When I was a child, one of my favorite relatives to visit was my Great-Aunt Annie. She lived in an old two-story brick home with magnolia trees, azaleas, and rose bushes. My great-aunt had been a teacher and her house had its own library. It had been her late-husband’s office. Even though I never met him, the library still had the scent of his pipe tobacco along with that of the old books that lined the shelves. She had numerous collections of gorgeously illustrated fairy tales, including an entire set of Andrew Lang’s Fairy books. Because she knew I was a child who adored reading and loved books, and that I was gentle with them, Great-Aunt Annie would let me take them down or, if I couldn’t reach the one I wanted to see, she would. Often we would look at the books together and, if I was lucky, she would read to me. She was a marvelous reader with a lovely Southern voice. There are fairy tales that I still read and hear her voice when I read the words.
One day while we were visiting, I came across one entitled The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. I had never heard of her before but the idea of an enchanted castle was enough to fill my imagination to overflowing. While she and mother talked, drank tea and had tea cakes, I sat in an overstuffed armchair in the library with only the sounds of birdsong from her garden and the ticking of an old grandfather clock and began to read. I do not know how long I was lost within the pages of this book but it was with great disappointment and sorrow that my Mom came and informed me that it was time to leave. Though my Great-Aunt Annie never allowed me to borrow any of her books, she did send me a copy of every E. Nesbit book for my birthdays and at Christmas.
As I grew up, I never outgrew E. Nesbit’s writing and I began to see how she was one of the greatest influences on contemporary children’s literature. Yet, for all my interest in E. Nesbit, there was very little information on her. Needless to say, I was thrilled to discover that Eleanor Fitzsimons had written the first major biography of the incredible and trailblazing author, Edith Nesbit entitled The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit. I was even more excited when I got the opportunity to interview Eleanor Fitzsimons and talk to her about this beloved children’s author and the amazing life Nesbit led.
First, let me thank you for this opportunity to talk to you about one of the true pioneers in children’s literature. But before we delve into her life, I’d like to ask you who were the writers who had the biggest impact on you as a child? What were the books you cherished and returned to most often?
My favourite books in childhood were the Psammead trilogy by E. Nesbit – Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet – but I had other favourites too. As a young child, I remember absolutely loving The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – I was transported by it. Other favourites included The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I adore Toad of Toad Hall to this day! – and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
Now you mentioned works like the Psammead Trilogy by Nesbit, when did you first encounter her work?
It’s difficult to remember when I first encountered Nesbit – I think I was about 8 years old. I certainly remember where! I borrowed her books from my local library in Dublin. I only owned my own copies in adulthood.
Then what was it that you responded to in her writing?
Fantasy and magic have always appealed to me. I must admit that I found The Railway Children the most pedestrian of her books when I was a child, although I appreciate its message of social justice now. Her children seemed so completely authentic to me. In Wings and the Child, Nesbit’s manual for a successful childhood, she explained how she achieved this: “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”. Of the children in her Psammead trilogy, “second cousins once removed” to the Bastable children from her earlier books, she wrote: “The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things”. The adventures her fictional children get caught up in, though clearly impossible, feel utterly real. Surely, they could happen to me if I was fortunate enough to dig up a grumpy Psammead on the beach or stumble upon a broken amulet in an old junk shop.
Did you have a particular favorite by her?
Yes, The Story of the Amulet. It was the time travel that engaged me. I felt like I was accompanying Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother, Hilary, known fondly as the Lamb, back in time to ancient Egypt. In historical Mesopotamia, we stood awestruck before the gates to Babylon as they shone like gold in the rising sun. We marveled at the beauty of the Temple of Poseidon in the lost city of Atlantis. In their company, I encountered Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of occupied Gaul gazing across towards England. I too longed to live in Nesbit’s verdant, utopian London of the future, where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone wears comfortable clothing.
Now when did you become interested in E. Nesbit’s life?
It was when I was working on my first book, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women He Knew. In the middle of my research, up popped Edith Bland (Nesbit’s married name), a recently married mother who was struggling to make a living from her writing and who wrote to Oscar Wilde, himself a poet, to ask his advice on having her socialist poetry published. He responded with a lovely letter and was very supportive. He even published several of her poems in a magazine titled The Women’s World, which he edited at the time. When it came to looking for a subject for my second book, she seemed perfect. Her two earlier biographies were long out of print and that seemed wrong for such a complex, influential writer. I was gratified to discover that she had such an interesting life
In researching her life, what did you find most interesting about her?
I was very surprised by how political she was. Her early experience of poverty engendered a strong sense of social justice, which she channeled into her stories. During a time of astonishing political upheaval, she was instrumental in introducing socialist thinking into British intellectual life. A founder member of the Fabian Society, she counted fellow members George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells among her closest friends. One practical manifestation of her campaign for the alleviation of poverty in London was the annual party she hosted for impoverished children living just beyond her doorstep in Deptford. An early environmentalist, some of her finest writing celebrates the natural beauty of the English countryside. She detested creeping urbanization, “the ugly little streets crawled further and further out of the town eating up the green country like greedy yellow caterpillars”.
From having read other biographies of classic children’s authors, so many of them had very unhappy childhoods. Was this the case for Edith Nesbit? How much did her childhood shape the children’s fiction that she wrote?
Edith Nesbit’s childhood was very difficult. She lost her father when she was just 4 years old and her mother struggled to cope with a second widowhood; she had been married once before. When Edith’s sister Mary developed tuberculosis, the disease that had taken their father, her mother decided to take her to France to find a cure. She was unsuccessful and Mary died tragically young. Edith travelled with her mother and older sisters, and became a nervous, solitary child as a result. Her vivid imagination conjured up phantoms at every turn. Although circumstances conspired to deny her a formal education, she read voraciously and indiscriminately, and she was a keen advocate of education in later life. In her books, she describes adventures that she had during the school holidays with her brothers, Alfred and Harry, who were at boarding school. She often confronts real experiences that frightened her in childhood and resolves them through the characters in her books.
What do you think her biggest impact on children’s literature has been?
Edith Nesbit is one of the world’s most important writers. In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch, English librarian and influential commentator on children’s books, points out, “no writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman”. C.S. Lewis borrowed his wardrobe from her story “The Aunt and Amabel”. J.K. Rowling owes her a huge debt and claims to identify with her more than any other writer. She invented the modern children’s adventure story. She had no interest in leaving us more of the moralising tales she was exposed to as a child. Her children are real and flawed.
Gore Vidal once wrote in the New York Review of Books that Nesbit, along with Lewis Carroll, to be the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own.” He also lamented that she was not as well-known as Carroll. Why do you think more people do not know her or her works?
I believe that the 1970 film version of The Railway Children brought a lot of new attention to Nesbit. Many people speak very fondly of the film but I do sometimes wonder if they have read the original book. Admittedly, her other books are less well known, although many are better, in my opinion. I have found that those who do know her books are deeply passionate about them and have a lasting affection for them. This is often passed on to their own children. The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit is published in America too and my publisher, Abrams Books, was concerned that her books were not widely known there. In fact, I have found that there is huge interest. My book has been widely, and positively, reviewed there.
What do you hope readers of your biography will come away with after reading about the fascinating life of E. Nesbit?
I hope that readers will realise how important and influential a writer E. Nesbit is. She was exceptionally prolific but only her books for children, and to a lesser extent her horror writing, remains in print, although The Lark, a charming novel for adults, has recently been reissued. I also hope that they are entertained by her extraordinary life. She was present at the birth of English Socialism, had strong, contrary views on the campaign for women’s rights, captured the beauty of the English countryside in her novels for adults and wrote Wings and the Child, a non-fiction book packed full of wisdom. My book was given a lovely review in the Irish Times (The Life & Loves of E Nesbit) and the reviewer concluded: “Like all the best literary biographies, this highly readable book will send readers back to that writing”. That is a wonderful outcome as far as I’m concerned.
I certainly hope more readers will not only discover your amazing biography of E. Nesbit but that they are sent back to her writing. Thank you for your time.