Friday 15 August 2008

150 Today: E. Nesbit

It's a big anniversary today - the 150th of the birth of the great E. Nesbit. Hers was a rackety life, to say the least of it. That husband of hers was not only financially feckless but a compulsive womaniser, which led to all manner of complications, and the death of their son Fabian was hideous beyond belief - a botched appendectomy on the kitchen table (home operations were not unusual in those days). With ferocious determination, Nesbit got on with her writing in the midst of domestic chaos, shutting herself away with a limitless supply of cigarattes and gin-and-water - and it was her writing that kept the whole shambolic menagerie afloat.
Much of what she wrote is now forgotten - but those children's books will surely live for ever. They were an astonishing achievement, wresting children's literature from the grip of fantasy and whimsy, and presenting an authentic, clear-sighted child's-eye view (best expressed in the persona of the incomparable Oswald Bastable, fictional avatar of the dead son Fabian). The children's books are vivid, humorous, spare, tough, wholly unsentimental, firmly rooted in Edwardian domestic reality, whatever fantastical things might occur (when she does take off into pure fantasy, often with a utopian socialist tinge, the writing is less alive). As well as being a socialist, she was also - amazingly - a devout Baconian, convinced that the Baron Verulam wrote the works of 'Shakespeare'. Nesbit wasted much ink and much intellectual energy on this - but of course we can forgive her. We can forgive her anything for those Bastable books.
After all the mess and upheaval and heartbreak of her earlier life, she settled into quiet domestic contentment in the gloriously unlikely company of 'the Captain' and was still with him when she died. The first I knew of this phase of her life was when I came across her grave marker in that New Romney churchyard years ago (and no that's not me in the picture). At least her life ended in peace.
She also left behind a wonderful memoir of her own childhood, Long Ago When I Was Young, which is well worth seeking out (especially in the edition illustrated by Edward Ardizzone).


  1. I never knew the woman Nige. Swear by God.

  2. Wow. I have to read some of her work. I might have encountered her reading about all the Shakespeare authenticity crap of the last decade.

    Which, btw Nige, I wanted to chide you on. You had that post about false history, but your evidence for it was that "there was no documentation" for the ring-around-the-rosies poem in relation to The Plague. However, what documentation do we have of Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer ever in the English language? A handful of court documents: Bought a house, married, fathered a child, and signed his name different ways on different documents. But he's like a ghost, the only evidence of him, really, being the poems and plays he left behind.

    Because no one can quite picture him, you have people like Nesbit thinking Bacon wrote his plays; or other people who think it was Edward DeVere. Bullshit. It was Will Shakespeare, but time has done away with the evidence, the documents.

    Best example of how this happens is in Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia." He gets it. We misinterpret the past because we never have more than a scrap or two of its artifacts to go on and we try to construct a plausible story around them. Well, it may be plausible to us, but it is never the truth. The real truth is lying back there in time and only the people involved *then* know what it is. And even some of them aren't sure.

    Sorry to harangue you, but I've been bugged by that post you did on false narratives. I think there's a grain (or more) of truth in all of them.

  3. Ah but Susan - the thing about Ring o Roses is not the lack of documentation so much as the fact that none of the details supposed to link it to the plague (an annular rash, sneezing etc) actually do relate to bubonic plague. Plus the song is closely related to others which are clearly to do with nothing but round games. And plus it's just so nasty and unnecessary!
    But Nesbit's wonderful - you'll love Oswald B.

  4. Thanks for this Nige - I grew up reading E Nesbit, raptly and omniverously. I have a terrible memory of getting halfway through Five Children and It when I was about 7 or 8, and having to give it back to the school library because it was so late I wasn't even allowed to renew it any more - we were doing it as bedtime chapters - and it was MONTHS before it came back in and I could find out what happened! The pain!

    For some reason, though, you make me very sorry to say, I never really related to the Bastable Children. I regret that now, honestly. But I will look out her memoir because I am equally devoted to Ardizzone.

  5. PS - I'd have been on the gin too. And I posted on the wrong account. This is the new one.

  6. My child is being read and reread E. Nesbit for the past year. His school has a habit of putting on musicals each year. does anyone know of a musical play for children that has some literary and creative merit. I'm wondering (please no shuddering) whether anyone ever wrote a musical play based on E.Nesbits work also I knowshe wrote a number of plays for children but can't find out their names or how to get a hold of them. Any ideas?

  7. Good question all, Anonymous - to which I'm afraid I have no answers. Nesbit certainly did - or so all the profiles say - write plays, but I can't find a trace of them. They might have been alternative versions of her short fantasy stories... And nobody seems to have made a Nesbit musical, which is surprising...