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:
“Friends—fellow citizens—I cannot disguise from myself or from you that this purple dragon is a poor penniless exile, a helpless alien in our midst…. The defense of our country have been swallowed up,” said Uncle James.
Everyone thought of the poor army….
“Could we ever forgive ourselves if by neglecting a simple precaution we lost…our navy, our police, and our fire brigade? For I warn you that the purple dragon will respect nothing, however sacred.”
Everyone thought of themselves—and they said, “What is the simple precaution?”
“The present the dragon expects,” said Uncle James cheerfully, “is a rather expensive one. But, when we give, it should not be in a grudging spirit, especially to visitors. What the dragon wants is a Princess. We have only one Princess, it is true, but far be it from us to display a miserly temper at such a moment.”
Nesbit’s stories also take account of contemporary economic realities. Her families tend to be in financial trouble, just as the Blands so often were. Father is ill, or has lost his job or been defrauded by a business partner (as actually happened to Hubert Bland); he may even, as in The Railway Children, be in prison. Mother too may be ill (in Five of Us—and Madeline she has had a nervous breakdown) or she may be away caring for a sick relative. Often, as a result of these domestic disasters, the children have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in bleak, unattractive lodgings. Even when the family is intact they are usually in cramped economic circumstances. The situation is most depressing if they live in town: for, as Nesbit remarks in Five Children and It, “London is like a prison for children, especially if their relatives are not rich.”
Even Nesbit’s classic fairy-tale characters may have to cope with Edwardian London. After the King and Queen in “Princess and Hedge-Pig” are turned out of their castle by an usurper, their daughter finds them “living in quite a poor way in a semi-detached villa at Tooting” where “the garden is small and quite full of wet washing hung on lines,” and the road is “full of dust and perambulators.”
In Nesbit’s fiction, urbanization is always associated with capitalist greed. The King in “Fortunatus Rex & Co.” establishes “the largest speculative builders in the world”:
They bought up all the pretty woods and fields they could get and cut them up into squares, and grubbed up the trees and the grass and put streets there and lamp-posts and ugly little yellow brick houses, in the hopes that people would want to live in them. And curiously enough people did. So the King and his Co. made quite a lot of money.
It is curious that nearly all the great fortunes are made by turning beautiful things into ugly ones. Making beauty out of ugliness is very illpaid work.
One of Nesbit’s recurrent themes is the aesthetic unpleasantness not only of jerry-built modern suburbs but of cities in general and especially of London, that “hateful, dark, ugly place.” Many of us are now so accustomed to the nostalgic, prettified BBC version of Edwardian London that we have forgotten, if we ever knew, that in the early years of this century much of the city was filthy and many of its inhabitants sick or starving; its streets were fouled with horse manure and urine, its river polluted, and its air often unfit to breathe. (The pea-soup fogs that lend mystery and charm to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were in fact a damp, poisonous smog.) In The Story of the Amulet, a rash wish brings the Queen of Babylon, whom the children have met in the past, to London. It appalls her.
“But how badly you keep your slaves. How wretched and poor and neglected they seem,” she said, as the cab rattled along the Mile End Road.
“They aren’t slaves; they’re working-people,” said Jane.
“Of course they’re working. That’s what slaves are. Don’t you tell me. Do you suppose I don’t know a slave’s face when I see it? Why don’t their masters see that they’re better fed and better clothed?… You’ll have a revolt of your slaves if you’re not careful,” said the Queen.
“Oh, no,” said Cyril; “you see they have votes—that makes them safe not to revolt. It makes all the difference. Father told me so.”
“What is this vote?” asked the Queen. “Is it a charm? What do they do with it?”
“I don’t know,” said the harassed Cyril; “it’s just a vote, that’s all! They don’t do anything in particular with it.”
“I see,” said the Queen; “a sort of plaything.”
Later in the same book the Amulet takes the children into a future in which England has become a Fabian Utopia, a city of parks and flowers with clean air and an unpolluted Thames. People live in beautiful uncluttered houses and wear loose woolly clothes of the sort favored by William Morris and the Aesthetic Movement. There are no idle rich: everyone works and no one goes hungry; the schools are progressive and coeducational, and both men and women care for babies.
The typical Victorian fantasy for children, though it may begin in the real world, soon moves into some timeless Wonderland or country at the back of the North Wind. One of Nesbit’s most brilliant innovations was to reverse the process, and bring magic into modern London.3 She was the first to imagine, for a child audience, what might be the actual consequences of the delivery by magic carpet of a hundred and ninety-nine Persian cats to the basement dining-room of a house in Camden Town, or of the transformation of one’s brother into a ten-foot boy giant.
Even Nesbit’s short tales, though they may contain magicians and dragons and kings and queens, clearly take place in the present. The details of the stories, and the language in which they are told, are always up-to-date. Discarding the romantic diction of the fairy story and its conventional epithets, the golden hair and milk-white steeds, she uses contemporary juvenile slang and draws her comparisons from the Edwardian child’s world of experience. The dragon in “Uncle James” has “wings like old purple umbrellas that have been very much rained on,” and the court officials wear “gold coronets with velvet sticking up out of the middle like the cream in the very expensive jam tarts.” The hands of the unpleasant Miss Minto in Five of Us…are “like hot goldfishes, red and wet.”
Though we tend to take it for granted, the importance of magic in juvenile literature needs some explanation. Why, in a world that is so strange and wonderful and various, should children, to whom all this is new, want to read about additional, unreal wonders? The usual explanation is a psychological one: magic provides an escape from reality, or expresses fears and wishes. In the classic folk tale, according to this theory, fear of starvation becomes a witch or a wolf, cannibalism an ogre. Desire shapes itself as a pot that is always full of porridge, a stick that will beat one’s enemies on command, a mother who comes back to life as a benevolent animal or bird. Magic in children’s literature, too, can make psychological needs and fears concrete; children confront and defeat threatening adults in the form of giants, or they become supernaturally large and strong; and though they cannot yet drive a car they travel to other planets.
Magic can do all this; but it can do more. In the literary folk tale, it often becomes a metaphor for the imagination. Nesbit seems aware of this. “The Book of Beasts,” for instance, can be read as a fable about the power of imaginative art. The magic volume of its title contains colored pictures of exotic creatures which become real when the book is left open. The little boy who finds it releases first a butterfly, then a Bird of Paradise, and finally a dragon that threatens to destroy the country. If any book is vivid enough, this story says, what is in it will become real to us, and invade our world for good or evil. It is imagination, disguised as magic, that gives Nesbit’s characters (and by extension her readers) the power to journey through space and time: to see India or the South Seas, to visit Shakespeare’s London, ancient Egypt, or a future Utopia. It will even take them to Atlantis, or to a mermaid’s castle under the sea.
All these places, of course, are the traditional destinations of fantasy voyages, even today. But an imagination that can only operate in conventional fantasy scenery is in constant danger of becoming sentimental and escapist. At its worst, it produces the sort of mental condition that manifests itself in plastic unicorns and a Disney World version of foreign countries. True imaginative power like Nesbit’s, on the other hand, is strong enough to transform the most prosaic contemporary scene, and comedy is its best ally. Nesbit’s magic is as much at home in a basement in Camden Town as on a South Sea island, and it is never merely romantic. Though it grants the desires of her characters, it may also expose these desires as comically misconceived.
Five Children and It, for instance, is not only an amusing adventure story but a tale of the vanity of human—or at least juvenile—wishes. The children in it want to be “as beautiful as the day”; they ask for a sandpit full of gold sovereigns, giant size and strength, and instant adulthood. Each wish leads them into an appropriate comic disaster. When they become beautiful, for instance, their baby brother does not recognize them and bursts into howls of distrust, and they begin to quarrel among themselves—a not-unusual result of such transformations in real life. In every case, when the spell ends at sunset the children are greatly relieved. The reader, of course, has the pleasure of living out these granted wishes in imagination, plus the assurance that his or her unattainable desires are not so desirable after all; it is the same sort of double satisfaction that adults get from reading in People magazine of the discomforts of the rich and famous.
Sometimes Nesbit’s magical transformations are not so much imaginative projections of what might come to pass as metaphors for the actual state of things. Often they make literal the perception that many adults have no idea of what is going on with the children who are living with them, and possibly don’t even care. In The Enchanted Castle, for instance, Mabel finds a ring that makes her invisible; but it is clear that she was already more or less invisible to the aunt with whom she lives. Mabel’s aunt feels not the slightest anxiety about her disappearance, and readily swallows a madeup story about her niece’s having been adopted by a lady in a motorcar. The other children are shocked by this insouciance, but Mabel explains that her aunt’s mind is clogged with sentimental fantasy: “She’s not mad, only she’s always reading novelettes.” (We would call them popular romances.)
The same kind of thing occurs in Five Children and It. When, as the result of an impetuous wish, the children’s home is attacked by Red Indians, the cook and parlormaid remain quite unaware of what is happening. They continue to go about their domestic business with self-absorbed complacency, just as many adults do in the presence of children who are haunted by imagined terrors that are nevertheless real and threatening to them.
For Nesbit, comedy is the frequent ally of this sort of metaphoric magic. In “The Cockotoucan” the laughter of a magical bird transforms everything and everyone, in the process revealing their true nature. The unpleasant nursemaid Pridmore, for instance, becomes an Automatic Nagging Machine like the candy dispensers in London railway stations, “greedy, grasping things which take your pennies and give you next to nothing in chocolate and change.” (What comes out of Pridmore are little rolls of paper with remarks on them like “Don’t be tiresome.”) As the Cockotoucan continues to laugh, the king of the country is exposed as a vulgar, undersized fraud: “his crown grew large and brassy, and was set with cheap glass in the worst possible taste;…his sceptre grew twenty feet long and extremely awkward to carry.”
In the most striking episode of The Enchanted Castle, Nesbit’s Fabian convictions, her comic sense, and her use of magic as a metaphor work together. Mabel and the other children decide to put on a play, and because there are only three adults to watch it, they construct an audience out of old clothes, pillows, umbrellas, brooms, and hockey sticks, with painted paper faces. A magic ring brings these ungainly creatures to life, and they are transformed into awful caricatures of different types of contemporary adults. Eventually, most of the “Ugly-Wuglies” (as Gerald calls them) are disenchanted and become piles of old clothes again, but one remains alive. He is the sort of elderly gentleman “who travels first class and smokes expensive cigars,” and Jimmy, the most materialistic of the children, is rather impressed by him:
“He’s got a motor-car,” Jimmy went on, “…and a garden with a tennis court and a lake and a carriage and pair…. He’s frightfully rich…. He’s simply rolling in money. I wish I was rich.”
And, since he has the magic ring, his wish is instantly granted:
By quick but perfectly plain-to-be-seen degrees Jimmy became rich…. The whole thing was over in a few seconds. Yet in those few seconds they saw him grow to a youth, a young man, a middle-aged man; and then, with a sort of shivering shock, unspeakably horrible and definite, he seemed to settle down into an elderly gentleman, handsomely but rather dowdily dressed, who was looking down at them through spectacles and asking them the nearest way to the railway station….
“Oh, Jimmy, don’t!” cried Mabel desperately.
Gerald said: “This is perfectly beastly,” and Kathleen broke into wild weeping.
In his new persona Jimmy no longer knows the other children and is very unpleasant to them. But he turns out to be well acquainted with the elderly Ugly-Wugly, and they travel up to London together, followed by Jimmy’s desperate brother Gerald. There it appears that both Jimmy and the Ugly-Wugly have offices in the City complete with “a tangle of clerks and mahogany desks.” An office boy tells Gerald that in spite of their apparent friendship, the two stock-brokers “is all for cutting each other’s throats—oh, only in the way of business—been at it for years.”
The whole episode plunges Gerald into a kind of existential crisis:
[He] wildly wondered what magic and how much had been needed to give history and a past to these two things of yesterday, the rich Jimmy and the Ugly-Wugly. If he could get them away would all memory of them fade—in this boy’s mind, for instance, in the minds of all the people who did business with them in the City? Would the mahogany-and-clerk-furnished offices fade away? Were the clerks real? Was the mahogany? Was he himself real?
Since Gerald is a character in a book, the answer to this last question is No. He is literally no more real than the elderly Ugly-Wugly—he too is a creature composed playfully out of odds and ends and imagined into life. But however unreal Gerald may be, Nesbit is clearly suggesting, there is something even more unreal about the successful City man. Essentially, in spite of the pomps and circumstances of his exterior life, he is, as Gerald puts it, “only just old clothes and nothing inside.” He is an empty assemblage of expensive tailoring—and/or a greedy little boy who has grown up too fast.
It is also possible to see the magic in Nesbit’s tales as a metaphor for her own art. In many of her fantasies the children begin by using supernatural power in a casual, materialistic way: to get money and to play tricks on people. Gradually they find better uses for magic: in the final volume of Five Children, to unite the souls of an ancient and a modern scholar, and at the end of The Enchanted Castle to reveal the unity of all created things. Nesbit, similarly, first used her talents to produce hack work and pay the bills; only much later did she come to respect her gift and write the books for which she is remembered.
Nesbit’s magic can also be read as a metaphor for imaginative literature in general. Those who possess supernatural abilities or literary gifts, like the Psammead, are not necessarily attractive or good-tempered; they may be ugly, cross, or ridiculous. We do not know who will be moved by even the greatest works of art, or how long their power will last; and the duration and effect of magic in Nesbit’s stories are unpredictable in the same way. Certain sorts of people remain untouched by it, and it is often suspected of being a dream, a delusion, or a lie. The episode of the Ugly-Wuglies also suggests that things carelessly given life by the imagination may become frightening and dangerous; the writer may be destroyed by his or her second-rate creations—by the inferior work that survives to debase reputation, or by some casual production that catches the popular imagination and types its creator forever. And, though they were written nearly eighty years ago, Nesbit’s books express a common anxiety of writers today: that the contemporary world, with its speed of travel and new devices of communication, will soon have no use for literature. As practical Jimmy puts it in The Enchanted Castle: “I think magic went out when people began to have steam engines,…and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing.”
New as Nesbit’s stories are in comparison to most children’s books of her period, in some ways they also look back to the oldest sort of juvenile literature, the traditional folk tale. They recall the simplicity and directness of diction, and the physical humor, of the folk tale rather than the poetic language, intellectual wit, and didactic intention of the typical Victorian fairy tale.
Socially, too, Nesbit’s stories have affinities with folklore. Her adventurous little girls and athletic princesses recall the many traditional tales in which the heroines have wit, courage, and strength. And there is also a parallel with her political stance. The classic folk tales first recorded by scholars in the nineteenth century tend to view the world from a working-class perspective—not unnaturally, since most of them were collected from uneducated farmers, servants, and artisans. The heroes and heroines of these tales are usually the children of poor people. When they go out into the world to seek their fortunes they confront supernatural representatives of the upper classes: rich, ugly giants and magicians and ogres. Many of the traditional tales, like Nesbit’s, make fun of establishment figures. And, as has often been pointed out, the good kings and queens of the folk tale seem from internal evidence to be merely well-to-do farmers. (Literary retellings of these stories, however, from Perrault to the present, usually give their royalty a convincingly aristocratic setting.)
There is no way of knowing whether E. Nesbit went back to these traditional models consciously, or whether it was her own instinctive attitude to the world that made her break so conclusively with current conventions. Whatever the explanation, she was riding the wave of the future; and today, when writers like Mrs. Ewing and Mrs. Molesworth and Mrs. Mulock are gathering dust on the shelves of secondhand bookshops, her stories are still read and loved by children, and imitated by adults—including the present writer.
October 25, 1984
Doris Langley Moore, E. Nesbit (London: E. Benn, 1933; 1967). ↩
George Macdonald, however, is an exception to this rule. Curdie, the hero of The Princess and the Goblin, is the son of a miner, and Diamond in At the Back of the North Wind the son of a cabman. ↩
In this, it has been pointed out, she may have been following the lead of a contemporary writer of adult fantasy, F. Anstey. ↩