Susannah Clapp

  • A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924 by Julia Briggs
    Hutchinson, 473 pp, £16.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 09 168210 X
  • Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction by Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin
    Verso, 268 pp, £22.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 86091 187 X

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.

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