Edith Nesbit - A free and happy bounder

Edith Nesbit in South-East London and Kent
(An illustrated biography by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press 1997 £2.99)

Edith Nesbit and the Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace (Edit Nesbit Society 1996 £1.50)

Review Published in #138

The late Victorians were frightening people. Not content with having theories, they tried to put them into practice, which is rarely wise. The home life of our own dear Edith Nesbit was as different from that of the great Queen as it would be possible to imagine. The creator of ‘The Railway Children’ and her husband Hubert Bland were prominent Fabians and dallied with most of the advanced ideas of that frenetic period. Although Bland, who ‘never was seen without an irreproachable frock coat, tall hat, and a single eyeglass that infuriated everybody’, rejected most new approaches to life intellectually, physically he embraced them with all his formidable strength. The result was a complex extended family of a kind familiar enough to our own age, but in the nineteenth century rarely found outside the charmed circle of the old aristocracy, where ‘whose daughter are you?’ was a question the discreet learned never to ask.

In his valuable new biographical sketch Nicholas Reed guides us through this tangle of personal relationships, and also charts the family’s restless passage in and out of many homes. Here the only point of stability was south-east London, to which Edith Nesbit was more loyal than any other prominent writer. Although so many of them have disappeared Mr Reed had accomplished the improbable feat of bringing together pictures of all these diverse houses for his well-illustrated study. He also takes us on an excursion to Edith’s holiday paradise in deepest Kent, and indicates to what extent it is still possible to enjoy her rustic pleasures.

The most active part of her life came in the 1880’s and ‘90’s, when the family lived in and around Lewisham and Lee Hubert and Edith were at the forefront of advanced social and political discussion in the district, and their evening parties were frequented by Shaw, Sydney Oliver, the Webbs, and other stars of the Fabian Society. In ordering tickets for the first night of ‘Arms and the Man’ to be sent to her Shaw remarked that “Mrs Bland will be worth a thousand posters in Blackheath”.

Lewisham and Blackheath were the homes of the Bastable family in Edith’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ and its sequels. One of the few points on which I would take issue with Mr Reed is in his assertion that the house in Elswick Road, now marked with an Edith Nesbit plaque, was the model for the first Bastable home. In ‘The Treasure Seekers’ this is very specifically located in Lewisham Road (at No. 150 on the label of the Bastable children’s patent medicine bottle), and like the other local reference in the trilogy the description of the house is very accurate in all its details.

Fortunately for her literary reputation, Edith was far more conservative in her children’s books than in her private llife, for it is to nostalgia that she owes much of her enduring appeal. So conservative is she, in fact, that her embarrassed modern adaptors and dramatisers have felt impelled to insert dollops of feminism into her stories of which Edith was quite innocent. A passage from one of Noel Coward’s letters explains her continuing popularity as well as any. The secret is “her extraordinary power of describing hot summer days in England in the beginning years of the century”. She makes Oswald Bastable remark somewhere that it is impossible to describe happiness, but Edith Nesbit got as close to it as any.

The Noel Coward letter is quoted in Betty Griffin’s pamphlet. This, the first publication of the Edith Nesbit Society, gives some account of Edith’s childhood visits to the Crystal Palace and goes on to paraphrase her story ‘The Enchanted Castle’ (1907), which was inspired by memories of the prehistoric monsters. Included are reproductions of the evocative illustrations by H. R. Millar. The pamphlet will be very interesting to all Crystal Palace enthusiasts. My only minor reservation is that because of the haphazard management of quotation marks, it is at times not clear whether we are reading Edith Nesbit’s story or her editor’s commentary. This speaks better for Betty Griffin’s style than for her punctuation.

Between them, these two new publications give us a good idea of Edith Nesbit’s personality, her qualities and failings. In the ‘New Treasure Seekers’ she summed up her approach to life through her regular mouthpiece, Albert’s uncle. ‘Ladylike’ – that is the beastliest word there is, I think, and Albert’s uncle says so, too. He says “if a girl can’t be a lady it’s not worth while to be only like one – she’d better let it alone and be a free and happy bounder”.

John Coulter

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