Thursday, January 10, 2013

Children's Literature: E. Nesbit

I'm sure that British children are still growing up reading E. Nesbit (at least, I hope so), but she definitely qualifies as lesser-known in the United States.  I was quite lucky and grew up reading her fantasy titles because my mother ordered them from the UK in about 1970 for a library school project, but as far as most Americans were concerned, Nesbit was virtually unknown until her books started to be reprinted as paperback classics--probably in the very late 80s.  In my experience relatively few people have read her amazing books.

Nesbit was one of the great children's writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At that time, British literature for children was overwhelmingly imaginative, which is lovely, but Nesbit brought in new ideas with her books about ordinary British children.  And I do mean ordinary--her characters were middle-class children who quite frequently had serious family problems to cope with.  These children were nice but real:  they bickered, they tore their clothes, they got into trouble, they came up with improbable plans that didn't work out, they disliked school.  And then they had adventures, sometimes even magic adventures.  E. Nesbit thus invented both realistic adventure stories and contemporary urban fantasy!

Edith Nesbit, or Mrs. Hubert Bland as she was known in private life, lived from 1858 -- 1924.  Her father died when she was a small child, and her family moved around constantly so that she lived a couple of places in England as well as France, Spain, and Germany.  When she was 19 and living in London, Nesbit met Hubert Bland, and married him a couple of years later, already 8 months pregnant.  It didn't go that well.  Hubert had also gotten a couple of other women pregnant, and Edith had to adopt and raise one--and later, another.  (A. S. Byatt's recent novel, The Children's Book, is based upon the life and social circle of E. Nesbit.)

Nesbit and her husband were part of the group that founded the Fabian Society.  They admired William Morris and were socialists in the light Fabian style, but disliked the more radical socialist movements.  They edited the Society's newsletter and Nesbit wrote and lectured on Fabianism for years.  (You can even see some of her ideals in a couple of her children's fantasy novels, whenever anyone time-travels to the future.)

She wrote a tremendous number of children's books, sometimes in collaboration with others.  The stories I'm familiar with are the most famous, so I'll tell you a bit about those.  I grew up reading the fantasy stories and only found the realistic ones as an adult.  If you have children, be sure to make Nesbit books part of their library!

Realistic novels include:

the Bastable family stories, told by Oswald, who is a great (funny) narrator.  He and his siblings hunt for treasure, try to be good, and have various adventures together.

The Railway Children, with a different set of siblings.  They have moved to a small house near a railway while their father is mysteriously absent and they experience money problems.  The railway furnishes plenty of interest for the children.  I love this one.

The fantasy novels:

the Psammead books, with a group of 5 siblings (one an often-inconvenient baby) who accidentally wake up a Psammead or sand-fairy.  He is not pleased, but agrees to grant the children one wish per day.  In other books, the children find a phoenix and a magic carpet, or save the Psammead while also finding a magic amulet. 

the Arden books, and I must admit that The House of Arden is probably my favorite.  Two children discover their ancestral inheritance by meeting a mouldiwarp (a magic talking mole) and finding an upstairs room that takes them to different times in the past.

The Enchanted Castle, with three children exploring a great estate near their house.  Their make-believe play about the castle turns out not to be nearly as good as the magic that is really there, but sometimes it turns frightening.

The Book of Dragons, a collection of great stories about dragons, and another collection of fairy tales and stories called The Magic World (this is another personal favorite).

The Psammead
If you've never read Nesbit before, I hope you will put at least one of her books on your list.  Her books are wonderful, and she had tremendous influence for many great 20th century children's writers, including Edward Eager, C. S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, and Diana Wynne Jones.

1 comment:

amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

I will definitely be trying out a Nesbit title at some point down the road. I'd only heard of her thanks to a TV adaptation of The Railway Children which was shown in PBS a few years back. I certainly had no idea she had such an interesting life, or that some of her novels were fantasies!