Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Unconventional Woman in a Very Conventional Time

Edith Nesbit and the Fabians; E. Nesbit and Five Children and It  

If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride -  Old English proverb 

If a man could have half of his wishes, he would double his trouble - Benjamin Franklin

Wishing don't make it so - Anonymous

Used as a noun,  a wish is defined as a desire or longing for a specific thing or event.  Used as a verb, to wish is defined as to desire, to long for, or to want a specific thing or event.  

We blow out the candles on a birthday cake and make a wish. We throw pennies into a fountain and make a wish. We gaze into the night sky and wish upon a star.

Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may,
I wish I might
Have the wish I wish,

Wishes fall under the category of magical thinking, the mind set of if I just wish hard enough, want it hard enough, then it will happen.  Our wishes express our desires, and our desires are shaped by our circumstances. A well-fed, well-loved child wishes for a pony, or to have ice cream for breakfast, or to fly to the moon and back before dinner. A child of less fortunate circumstance will wish for others things entirely: food to eat, clothes to wear, a place to go that's safe and warm.

For many of the children (and adults) in 19th century England, wishing for food, clothing and shelter was as close as they'd ever come to actually experiencing these three basic necessities. The Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century and progressed with ever increasing speed into the 19th had transformed England from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. The combination of new technologies, the development of the factory system, the expansion of transportation systems and the widespread acceptance of laissez-faire economic policies destroyed the centuries-old agricultural lifestyle, forcing a large percentage of the rural population to uproot and migrate to the urban industrial centers.

This massive societal shift came at a high cost to the displaced population and served as an impetus to the ideas and conversations focused on reshaping society into a more equitable and just model.  Dickens made a career out of addressing the evils of industrialization and the cost of such to the individual in his writings.

One of the most influential groups - mighty in scope if not in actual size - of post-Industrial Revolution England was the Fabian Society. The Fabian Society's goal was a reconstruction of British society based on socialist principles.  They were not revolutionaries, they had no interest in class struggles or violent overthrowings, but instead focused on a gradual permeation of socialist principles into government and daily life through education and public advocacy. Among other things, Fabians wanted municipal ownership of certain utilities, better working conditions for workers, an eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, universal health care and a free educational system. And they weren't interested in wishing for them, they were interested in working for them, and work for them they did, quite often successfully, and not a one of them worked harder than Edith Nesbit, the author of Five Children and It.

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was born in Greater London, the youngest of six children in the family of John Collis Nesbit, an agricultural chemist, and his wife, Sarah.  John ran the family agricultural college.  He died when Edith was four years old, and the ensuing years were spent traveling with her mother and older sister Mary in search of an agreeable climate in various European countries (Mary suffered from tuberculosis), shuttled off to inexpensive boarding schools, or enduring extended stays at assorted relatives' homes. In 1880, seven months pregnant, she married Hubert Bland, a bank clark and political socialist.

The two had an unconventional marriage from the start, for Hubert by choice, for Edith by necessity.  After their marriage, both continued to live separately with their families. Hubert lived with his mother and her friend, a friend who was under the impression that she was his fiancee and who also bore him a child.  After Edith found out about it, she and Bland moved in together, and Edith adopted the other woman's child. Nesbit lost three of her own children, two were stillborn and she and Bland's son Fabian died at the age of fifteen after an operation to remove his tonsils.

Bland continued to have affairs, and Edith continued to adopt the resulting children.  Somewhere along the line, Edith decided that what was good for the goose was also good for the gander, and embarked on a series of affairs with various men.

It was Bland who interested Edith in socialism, and it was the two of them, along with Thomas Davidson, Edward Carpenter, William Clarke, Havelock Ellis, Edith Lees, Henry Stevens Salt, future prime minister Ramsey McDonald, Edward Pease and Frank Podmore that formed the socialist organization, The Fellowship of New Life in 1883.  The FNL was the immediate predecessor of the Fabian Society, and the Fabian Society was formed the following year by a splinter group of Nesbit, Bland, Pease and Podmore. This core group was later augmented with the addition of George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Annie Besant and H.G. Wells. An interesting group, to say the least.

Nesbit and Bland edited the Fabian Society's journal Today.  Working independently and together, the two wrote pamphlets and articles espousing the Society's desired end results. Edith also lectured frequently on the goals of the Society. The two were famous for the parties they held at their home, the dilapidated Well Hall in Kent, frequented by artists, journalists, politicians and other literary types. Edith was a striking figure, tall, her dark hair cut short, arms covered with bangles and the ever present cigarette in a long holder firmly between her lips.

Bland's talents didn't extend towards supporting his family financially, the role of major breadwinner fell to Edith. In the 1880s she published two novels for adults under the name of Fabian Bland. But it was her children's novel The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, published in 1899 under the name E. Nesbit, that marked the beginning of her overwhelming success as a writer about and for children. Other books followed, and then in 1902 the first of three books of the Psammead series appeared, the subject of this review, Five Children and It.

Book #24: Five Children and It (1902), by E. Nesbit, illustrated by H.R. Millar.  237 pages.

The five children of the title are Cyril, Anthea a.k.a. Panther, Robert, Jane and Lamb, the baby brother.

Like many of Nesbit's fictional families, the family, whose last name is never mentioned, is middle-class  but not solidly middle-class. After two years of living in London, the family is moving to a spot deep in the country, into a white house with no near neighbors situated between a gravel pit and a chalk-quarry.

London, as the narrator points out, something the narrator does quite frequently throughout the book, is a wonderful place full os shops and theaters, but if your people are rather poor - as is the family of the five children - you don't get taken to shops and theaters, and London is full of things a child mustn't touch, and having fun in a city is so much more difficult for children because of this.

To the five children - if not their mother - their new home is just a shade short of Paradise. Father is already absent, away on business, when Mother also leaves for an extended period to tend to their sick Grandmother.  Alone in the house except for the servants, the children are free to explore their new surroundings.

It's on the day they explore the gravel-pits that they meet the Psammead, an ancient Sand-fairy with the ability - imperative -  to grant wishes.  The Psammead has a short furry body, eyes like a snail's, bat's ears, a tubby body shaped like a spider's, fuzzy arms and legs and hands and feet like a monkey's and a deathly fear of water.  The Psammead is not at all happy about being disturbed by the children, and can be quite disagreeable, but does respond to deference and flattery.

The children are to be granted one wish a day, each wish effective until sunset, and deciding upon a wish turns out to be much more problematic than they could have anticipated.  One only thinks that coming up with wishes is easy if one has never been in the position of actually having to do so.

When the children do make wishes, none come out exactly they way they anticipate.  First, they wished to be as beautiful as the day is long.  Granted, but then no one recognized them and they couldn't get into their own house because Martha, the maid, didn't recognize them and they spent the day hungry and miserable.

Slightly wiser the next day, they wished that the servants in their house would not be able to see the results of any of their wishes, which made perfect sense until they then wished to be rich beyond avarice.  The gravel pit filled with gold coins, but when the children tried to spend them they ended up in police custody, because they coins were old and of solid gold and no one would tai ether as payment and the police thought, maybe that they were stolen.

Later, they wish for wings to fly, which was glorious until they fell asleep on the top of a church and woke up after sunset, stranded and unable to get down.

It's one mishap after another, but it's not until their Mother, newly returned from nursing they Grandmother, faces the threat of prison because of one of their wishes that the children finally make the perfect wish, and that is that the Psammead, who has finally confessed to the girls how tiring and terrifying it is to always be granting other people's wishes, be no longer be compelled to grant any more of their wishes. The Psammead is happy, and so, now, are the children.

Nesbit gets siblings; she gets the relationships, the changing alliances, and the ups and downs of living in a large family.  Their conversations contain language and phrases of the time, the book was published over a hundred years ago, but readers will have no problem understanding their meaning - brothers and sisters have been communicating in the same manner since time immemorial.

The one sensitive area is the chapter involving Red Indians.  They are Indians as imagined by English children of the 19th century and stereotypes abound.  Discussion is imperative for younger readers.

Nesbit's writing style is direct and to the point, loaded with wry humor and keen observation - the chapter where Robert attempts to hold a conversation with the medieval knight Wulfric de Talbot is worth the price of admission. The children do gain a bit of wisdom over the course of the story, but at the end, they are still children, imperfect and still largely focused on their own small universe, with just the occasional insight into the larger adult world waiting for them just around the corner.

Nesbit gets in a bit of adult concerns at the very end of the book, in the scene where the two girls are negotiating their last bunch of wishes with the Psammead.

…if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life….they wouldn't wish silly things like you do, bur real, ernest things;…for a graduated income tax, and old age pensions, and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that…

Always the advocate, and why not?

Nesbit wrote two sequels to Five Children and It: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Story of the Amulet (1906).

Five Children and It at Amazon.com.

Gore Vidal, in a 1964 article for The New York Review of Books, wrote that Nesbit, like Lewis Carroll, wrote about children, but not for children, and I tend to agree with him. Neither Nesbit nor Carroll display the slightest amount of sentimentality regarding young humans, and that is probably why both were able to create such realistic ones as populated their books, as opposed the the idealized little innocents that pranced and simpered and spouted treacly homilies through the pages of children's books in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries.

Nesbit's biographer, Julia Briggs, called Nesbit the first modern writer for children, and the  inventor of the children's adventure story. Nesbit also excelled at what we today call magical realism, stories with contemporary settings and realistic characters where a magical element is introduced and must be dealt with in a believable manner. Her fantasy worlds always adhered to an internal logic that assured believability on the part of the reader, there were no deus ex machina bailouts in any of Nesbit's worlds.

All in all, Nesbit wrote about forty books and story collections for children, and eleven novels, four story collections, poetry collections and numerous short stories for adults, all in addition to the writing she produced supporting socialist causes. Numerous writers have told of the influence Nesbit had on their writing, including Edward Eager, Diana Wynn-Jones, C.S. Lewis and J.K Rowling.

Bland died in 1914 after suffering a heart attack, and in 1917 Nesbit married Tommy Tucker, a ship's engineer on the Woolwich ferry.  Nesbit died of lung cancer at her home on the fourth of May, 1924.

Books by Edith Nesbit available at no cost at Project Gutenberg.

Audiobooks by E. Nesbit available at no cost at LibriVox.

The Edith Nesbit Society website.

Edith Nesbit at the Literature-Network.


  1. For those who think unconventional families were an invention of the 1960s, reading about the many utopian societies and rule breakers of the 19th century is a good rounding experience.

  2. Thanks for an enjoyable review. She is a favorite author and I reread the books about every ten years or so; and will have a deeper appreciation after reading this article.

  3. I wrote a version of FIVE CHILDREN and IT for Caramel Tree Readers - http://www.amazon.com/Five-Children-Caramel-Readers-Level/dp/8966293336. It's written for ESL learners/emergent readers; fun story to re-imagine.

  4. Very interesting to learn more about her!

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