Edith Nesbit 1858 - 1924

In writing recently about two best-selling authors of schoolboy stories, I realised that I had in fact neglected the great classics of children’s literature that had been published in the first few years of the 20th century. The first of these that I should look at are the works of Edith Nesbit, for she was I believe the founder of the genre of adventure stories for children. Previously, literature for children had been intended to uplift and, though this occasionally led to interesting stories, as in Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’, by and large what the Victorians thought children should read was not really much fun, certainly not for youngsters who wanted to be entertained rather than uplifted.

It was then the wonderful worlds that Edith Nesbit created in the years after old Queen Victoria’s death, in 1901, that laid the foundations for the books that have thrilled youngsters since, from the works of C S Lewis to those of J K Rowling in more recent years. That formula, of magic impinging on the day to day lives of ordinary children, was created in three superb and very different stories, ‘Five Children and It’, ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’ and ‘The Story of the Amulet’.

My own favourite amongst these was the first, which featured a strange creature called the Psammead, which was able to transport the children who found him through time, to wonderful adventures in a range of historical settings. Surprisingly, a few months back, switching through television channels, which I rarely do at home but which is the best way to recover from what seem endless speeches at conferences abroad, I came across a film of the book. It brought back many happy memories, even though the film seemed to me far too childish, but I realised that, whereas when I had read the book, in the mid-sixties, its characters had seemed to me much older than I was, in fact they were children barely into their teens.

A more serious flaw was that Nesbit’s Psammead was a stern creature who was not to be mocked, whereas its incarnation in the modern film seemed a bit of a caricature. However, the film did stress a part of the book that I had forgotten, which was the trauma the children were undergoing with their father away in the war, with the fear that he would never come back. The film ended with his return, and the Psammead, though he seemed to have helped to engineer this, was forgotten, left in his sandpile with the possibility of emerging again however to fascinate another generation. Interestingly, the house in the film, and the seashore on which the children walked and waited for their father to come back, brought to my mind the setting of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, with its evocation of holiday households in the long Edwardian summer that was so cruelly interrupted by the First World War.

‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’ had a more established mythical creature, in the form of the Phoenix of legend, as well as the traditional magic carpet which took the children into different worlds and times. There is only one Phoenix at any one time, and when he has lived out his life he is consumed by fire, with a new Phoenix emerging in time from the ashes. Nesbit’s Phoenix starts out very distant and haughty, but softens as he reaches the end of his days, and his immolation I remember as immensely moving. Interestingly, J K Rowling also uses a Phoenix in the Harry Potter stories, and also draws tears at its death, appropriately enough, given the healing powers of the Phoenix’s own tears.

Nesbit did not however deal only in magic, and was in fact very down to earth in ‘The Railway Children’, about relatively poor children who lived near a railway line, which brought down various characters who made their lives more exciting. They too, if I recollect aright, were missing a father, who was again restored to them at the end, which enabled escape too from the penurious lifestyle they had had to endure.

A socially superior version of these children occurred in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’, about the Bastable family, who were trying to restore their lost fortunes. I remember it best for the character of Oswald Bastable, the boy who narrates the story, though you have to guess who it is, for he begins by writing in the third person, inviting the reader to guess which one of the children is speaking. This allows him to emphasize the intelligence and heroism of Oswald, which he does insistently, occasionally introducing the first person into his narration, so that the reader solves the problem almost immediately. Still, he is clearly an enterprising and ultimately lovable hero, and he also manages to give due weight to all his varied siblings in the several books in which they appear, including ‘The Wouldbegoods’, which deals with a phenomenon known to all children, the troubles that arise from good intentions which an older generation cannot comprehend.

I cannot now remember most of the adventures all these children got up to, but one story did make a vivid impression, doubtless because I identified there not with the children, but with the ‘poor Indian’ of the title. The plot was very simple, relying on the fact that the children, when they heard an Indian was coming to visit, assumed that he must be poor and deserving of sympathy, since they associated all Indians with the phrase ‘Lo, the poor Indian’ from I think some sort of call to religious piety. They put together a collection for him, only to find out that he is a substantial figure, who does not need their charity.

Interestingly, while some see the story as an example of colonial era patronage, I suspect that the opposite was intended, Nesbit trying instead to convey the absurdity of stereotypes based on prevailing political conditions. Certainly she was a radical in her whole approach to life, so it is unlikely that she would actually have been shoring up a social system based on iniquity.

Nesbit indeed was a rather strange figure to have created the genre of what were seen as wholesome adventure stories for children. She was one of the founders of the Fabian Society, the precursor of the Labour Party, another notable luminary of the society being George Bernard Shaw. More alarmingly, she was several months pregnant when she married, and also had no problem about her husband having several children by another woman. She took them all under her wing, and seems to have been a perfectly good mother to all of them.

It would be nice to think it was this very practical approach to family that enabled her to create so many families based not on the traditional Victorian view of submission to parental authority, but on the independence and initiative of the children. I suspect however that this sort of psychological assessment would be too precious to sustain, and that we should simply be thankful that, at a time when the restrictions on literature of the Victorian era were lifting, there should also have emerged a writer who very firmly brought children and their concerns to centre stage.

The Island Online 12 August 2010 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=4185