Eleanor Fitzsimons on her fascinating research into E. Nesbit, author of The Railway Children and arguably the inventor of the children’s adventure story.

When I was a little girl I borrowed my weekly adventures from the children’s section in our local library in Terenure. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me what I should read but however I found them, the books I loved best were remarkable tales of magic and peril written by E. Nesbit. Like many Victorian women writers, Edith Nesbit decided to use her initial rather than her first name, believing perhaps that her books would sell better if readers assumed they had been written by a man. Several critics expressed astonishment when she finally revealed the truth by dedicating one of her books to her husband, Hubert Bland. In fact Nesbit’s great friend and fellow writer H.G. Wells, an admirer of her books before he ever met her, had been so convinced that she was a he that he insisted on calling her Ernest every time they met.

Although her passion was for poetry with a socialist theme, Nesbit rarely had time to indulge this. She was just twenty-one and heavily pregnant with their first child when she married the unreliable Hubert. Within weeks, he left his secure job in a bank to set up a brush manufacturing business with a partner. The business failed spectacularly and a bout of ill health left Hubert unable to work for several years. With no alternative available to her, Nesbit took over, writing verse for greeting cards she painted in a desperate attempt to keep her family afloat. Although she earned commissions to write and illustrate slight gift books for children, it wasn’t until she reached her early forties that she began to write the stories she is best remembered for.  

The secret of Nesbit’s enduring popularity was not her ability to write like a man but her talent for writing stories that would captivate a child. “There is only one way of understanding children,” she wrote.

They cannot be understood by imagination, by observation, nor even by love. They can only be understood by memory. Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children.

Explaining why her intrepid Bastable children from The Story of The Treasure Seekers, her five children who dug up a magic sand fairy named “It”, and her much beloved The Railway Children, seem so real, she wrote, “I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things”.

Readers and critics agreed. The entry for E. Nesbit in the Dictionary of National Biography explains:

Her characters were neither heroes nor moral dummies, but real young human beings behaving naturally. This gift of character drawing, aided by the ease and humour of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children.

A still from the 1970 movie adaptation

Since she abandoned the safe, moralising tales written by her Victorian predecessors, Nesbit is credited with inventing the adventure story for children. Her influence on the writers that have followed her has been enormous. In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, prominent critic Marcus Crouch declared: “No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman”.

Our most popular writers for children all took inspiration from Nesbit’s books. In 1947, American writer Edward Eager was delighted to discover a second-hand copy of her Wet Magic (1913) while searching for books to read to his son. “I have not got over the effects of that discovery yet, nor, I hope, will I ever,” he recalled, adding:

Probably the sincerest compliment I could pay her is already paid in the fact that my own books for children could not even have existed if it were not for her influence. And I am always careful to acknowledge this indebtedness in each of my stories; so that any child who likes my books and doesn’t know hers may be led back to the master of us all.

He recognised the key Nesbit’s talent. “It was when the child in her spoke out directly to other children that she achieved greatness,” he wrote, adding:

But there are lucky people who never lose the gift of seeing the world as a child sees it, a magic place where anything can happen next minute and delightful and unexpected things constantly do. Of such, among those of us who try to write for children, is the kingdom of Heaven. And in that kingdom E. Nesbit stands with the archangels.

First edition, published in 1906 by Wells Gardner, Darton

C.S. Lewis borrowed Edith’s wardrobe from her story ‘The Aunt and Amabel’ (1912), in which a little girl enters a magic world through a wardrobe. Aged seven, J.R.R Tolkien wrote a story about a ‘green great dragon’ at the same time as Nesbit’s Book of Beasts was being serialised in The Strand Magazine. In a letter to his publisher, written two years after The Hobbit was published, he described her as ‘an author I delight in’. Elements of Tolkien’s stories appear to draw on Edith’s work, and a story he told his own three sons features a cantankerous sand-sorcerer he called a Psammead.

In a lecture titled ‘In Celebration of Edith Nesbit,’ delivered at the Inaugural General Meeting of the Edith Nesbit Society on 29 October 1996, celebrated children’s author Joan Aiken took the opportunity to acknowledge her own debt:

She [Nesbit] has had a powerful influence on my own writing, as can readily be seen. Her strongest point is her marvellous capacity for combining magical and fantastic ingredients with comic realistic situations.

Jacqueline Wilson, who is President of the Edith Nesbit Society, brought the first instalment of Edith’s Psammead series up to date with Four Children and It (2012). When asked to name her favourite books, J.K. Rowling, hailed as the queen of modern-day writing for children, replied:

The first of my chosen books is the famous story of the six Bastable children, who set out to restore the ‘fallen fortunes’ of their house: The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit. I think I identify with E. Nesbit more than any other writer. She said that, by some lucky chance, she remembered exactly how she felt and thought as a child, and I think you could make a good case, with this book as Exhibit A, for prohibition of all children’s literature by anyone who cannot remember exactly how it felt to be a child.

Of her own style, Nesbit wrote, “I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child”. She answered every fan letter she received and even befriended several young fans. She dedicated The Wonderful Garden “to Cecily, Kathleen and Mavis Carter,” three young readers who had written to her to tell her how much they loved her books. She even put them into Wet Magic, the last serial she wrote for The Strand Magazine. She had them reading Kingsley’s The Water Babies, one of the books they told her they preferred to hers. This genuine empathy endeared her to young readers. As one reviewer noted, “Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves”.

Nesbit wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children and they would not easily let this go. It helped that her own life was just as extraordinary as anything she invented. A nervous child with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring up phantoms at every turn, she experienced loss and displacement when her father died, leaving her now twice-widowed mother, Sarah, to care for five dependent children. As an adult, she lived through a time of extraordinary political upheaval. A founding member of the Fabian Society, she helped introduce socialist thinking into British intellectual life. She also fell in love with fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw in the process.

Nesbit had a keen eye for nature and some of her finest writing celebrates the beauty of the British countryside. She was tireless in campaigning for the alleviation of poverty in London, and she expended considerable time and energy in helping the desperately poor children who lived on her doorstep in the deprived suburb of Deptford. Yet she made no apology for enjoying the finer things in life and she threw fabulous parties. A strikingly attractive woman with a keen sense of fun, she attracted a circle of young admirers who have left fascinating glimpses of her in their letters and memoirs. A celebrity in her lifetime, magazines and newspapers of the era include accounts of her life. Several of her books have never been out of print and she continues to inspire. When I discovered that the two biographies written about this remarkable author were no longer available, I knew for certain that she deserved a third. My new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, tells the remarkable story of her life and celebrates her literary legacy.

Eleanor Fitzsimons

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit is published October 2019 by Duckworth Books. 978-0715651469.