammead is able to grant wishes by first filling itself with air and then exhaling. (“If only you knew how I hate to blow myself out with other people’s wishes, and how frightened I am always that I shall strain a muscle or something. And then to wake up every morning and know that you’ve got to do it…”).
But the children use the Psammead relentlessly for their wishes, and something almost always goes wrong. They wish “to be more beautiful than the day,” and find that people detest them, thinking they look like Gypsies or worse. Without moralizing, Nesbit demonstrates, literally, the folly of human wishes, and amuses at the same time. In The Phoenix and the Carpet, the same family becomes involved with the millennial phoenix, a bird of awesome vanity (“I’ve often been told that mine is a valuable life.”). With the use of a magic carpet, the phoenix and the children make a number of expeditions about the world. Yet even with such an ordinary device as a magic carpet, Nesbit’s powers of invention are never settled easily. The carpet has been repaired. The rewoven section is not magic. So whoever sits on that part travels neither here nor there. Since most intelligent children are passionate logicians, the sense of logic is a necessary gift in a writer of fantasy. Though a child will gladly accept a fantastic premise, he will insist that the working out of it be entirely consistent with the premise. Careless invention is immediately noticed; contradiction and inconsistencies irritate; illusion is destroyed. Happily, Nesbit is seldom careless and she anticipates most questions which might occur to a child. Not that she can always answer him satisfactorily. A condition of the Psammead’s wishes is that they last only for a day. Yet the effects of certain wishes in the distant past did linger. Why was this? asked one of the children. “Autres temps, autres moeurs” replied the Psammead coolly.
In The Story of the Amulet Nesbit’s powers of invention are at their best. It is a time machine story, only the device is not a machine but an Egyptian amulet whose other half is lost in the past. By saying certain powerful words, the amulet becomes a gate through which the children are able to visit the past or future. Pharaonic Egypt, Babylon (whose dotty queen comes back to London with them and tries to get her personal possessions out of the British Museum), Caesar’s Britain: they visit them all in the search for the missing part of the amulet. Nesbit’s history is good. And there is even a look at a Utopian future, which turns out to be everything a good Fabian might have hoped for. Ultimately, the amulet’s other half is found, and a story of considerable beauty is concluded in a most unexpected way.
There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B. Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive, and they prove to be most disagreeable. They want to find hotels to stay at. Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room, but not without a scuffle. It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself. And one must remember that a nightmare in those days was a serious matter for a child who had no electric light to switch on when a bad dream awakened him; he must continue in darkness, the shadows that menaced him undispelled.
My own preference among Nesbit’s work are The House of Arden and Harding’s Luck, two books that comprise a sort of dyptich, one telling much the same story as the second, yet from a different point of view. The mood is somewhere between that of The Enchanted Castle, and The Five Children, not midnight yet hardly morning. Richard Harding, a crippled boy, accompanies an old tramp about England. The Dickensian note is struck but without the Master’s sentimentality. Through magic, Harding is able to go into the past where he is Sir Richard Harding in the age of Henry VIII, and not lame. But loyalty to the tramp makes him return to the present. Finally he elects to remain in the past. Meanwhile in The House of Arden a contemporary boy, Edred, must be tested before he can become Lord Arden and restore the family fortunes. He meets the Mouldiwarp (a mole who appears on the family coat-of-arms). This magic creature can be summoned only by poetry, freshly composed in its honor—a considerable strain on Edred and his sister Elfrida who have not the gift. There are adventures in the past and the present, and the story of Richard Harding crosses their own. The magic comes and goes in a most interesting way.
As a woman, E. Nesbit was not to everyone’s taste. H. G. Wells described her and Hubert Bland as “fundamentally intricate,” adding that whenever the Blands attended meetings of the Fabian Society “anonymous letters flittered about like bats at twilight” (the Nesbit mood if not style is contagious). Yet there is no doubt that she was extraordinary. Wanting to be a serious poet, she became of necessity a writer of children’s books. But though she disdained her true gift, she was peculiarly suited by nature to be what in fact she was. As an adult, writing of her own childhood, she noted, “When I was a little child I used to pray fervently, tearfully, that when I should be grown up I might never forget what I thought and felt and suffered then.” With extraordinary perceptiveness, she realized that each grown-up must kill the child he was before he himself can live. Nesbit’s vow to survive somehow in the enemy’s consciousness became, finally, her art—when this you see remember me—and the child within continued to the end of the adult’s life.
E. Nesbit’s failure in the United States is not entirely mysterious. We have always preferred how-to-do to let’s-imagine-that. In the last fifty years, considering our power and wealth, we have contributed relatively little in the way of new ideas of any sort. From radar to rocketry, we have had to rely on other societies for theory and invention. Our great contribution has been, characteristically, the assembly line.
I do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, wouldn’t it be interesting if…? he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it will be like to own a car and make money. As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American society, and though a reading of E. Nesbit is hardly going to change the pattern of a nation, there is some evidence that the child who reads her will never be quite the same again, and that is probably a good thing.
December 3, 1964
Books in print by E. Nesbit. All the titles that follow are published by Coward McCann; editions from other publishers are available as indicated: The Book of Dragons (Looking Glass Library); The Enchanted Castle; The Five Children and It (Looking Glass Library, Penguin); Five of Us and Madeline; Harding’s Luck; The House of Arden; The Magic City; The Magic World; The New Treasure Seekers; Nine Unlikely Tales; Oswald Bastable and Others; The Phoenix and the Carpet (Looking Glass Library); The Railway Children (Penguin); The Story of the Amulet (Looking Glass Library); The Treasure Seekers (Penguin); Wet Magic; The Wonderful Garden; The Wouldbegoods (Penguin). ↩