Edith Nesbit, one of the most prolific writers of fantasy both for children and adults, is best known for two series of children’s stories, the Bastable books and her ‘‘magic’’ series, which were praised in her own time by Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells. Her stories distinguish them - selves from many of the children’s fantasies produced in the nineteenth century in their focus on children as members of families, in contrast to the solitary adventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice or the various heroines and heroes of George MacDonald’s stories.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Longing for Stability Nesbit was the youngest of the six children of John Collis Nesbit and Sarah Green Nesbit. Her father, who single-handedly administered an agricultural college—the first of its kind, founded by his father— died when Nesbit was three years old. Although she could not have had many memories of her father, the return of the absent father becomes a poignant moment in many of her fantasies. Her mother—indulgent toward all her children— took over her husband’s work for a time. Failing finances and the onset of tuberculosis in her oldest child, Mary, occasioned a series of moves, both in England and continental Europe. Consequently, Nesbit’s concern with stability of place and her nostalgia for the scenes of childhood play and relative calm were to remain intense throughout her life. Nesbit published ‘‘My School-Days’’ in a series of articles for The Girl’s Own
Paper during 1896–1897; many of these memories—adventures with her much-loved elder brothers, Henry and Alfred—were to be transformed into the escapades of her fictional children.
Nesbit was born and raised in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in urban factories instead of on farms, as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with the rules of proper behavior in society and a celebration of the innocence of childhood. This was reflected in the many popular periodicals of the time that focused on home and family life, such as the ones in which Nesbit’s work was published.
Early Writings and Marriage In 1880, Nesbit married Hubert Bland. Shortly after their marriage Bland contracted smallpox, and during his illness his business partner abandoned him, taking their joint capital. Nesbit, with her first child as well as her husband to support, wrote verses and painted pictures for greeting cards. She began writing short stories as well. The first of these was accepted by Alice Hoatson, a manuscript reader for a minor publication, Sylvia’s Home Journal. Hoatson later gave up her job and lived with the Blands, giving Nesbit needed assistance with her writing and with household tasks.
Nesbit’s first published novel, The Prophet’s Mantle (1885), was written in collaboration with her husband under the pseudonym Fabian Bland; it was not well received. After Bland’s recovery, he began a successful journalistic career in which Nesbit also collaborated. However, it was Nesbit’s steady and increasing production of verse and short narratives that supported their growing family, which eventually included the two children of Bland and Alice Hoatson. This was not Bland’s first infidelity; he had maintained a mistress during his courtship of Nesbit and continued to have affairs throughout his life. Nesbit’s reaction to the revelation of the paternity of Hoatson’s children was complex, yet she acquiesced at Bland’s insistence that Hoatson remain with them. It is possible that Nesbit realized, although not consciously, that by taking upon herself the household management and a great deal of the child rearing, Hoatson was helping to facilitate Nesbit’s increasingly demanding career.
Nesbit and Bland were active members in the Byron and Shelley societies, and they became influential in the newly founded socialist group, the Fabian Society. These activities brought them into contact with many of the leading intellectuals of their time, notably H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.
An Independent Voice Nesbit was almost forty before she began to publish fiction outside of serial collections edited by others. Her own first ventures were two collections, Grim Tales and Something Wrong, both published in 1893; these books included stories from various serial publications. Both collections received cautiously positive reviews and are the earliest evidence of Nesbit’s work as a writer of the fantastic. Between 1894 and 1899, Nesbit published more verse, and continued to produce minor children’s books such as Pussy Tales and Doggy Tales (both 1895), which resembled Beatrix Potter’s more famous animal stories, although Nesbit’s characteristically astringent tone was already present in parent/child exchanges. These were almost the last such books she produced. She also wrote children’s versions of William Shakespeare’s plays and a series of historical narratives, Royal Children in English History (1897), although her own historical novels would not appear for several years.
Success with Children’s Books The deep fund of memory tapped first by her Bastable stories, beginning with The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and continued in The Wouldbegoods (1901) led to success that was instantaneous and lasting. The highest royalties Nesbit ever received were the eleven hundred pounds she earned for The Wouldbegoods in its first year. It was not until she was commissioned by the editors of the Strand Magazine to write a series of stories, at thirty pounds per episode (as opposed to fifty pounds for a single
book), that she began the series of fantastic tales upon which much of her fame as a writer would rest.
These seven stories, collected in The Book of Dragons (1899), are Nesbit’s playful variations on dragon stories, and they contain almost all of the elements, excepting only time
travel, that were to become the hallmarks of Nesbit’s fantasies for children. On occasion, Nesbit favored a mathematical or logical solution to the narrative dilemma, and an early case in point is ‘‘The Island of the Nine Whirlpools,’’ in which the dragon can be defeated only when all of the whirlpools are stilled. The hero discovers the equation that determines the crucial moment and is able to claim that he has won the princess by ‘‘love and mathematics.’’
‘‘The Crowded Years’’ Nesbit called her next collection of stories Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901). The title is appropriate since Nesbit exploits the fairy tale for structure while interpolating her own, distinctively improbable, content. These stories may have been, in part, a reaction against the conventionality of the tales she had contributed to other collections. Nesbit departs almost completely from the fairy tale into the fable in ‘‘Whereyouwanttogoto; or, the Bouncible Ball,’’ the story of two children who spoil a perfect vacation by bickering and, in a fit of pique, cut open the magical ball that has provided their adventures.
Nesbit’s biographer, Julia Briggs, calls the 1900s ‘‘the crowded years.’’ because not only was Nesbit completing the Bastable books and writing several minor stories, she was also embarking on a new children’s series, her ‘‘magic’’ series, beginning with Five Children and It.
Works in Literary Context
Nesbit’s plots are often motivated by the desire not merely for amusement but for marvels. She introduces her fantastic creatures into the contemporary reality of her characters, whose adventures are inspired by their reading books about Atlantis or Babylon, besieged castles, or the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Finally, she adds the element of time travel; her fantastic voyages are inspired by works of F. Anstey, such as Tourmalin’s Time Cheques (1891) and The Brass Bottle (1900), as much as by H. G. Wells.
Fantasy and Fairy Tale Conventions Oswald Bastable and Others shows contradictory tendencies in Nesbit’s fiction; certain tales seem to look beyond affirming the status quo, while elsewhere in the collection the reader encounters stories that are conventional, if not reactionary. For example, the story ‘‘The Ring and the Lamp’’ presents a twist in the usual genie story because the servants of the two magical objects reject their assigned roles—‘‘No one really likes being in service,’’— form a company, and employ the fathers of the two girls who originally summoned them.
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