The young Noel Coward thought E. Nesbit was ‘the most genuine Bohemian I had ever seen’. Berta Ruck called her ‘the Duchess’. Nesbit set herself up as the complete Edwardian: a free-thinker, a matriarch and a madcap. She bobbed her hair, carried her tobacco in a corset box, and acquiesced in her Fabian husband’s disdain for the suffragettes: ‘Votes for women? ... Votes for dogs!’ She wrote feeble verses which she prized, and robust books for children which made her famous. Like many successful writers of fiction for the young, she produced unhappy offspring: she was not wild about children; she was transfixed by the idea of herself as a child.
In 1933, nine years after Nesbit’s death, Doris Langley Moore published an extremely lively biography. She did so in the face of considerable difficulties. Nesbit’s family was wary; important witnesses to her life were squeamish about providing testimony. George Bernard Shaw announced that ‘as Edith was an audaciously unconventional lady and Hubert an exceedingly unfaithful husband he does not see how a presentable biography is possible as yet; and he has nothing to contribute to a mere whitewashing operation.’ The Shavian reluctance was overcome, and Doris Langley Moore’s biography did not pussyfoot. But there were some things she could not say. Julia Briggs says them.
When Edith Nesbit married Hubert Bland in 1880 she was 21, and seven months pregnant. She had spent her childhood shuttling across Europe with her tubercular sister and widowed mother: a series of autobiographical sketches – more rosy and much more plaintive than her books for children – record her wailing at schools, romping in orchards, screaming at the dark in strange lodging-houses. As a young woman, she had written verses about wild wet woods and drifted spirits, and become engaged to a young bank clerk. Her fiancé introduced her to her future husband.
Hubert Bland was very big and very vain. The son of a Woolwich clerk, he sported a top hat, a black-ribboned monocle, and an aggressively argumentative manner. When his wife wanted to make sure he saw a message she would prop it in the frame of a looking-glass (Julia Briggs deposits this information in a footnote, as she does other sprightly details). Bland’s photograph shows a severe mouth, a frisky but well-tended moustache, and a chin angled to indicate resolution and disapproval: it is the face of a man hell-bent on suggesting keen-eyed scrutiny and easy aristocratic scorn. In middle age he sprouted a Roman Catholic faith, which he boasted about but barely practised: he told his son it was ‘quite a good faith’. Throughout his life he thought of himself as a ‘particularly and peculiarly masculine person’, and wrote about women with twinkling contempt: ‘Women’s métier in the world ... is to inspire romantic passion ... Romantic passion is inspired by the women who wear corsets.’ Nearly everything about Bland was preposterous: something about him was irresistible. Not long after meeting him, Nesbit was writing excited letters about the ‘jolly larks’ they had had together in country pubs. A year later she was penning verses about ‘a woman’s love, and a man’s desire’. When she waddled into the registry office, she was not the only woman to have tasted Bland’s ‘strong enchantment, a subtle power’. Maggie Doran, his mother’s companion, had just given birth to his son.
Julia Briggs gives a full account of these events, as she does of all events. She is a very able researcher; she does not always have a light touch. Her biography is designed to be more even-handed than Doris Langley Moore’s, which was peppered with moral judgments, but her view of Nesbit as a ‘woman of passion’ is a cherishing one – and her commentary does not have the spice of her more autocratic predecessor’s. She tells us that Bland was ‘a delightful companion’. She also tells us that, ‘as well as being deeply understanding’, Nesbit was ‘capable of feeling desperately hurt, angry and betrayed’. Bland gave his wife plenty of opportunity to exercise these capacities: according to Shaw, he got a headache if he couldn’t have a woman. For the first ten years of his marriage to Nesbit he carried on carrying on with Maggie Doran – whose son untraceably vanished. He seduced one of his daughter’s school-friends. When Nesbit was pregnant with her fourth child, Bland embarked on an affair with her nurse. The child was still-born; the love affair lasted for the rest of Bland’s life.
The ‘nurse’ was Alice Hoatson, who four years earlier had accepted one of Nesbit’s short stories for publication in Sylvia’s Home Journal. Called ‘Mouse’ by the Blands, and known as ‘Uncle Harry’ to the readers of her poems for children, Hoatson underweeningly described herself to Nesbit’s first biographer as ‘the humble satellite to a comet’ (she meant Nesbit). Julia Briggs, who is well-disposed towards comets, takes her at her word. Doris Langley Moore didn’t. She doubted that it was in Hoatson’s nature to subjugate herself, ‘except out of policy’: life in the Bland household, where Hoatson lived as companion, housekeeper and amanuensis, was more glamorous than life with her mother in Brixton. It also allowed her to keep an eye on her children. With uncanny timing, Alice Hoatson presented Bland first with a daughter, then with a son, a few months after Nesbit lost her fourth and fifth babies. Both children were brought up thinking that Nesbit was their mother.
E. Nesbit was given a halo by Doris Langley Moore for continuing to harbour Hoatson and her children after she had established that Bland was the father. Julia Briggs, who is less inclined to award marks, or to draw conclusions, is on this point more realistic. Her researches show that Nesbit’s behaviour towards her adopted children was neither saintly nor particularly nice: they felt that they were treated differently by her, and knew themselves to be so when they were left out of her will. The addition of Alice Hoatson to the household prompted some wishful verses from Nesbit on the subject of ‘The Husband of Today’ – ‘only the brute in me yields to the pressure of longings inherent,’ booms the erring spouse of the title: it also meant that there was someone to do the mending when the authoress was busy writing and dazzling. And the complications of the situation may have held a thrill for Nesbit. Though trendily expressed, Julia Briggs’s account of her subject’s attitude towards her husband rings true: ‘Edith found it impossible to write herself into the script of Bland’s love life without becoming his usual confidante, occasionally his accomplice, and always his audience.’ It rings the truer because of a piece of scripting which Mrs Briggs doesn’t examine, and which makes Nesbit appear less floppy. When she came to write her stories about the Bastable children, Nesbit drew on the experiences of her childhood and of her children, but gave her characters the names of her intimate friends. Julia Briggs shows that two of Nesbit’s lovers – Richard Reynolds and Oswald Barron – are saluted in the figures of Dicky and Oswald Bastable. She also suggests that in these books Nesbit represented herself as twins: a weedy boy poet and his spirited sister. The weed’s name is Noel: Mrs Briggs has discovered that Noel Griffith, a friend of Reynolds and Barron, was another of Nesbit’s lovers. His twin – a continuously praised creature whom Mrs Briggs sees as ‘an image of E. Nesbit’s energetic and dominating side, standing guard over a less confident but more creative inner self’ – is called Alice.
E. Nesbit wanted to be in charge. She was manipulative, self-dramatising and alluring. In a series of South London homes – first poky, later rambling – she entertained. She liked to lay on feasts, and she liked to play games – cards, hide-and-seek, forfeits. At one unappealing-sounding session of charades, baby Bland was obliged to perform as Endymion. She also liked holiday-making: tripping down the Medway with her entourage, diving into locks and paddling at Versailles. All this strenuous jollity sometimes seems to bear the same relationship to gaiety as telling jokes does to a sense of humour. But the charm which Julia Briggs enthusiastically catalogues – ‘vitality’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘fun’ are key words in her descriptive vocabulary – is amply attested to by Nesbit’s friends. So are other qualities. Nesbit was larky. She was arrestingly got up, in bangles, Turkish slippers and flowing dresses. And she was foul-tempered. She was given to flouncing out of her feasts, to banging doors and to inscribing accusatory jingles – the more reproachful for their jokiness – to friends who had failed to include her in expeditions. Julia Briggs is indulgent about these tempers. She thinks it ‘inevitable that the self, and its urgent demands and satisfactions, should be respected’ in an artist, and says that Nesbit’s friends realised that her tantrums were ‘merely the reverse side of a temperament that could radiate sunshine’. But the ‘merely’ must have depended on which side a friend more frequently saw.
For Nesbit’s children, the sunshine was often as bad as the scowls. Prisoners of their mother’s most winsome impulses, they were sent to school dressed as tiny Kate Greenaways and Walter Cranes; at the end of parties they were despatched to the main road to hand out remaindered roses to passers-by. Nesbit wooed and often won their friends, and interfered in their love affairs. One of the Bland daughters detected ‘a very distinct streak of cruelty’ in Nesbit; the other glumly commented that her mother was ‘never really interested in girls’. Julia Briggs gives a shrewd account of their difficulties, an account which illuminates Nesbit’s books for children. In these books, Nesbit is expansive about the sensitivities of her young characters: their feelings can be seen to correspond closely to her feelings as an adult.
E. Nesbit used her fictions for the young to celebrate and to exculpate herself. These are books in which the generous intentions of children come to grief in an adult world, and in which there is little room for little women with their ‘jaw about being good’. The vocabulary of contempt and approval is deliberately gruff: ‘duffers’, ‘jolly’, ‘snivelling pigs’, ‘ripping’. The most enthusiastically described female characters are tender-hearted hoydens, who are quick to take the initiative – stopping a train by waving their red flannel petticoats – but who afterwards faint, who join in pranks but cry about their naughtiness, and who know how to wheedle. Small boys are given extensive instruction in the bravery, vulnerability and caring qualities of these hoydens, qualities with which the author shows herself to be inward.
Nesbit’s heroes are unlike those of her contemporaries (she died in the same year as Frances Hodgson Burnett) in having not only character but forceful personalities. They are irritable, embarrassable, funny and ingenious. Gore Vidal has remarked that they are exactly like adults, ‘except for one difference. In a well-ordered and stable society (England in the time of the gross Edward), children are as clearly defined a minority group as Jews and Negroes in other times and places.’ The beleaguered nature of these fictional families (several of whom are further isolated by the death or misfortune of a parent) gives Nesbit’s books a distinctive edge. Her bands of children have an apprehension of adult problems – they learn, for example, what it is to be poor – and a sense of responsibility. As comrades they try to put things right.
Nesbit was not beleaguered in these ways, though she didn’t always have money, and can hardly have felt in control as far as Bland was concerned. But she responded warmly to the idea of belonging to a small company set apart from, and sometimes in opposition to the rest of the world. She spent a large part of her life forming societies and prosecuting projects: many of her activities are mimicked by her fictional protagonists. She organised working parties to provide tableaux, tea and knitted comforters for those known to Oswald Bastable as ‘the poor and indignant’; the children of The Wouldbegoods set up a benevolent bar for tramps, which founders when meths is dispensed instead of lemonade. She briefly edited a small magazine. In The Treasure Seekers the Bastables attempt to restore the family fortunes by producing the Lewisham Recorder, explaining in their editorial:
Every paper is written for some reason. Ours is because we want to sell it and make money. If what we have written brings happiness to any sad heart we shall not have laboured in vain. But we want the money too.
Julia Briggs notes that Nesbit’s espousal of Baconianism can be seen as one aspect of a lifelong preoccupation with anti-Establishment groups, secret societies and instant solutions – a preoccupation which is explored in her tales about amulets, phoenixes and flying carpets. The Blands’ involvement with the Fellowship of the New Life finds a place in The New Treasure Seekers, in the figure of the ‘all-wooler’ Eustace Sandal.
In 1884 the Blands ceased to be New Lifers, and became founder members of the Fabian Society. Bland was regarded with some suspicion by Shaw and other members, who considered him ‘a regular Blackheath Tory’, but Julia Briggs indicates the gifts that co-existed with his bigotry. No one who moved from failure as a brush manufacturer to success as a columnist for the Sunday Chronicle could have lacked drive and ability. No one who, according to Doris Langley Moore, read Browning’s poetry aloud ‘in a manner that smoothed away all its difficulties’ could have been short on plausibility. Bland made an efficient chairman, an effective pamphleteer and an enthusiastic recruiter. He also had an appetite for political manoeuvring.
Nesbit was less prominent in the society, partly because she had less time. She was earning money: by painting Christmas cards with garlands of almond blossom and violets, by selling her stories and poems to newspapers and magazines, by giving recitations in Working Men’s Clubs. Her political sympathies are apparent in her books for children, which contain improving paragraphs on the cruelties of the Tsarist regime and the plight of the match-girls – and in which Annie Besant puts in an appearance as a Babylonian queen. Fabian meetings were, for her, among other things, social events. Shaw noted the ‘little drawing-room tricks’ by which she attracted attention, and a tendency to ‘get up vendettas’. When the meetings grew bigger and more public, Nesbit didn’t turn up.
Bland, who turned easily from poseur into parodist, wrote cunningly about the self-regard generated by the coteries of the 1880s: the retreat to a ‘little world ... of old romance, of strangely designed wallpapers, and of sad-coloured velveteen. Many of us (though I was not one of them) wore velveteen all day. I wore it only in the evening.’ Beneath the velveteen was venom. When H.G. Wells tried to propel the Fabians towards more vigorous political action there was a row with the Blands. When Wells was intercepted with Bland’s daughter Rosamund at Paddington Station, en route for the Continent, there was another row. In her best chapter, Julia Briggs examines the vitriol heaped on the Blands in Wells’s autobiographical writings: she demolishes his protestations of purity, but accepts much of his analysis. Wells’s claim that he had caught conspiracy from the Blands may have been disingenuous, but his description of their ‘web of concealments and intrigues’ accords with the descriptions of others. His claim that the ‘steamy jungle episode’ with Rosamund was simply an attempt to rescue her from the attentions of her father was daft, but Julia Briggs finds evidence to support his idea that Bland’s attachment to his daughter was ‘unusually intense’: his statements about the asexuality of paternal affection are defensively emphatic – and Rosamund was to write with particular insight about the ‘deadly lure’ of fantasy by which her father maintained ‘a tremendous hold on anyone he had ever possessed’.
Wells thought that it was Bland’s fear of his wife’s ‘quickness and whim’ which made him retreat into a posturing conservatism, a conservatism which gave savour to his life as a libertine: ‘I am a student, an experimentalist ... in illicit love,’ Bland explained. Nesbit’s bohemianism could also be thought of as a retreat. To a series of younger lovers she played the tomboy – she reminded Richard le Gallienne of ‘robbing orchards, playing truant’ – but Wells was not alone in feeling that she generated an ‘essential physical coldness’. Julia Briggs points out that the men she asked to run away with her were mostly men who were unlikely to do so. The antiquarian Ernest Budge failed to live up to his name. Shaw lived up to his track-record: his dalliance involved tramping through rainy Islington, the expenditure of an occasional carefully accounted-for florin, and the odd torrid kiss. Julia Briggs, who deals with the assiduously excavated but dreary details of Nesbit’s pursuit of Shaw at considerable length, thinks that his lack of ardour was ‘the greatest disappointment’ of Nesbit’s life. But Nesbit seems to have been happiest when being a chum to her admirers. After Bland’s death she married Thomas Tucker, Captain of the Woolwich ferry, who, Mrs Briggs explains, ‘had the vowels of a London waterman, however genuine his feelings’. The Tuckers adopted nautical jargon, brewed coffee in the Captain’s galley, and danced hornpipes. Nesbit, who said that these were the most contented years of her life, had become the jolly sister of her own fictions.
The jolliest adults in Nesbit’s books for children are writers, and Julia Briggs observes that her fictional heroes ‘occupy a book-shaped world’. She is right. As narrators, they offer notes on the art of fiction: ‘You will not catch me saying, “thus the sad days passed slowly by” – or “the years rolled on their weary course” ... because it is silly; of course time goes on – whether you say so or not.’ As adventurers, they are fired by what they have read: a small girl faces an intruder fearlessly because she knows from books that a ‘little girl’s artless prattle’ will cause a burglar to forget ‘his burglarishness ... if Jane hesitated for a moment ... it was only because she could not at once think of any remark sufficiently artless and prattling to make a beginning with.’ Julia Briggs thinks that this bookishness has ‘served to date’ Nesbit’s books. It has certainly not outdated books which Puffin have continuously reissued for the last twenty years. It does contribute to their Edwardian flavour. The detailed evocation of households in which The Monarch of the Glen stood next to the umbrella stand, and in which dinner meant cold mutton and sago, is one of the fascinations of Nesbit’s tales. Another is the ‘witty and intelligent prose style’ which Vidal explains has doomed them to failure in America.
Nesbit has received less praise for her realistic stories than for her fantasies, which lend themselves more readily to large speculations. Julia Briggs follows Alison Lurie and Gore Vidal in pointing to the vanity-of-human-wishes theme of these fantasies, and to their use of magic as a metaphor for the writer’s imagination. Margaret and Michael Rustin go further. Narratives of Love and Loss discusses several books for children which the authors see as concerned with questions of emotional development and in which they perceive ‘latent depths of meaning’. The popularity of the works selected may, they think, testify to their ‘richness and emotional veracity’ – though Enid Blyton’s popularity apparently does nothing of the kind. The Rustins propose – convincingly, though not surprisingly – that the loss of security and of ‘loved people and places’ is a central theme of modern children’s fiction. They also propose that the children in these stories ‘experience relationships and states of loss not only in external fact, but in their imaginations, through symbolic representations of themselves or their loved objects’. Children have minds.
The Rustins see a fairy doll as standing for the parents of a miserable child (‘wand = penis’), and a boy’s pet gerbils as ‘an oedipal bid to produce his babies for mother’. In the case of Nesbit, whom they interestingly identify as pioneering some of the themes of postwar children’s fiction, they find in the Psammead (sand-fairy) of Five Children and It a ‘remembered parental voice’ which helps the children through a period of deprivation. This interpretation is more possible than evident: the children of this story are rather less deprived than those of Nesbit’s other fictions (their parents are away, not dead or imprisoned); the sand-fairy, for all its antique powers, behaves like a crotchety and precocious child. The possibilities proliferate. Some of them engage with the perceptible intensities of Nesbit’s books: the Rustins nicely analyse the sand-fairy’s combination of cuddly and repellent qualities. Some don’t. When the children spill ink on their letters the Rustins tell us that ‘we could see this as further metaphors for tears’: but why should we? They argue that ‘perhaps there is an association between the Psammead and the granny’: but in whose mind?
Good fiction may fizz with interpretative possibilities: unsuccessful fiction presents the critic with an agenda. Julia Briggs is usually a very literary critic – so much so that she compares the reunion of father and daughter in The Railway Children with that of Lear and Cordelia. Faced with Nesbit’s often dud excursions into adult fiction, she offers an analysis based on their exploration of ‘female topography’: a charting of hidden courtyards, sluice gates and secret passages. This analysis – which could usefully have been expanded into a closer examination of the significance of the ghost story for Nesbit and contemporary writers – makes a mechanical sense out of Nesbit’s mechanical nonsense. It is also pertinent to Mrs Briggs’s interest in Nesbit as a half-modern woman. It is difficult to imagine a biography of a male writer which lingered so often on descriptions of its subject as beguiling or failing to be beguiling, or dealt so much in accounts of intensities of feeling rather than thought. In her headlong flight from her married name, Nesbit caricatured female waywardness as completely as Bland caricatured self-important maleness. But Bland doesn’t get any marks from Julia Briggs for being a man of passion.