Riding the Wave of the Future

The Enchanted Castle

by E. Nesbit
Buccaneer, $10.95

The Last of the Dragons

by E. Nesbit
McGraw-Hill, $8.95

The Railway Children

by E. Nesbit
Penguin, $2.95 (paper)

The Story of the Amulet

by E. Nesbit
Penguin, $2.95 (paper)

Five Children and It

by E. Nesbit
Penguin, $2.95 (paper)

The Phoenix and the Carpet

by E. Nesbit
Penguin, $2.95 (paper)

Edith Nesbit
Edith Nesbit; drawing by David Levine

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…

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