Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (2019).

They can't all be easy.  One of the major tasks of the critic is to figure out just how much the author knows about their chosen subject.  That's the big rule of thumb when it comes to reviewing a biography.  Once you enter that territory the job isn't just about trying figure out what a metaphor in a work of fiction means.  Now all of sudden, you've got to find out how all those metaphors relate to the life.  I don't suppose it's too much of a stretch to believe this basic rule applies not just to the critic, but also to any biographer who hopes to present an accurate and successful picture of the life they've devoted their book to.  This goes double in those cases when the biography's subject happens to be an accomplished artist.  Perhaps the worst gig in the non-fiction section falls to those historians who are able to discover an unsung talent, and then find themselves saddled with the conviction that their subject deserves to gain a voice at the popular level.  Good luck to them is all I can say.  It's not an impossible goal.  It's just the the task is a lot harder than if you devote a book to a well-known personality (however long that's supposed to last).

I guess that's what makes talking about Edith Nesbit something like a real challenge.  She seems to occupy one of those strange, liminal places in the great pantheon of Fantasy fiction.  She doesn't appear to be an unknown name.  On the other hand, I've never seen or heard of her being mentioned as high up there with the big names as she perhaps deserves.  She was a very popular children's author in her day.  That's the basic fact of her claim to fame.  She seems to have done a more than decent enough job of it, all things considered.  Her accomplishment lies in the way she helped set up a lot of the images, themes, settings, and plot points that sort of define the way we think about certain fantasy novels.  She's been described as a pioneer more than once, and the label seems to fit.  That becomes pretty obvious once you decide to leaf through the pages of even one of her short story collections.  Her secondary worlds can sound familiar, until you stop and realize that the reality is you're encountering a lot of familiar faces for the first time.  Here is how Eleanor Fitzsimmons opens her study of the author.

"When I was a little girl who borrowed weekly adventures from my local library, my favorite stories were by E. Nesbit.  Best of all were her tales of magic, and of these the book I loved most was The Story of the Amulet.  I accompanied her fictional children to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the lost city of Atlantis.  I met Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of Gaul looking across toward England.  I was filled with hope on reading her account of a utopian London where everyone is happy and wise.  In "Praise and Punishment," chapter nine of Wings and the Child, her manual for a successful childhood, Nesbit herself explained: 'There is only one way of understanding children; 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'.

"Confirming that the children in The Story of the Amulet were the "second cousins once removed" of her beloved Bastables from earlier books, she confided: '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 key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains this: '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 humor of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children'.

"A profile published in September 1905 in The Strand Magazine, where Nesbit's most popular stories were serialized, praised her "astonishing versatility" and her "almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood."  A review in John O'London's Weekly noted: "Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves."  Of her own style, she wrote: "I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child."  In an interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph, she insisted: "It's quite natural that a child should believe in fairies."

In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch suggested of E. Nesbit: "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman."  He believed that she "managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns of modern children's fiction."  Nesbit came of age in the Victorian era, but she did not leave us more of the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century.  Instead, as Crouch explained, she "threw away their strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children's novel."  She wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children, and they would not easily let this go (ix-x)".

Before we get to the biography itself, there's just one or two details of the passages above that stick out like thorn branches in an otherwise smooth looking field of green.  Maybe it's just the pedant who took up residence in my head sometime after learning to read, however it seems like the two authors might have missed something.  To start with, Crouch and Fitzsimmons claim that Nesbit replaced a so-called literate, Victorian style with her own modernized form of prose language.  Perhaps I made a mistake?  I'd always thought since high-school that it was guys like Charles Dickens who were responsible for creating what a new "sober...colloquial, flexible" prose style with novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  In books like those and others, Dickens was able to take the stylistic flourishes honed during his years as a journalist and then applied it to to his artistic imaginings.  What he did was take the local dialects, accents, and ways of speaking, and give them a voice that had never been seen on the page before.  In doing so, Dickens was able to created a kind of stylistic space that allowed pretty much all the best authors who came after him (Nesbit included) to find their own voices.

As for the claim of Nesbit's creative work being a "breakaway from all "the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century", I have just one question.  Are you talking about books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?  If so, then the choice is odd, to say the least.  I don't think I've run across a nineteenth century text which was more irreverent and disrespectful of all the social idols of its day, a lot of which are still with us.  If such a book is the epitome of stiff moralization, then its a wonder that it still remains the most controversial and banned text in existence.  It really does seem as if Twain had managed an artistic feat that I don't think he intended.  He has managed to create a text which has gone on to become both totem and taboo at the same time.  Different things to different people, in other words.

I mention both of these literary lights because of the way Nesbit's own efforts might be seen as both mirrors or continuations of, and divergences from the same type of story.  What unites all three writers boils down to just a number of things.  All three of their lives encompassed the entire Victorian Era.  Each of them was a master of satire.  Nesbit's fantasies sometimes contain an element of humorous self-knowing that allows her to poke fun at her own pretensions.  This may account for one reviewer calling her the British Mark Twain.  Like Nesbit, the real Twain and Dickens were good at delivering barbs at a lot of well chosen targets.  I think the most important link between them all however comes down to the way in which each of them managed to discover they had an affinity to the fantastic.  The word I use for this is Victorian Romanticism.  It's phrase I've used here and there, and I don't know how it must sound to others.  It also doesn't change the fact its the best term I've got for the kind of rubric under which each of the three authors listed fall under, no matter how different their chosen subject matter.      


It's because of this, that I've got to maintain that any critic or reader who gets the crazy idea of trying wrap their head around an artist like E. Nesbit has to understand how both her life and art were shaped by the aesthetics of the culture she was raised in.  This in turn can help the critic get at a better understanding of who she was, and what she did.  The way Nesbit put all her fantastical landscapes down on paper, the events, ideas, and literature that inspired her, the various ways she discovered new uses for dragons and flying carpets, and how it all led her to become a literary pioneer is a story that's well worth telling.  I'm just left wondering if the biographer did a good job in this case.

Early Starts.

I suppose it all got started when "Daddy" decided to play a game of let's pretend.  This would have been when she was a child, when all the big impressions of life start to leave a lasting impact, for better or worse.  It's sort of like a coin stamp phase.  You open your eyes for the first time and take in all the sights and sounds.  What you don't tend to notice until later is the outline it has all managed to carve into your brain.  "Only by shutting my eyes and ears, "Edith once wrote, "to the sweet sounds and sights of summer and the sun can I recall at all for you the dead silences, the frozen terrors of the long, dark nights when I was little, and lonely, and very much afraid.

"The first thing I remember that frightened me was running into my father's dressing-room and finding him playing wild beasts with my brothers.  He wore his great fur traveling coat inside out, and his roars were completely convincing.  I was borne away screaming, and dreamed of wild beasts for many nights afterwards.  Then came some nursery charades.  I was the high-born orphan, whom gypsies were to steal, and my part was to lie in a cradle, and, at the proper moment, to be carried away shrieking.  I understood my part perfectly - I was about three, I suppose - and had rehearsed it more than once.  Being carried off in the arms of the gypsy (my favorite sister) was nothing to scream at, I thought, but she told me to scream, and I did it (51)".

There were a few other important materials, most of them along the same lines.  There was the time Edith allowed herself to buried up to her neck in the garden by her other siblings.  She'd either taken it into her head that she wasn't a little human girl at all, and instead was just an inanimate plant, a flower to be exact.  So she was covered, almost, from head to toe, and it took several hands to pry her out of the ground afterward.  Aside from these recorded incidents, it stands well enough to reason that there were other examples of these kinds of games and "charades" which have now been lost to time.  These are the first impressions Edith found herself confronted with when she was born into the household of John and Sarah Nesbit, on August 18th, 1858.  Her father was a well-to-do middle class owner of an agricultural college.  He made more than enough at his job to fulfill what might be something of a collective ideal.  Most families hope to earn enough to afford an actual living.  In John Nesbit's case, his efforts somehow made that dream come true.  This is how Fitzsimmons describes it.

"The Nesbit home stood on three acres of land a portion of which was given over "for experimental purposes and the recreation of the students."  In Wings and the Child (1913), an instruction manual for parents keen to give their children a good start in life, Edith described this wonderland for urban children: 'It was in Kennington, that house - and it had a big garden and a meadow and a cottage and a laundry, stables and cow-house and pig styes [sic], elm-trees and vines, tiger lilies and flags in the garden, and chrysanthemums that smelt like earth and hyacinths that smelt like heaven.'  She described her childhood playroom: 'Our nursery was at the top of the house, a big room with a pillar in the middle to support the roof. "The pot," we called it: it was excellent for playing mulberry bush, or for being martyrs at.  The skipping rope did to bind the martyrs to the stake (10)".

If there's anything to get frustrated at with these opening segments, then its the rushed quality the whole chapter has about it.  Fitzsimmons is content to just list out a handful of details, and then move straight on from there.  She seems very incurious about the meaning behind the actions of the young artist.  The closest she ever gets to an actual bit of analysis in these opening pages is to label Edith's childhood as a "wonderland".  To be fair, it is just possible to argue that she has a legitimate reason for using that word.  However, that just serves to highlight her negligence of the point.  One of the main goals of the biographer has to be to try and give as good an idea of their subject as possible.  In practical terms, I suppose trying to illustrate Wordsworth's maxim.  The biographer must try and understand, then demonstrate for the audience how "The child is father of the man".  Looked at from that perspective, the childhood of a writer like Nesbit is in many ways something as close to an ideal case study as anyone is ever likely to get. 


For the purposes of this article, there seem to be just about three takeaways from Edith's own words about her early years.  (1) She had a natural knack for the normal round of childhood games, and group activities.  (2) She and her siblings seem to have discovered that hidden, childhood art for turning their games into a story of some kind.  Her favorite pastime appears to have been charades.  It's the one kid's game that requires its participants to able to engage in both role playing, and the narrative format.  And it just occurs to me now to wonder if the online gaming community had its faintest glimmers way back in these old Victorian pastimes.  The third element of Edith's childhood play is (3) the relation of the first three to the activities in and surrounding the nursery.  The key takeaway from all these aspects of Edith's childhood is that when you look at them from a historical perspective, no matter how out of the ordinary it seems today, back then, all she was doing was conforming to a type.

In some ways, it really counts as a sort of unconscious identity marker for a lot of the really big literary names of Edith's day.  Or least you've got to admit, all the ones that any of us tend to remember these days are those who have this one shared trait in common, despite all the differences of individual circumstance.  Like Edith, men and women such as Kipling, Louisa May Molesworth, or even a poor Missourian like Sam Clemens often had a peculiar knack for finding ways to maximize the enjoyment of their own childhoods.  Each of them took the idea of recreational kids play and treated it with what can only be described as a combination of careful carelessness that somehow all got mixed in together.  It really does seem as if the greatest artistic minds of that decade were either creating or conforming to a pattern that asserted itself throughout the 1800s. 


I suppose another name for this pattern might be to describe it as an ideal that one of their number, Kenneth Grahame, referred to as "The Golden Age".  Grahame seems to have been dead serious when he either coined or borrowed the phrase for a collection of articles bearing the same title.  He used that book to detail and note the same kind of phenomena that Edith experienced growing up.  In that sense, it isn't so much the fact that Nesbit and Grahame both had time play as young adults, so much as that they and others turned out to be the ones to claim some kind of intrinsic importance for the childhood experience, both as recreation and rite of passage.

This Golden Age idea has since made its way into the critical literature of that period, and its authors.  From what I can tell, it still puzzles us to this day.  Some critics try to find a place for it in academia, while other just wish the whole damn thing would go away.  Then's the great majority, who are surrounded by its legacies, and therefore don't even know it exists.  Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, so much as ubiquity, and hence forgetfulness for some reason.  I think the one critical text I've read on the subject that seems to sum up the paradoxical reception that's greeted this subset of the fantasy genre has got to be Humphrey Carpenters Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature.  He spends twelve whole chapters trying to create as comprehensive an overview of the likes of Nesbit, Carroll and Milne within the span of just 235 pages.  Carpenter sees his subjects through a quasi-Freudian rubric.  This places him under the unenviable obligation to demonstrate how each writer was able to channel their own respective neurosis into various private fantasies that all somehow got turned into books.  Carpenter often finds it hard to have much sympathy for his subjects.  At the same time that he keeps talking down to one and all of them, there's a sense that he just can never to tear himself away from the stories.  The result has to be one of the most fascinating and bemusing phenomena I've ever run across.  I didn't know it was possible for an entire work of criticism to be written by a genuine, reluctant fanboy.

While I can't ignore the psychological aspect of the Victorian Fantasy novel, nor that Edith herself is a very good case in point, I'm afraid that with the possible exception of J.M. Barrie, Carpenter does very little justice to the authors he brings under his microscope.  Edith in particular, gets an unkind short-shrift.  I'd like to say that Fitzsimmons is able to redress this issue, however, there are problems the reader encounters the moment they turn to the opening pages.

The Major Weakness and the Great Obstacle. 

There is one other bit of influence that Edith experienced as a child, and it involved what you might have to call a sort of ghoulish exhibit located underneath the catacombs of France.  Fitzsimmons regards it as important enough to use as the opening chapter of her biography.  "One day in September 1867, little Daisy Nesbit, who had just turned nine and was wearing her "best blue silk frock," waited impatiently at the entrance to the bell tower of the church of Saint Michel in the French city of Bordeaux.  She was clutching the hand of her older sister...and "positively skipping with delicious anticipation" as an aged French guide fumbled with the keys to the fifteenth-century crypt that lay below the bell tower.  At last, he unlocked the ancient door and led the young tourists through an arch and down a poorly lit, flagstone passage (1)".

Young Edith, or Daisy as she was known throughout her life, had already heard about and explored the unearthed kings of the pyramids on proud display in the British museum.  The former experience seems to have left a positive impact on the young girl's mind.  It could even be argued that it became the starting point for one of her later inspirations as an artist.  The same can perhaps be said of what she found in Bordeaux.  The difference is that if the Egyptians left her with a lingering sense of awe, and her first glimpses of the grand and epic scope of the past, then what she found waiting for her under the arch later found a different outlet.  There were mummies in this catacomb, however, they were less the elegant and tasteful displays of the ancient Egyptians, and more like something out of a Ray Bradbury short story.  The families had no money to pay for burials, so the undertakers just kept placing them all together in one spot in a collective pauper's crypt.  When Edith saw the state the remains were in, let's just say it  left a bit of an impact.  Here is where Fitzsimmons makes the wise choice of letting Edith explain herself in that moment of her life, and of the effect it had on her own artwork:

"The mummies of Bordeaux were the crowing horror of my childish life; it is to them, I think, more than to any other thing, that I owe nights and nights of anguish and horror, long years of bitterest fear and dread.  All the other fears could have been effaced but the shock of that sight branded it on my brain, and I never forgot it.  For many years I could not bring myself to go about any house in the dark, and long after I was a grown woman I was tortured, in the dark watches, by imagination and memory, who rose strong and united, overpowering my will and my reason as utterly in my baby days.'


"She admitted: "It was not till I had two little children of my own that I was able to conquer this mortal terror of darkness, and teach imagination her place, under the foot of reason and will." Years later, she kept a human skull and a small collection of bones in her house in order to familiarize her children with artifacts that had terrified her in childhood.  "My children, I resolved, should never know such fear," she explained.  "And to guard them from it I must banish it from my own soul.  It was not easy but it was done (4)".

I don't know how morbid it may sound to modern ears that have been removed from Victorian mortality rates.  As far as I can tell, though, while Edith did get a good taste of real life fear, she seems to have a way of handling it remarkably well, all things considered.  It was a genuine challenge that was met and mastered.  The fact that it was accomplished by a young girl in the age before women had even really begun to gain even the smallest foothold of influence in society has got to say at least something about tenacity, even if it happened to just one single child.  It was the last major piece of information the author ever gave her fans about events that influenced or inspired her as an artist.  As such, Nesbit makes it something like the capstone to the growth of her artistic mind.  All of it can be found in her memoirs, and one of the real regrets about her life is that she was never given enough time to turn it all into a full-length book form.  Although, to be fair, even in this she conforms to type.  The world is full of great novelists who had it in them to set down their own memories for posterity, and then never got to finish.

These early experiences were all important milestones in her development as both an artist and woman.  Therefore it just makes sense that any real solid treatment of these moments would be the kind where the biographer is willing to take their time over the details and unpack as much of their content as possible, in order to try and see as much of the life beating underneath the mere surface record.  The reader should be taken through these moments one at a time, not like their being guided through a museum exhibit, but more like their being show snippets of what made this individual life so important.  It would help to gain a sense of Edith's imagination, and what made certain experiences so important to it.  To her credit, it is just possible that this might be the goal Fitzsimmons set out for herself in composing the work.  The pity is, if that's case, she doesn't succeed at it so well.

Let's take her handling of the Bordeaux incident.  It's the opening sound-off that greets the reader on the very first page.  The biographer guides us through the whole experience as Edith wrote about it years ago, and offers whatever commentary she is able to give about it along the way.  From there, she doubles back in time to the moment of her subject's birth, with just a few hints and glimpses here and there into the formative experiences of Edith's childhood.  It is just possible that the barest description of these elements makes it sound alright enough as an outline.  Even if that's the case, the problem with the bare initial sketch of a subject is that it demands to be filled in.  It's not just a case of coloring in all the blank spots, either.  The biographer also has to tell the truth to the best of their abilities.  It's more like having to make sure each color in the paintbox goes in its exact, right space on the canvas.  If so much as a speck of pigment gets out of place, then the picture remains incomplete.  Granted, this is sometimes an impossible job when it comes to dealing those artists whose reputation has all but fallen of the map of popular awareness.  There's no longer any chance, for instance, that we will ever be able to say anything substantial about Homer the Grecian storyteller, or the Beowulf Poet.  However, when an author like Nesbit is willing to leave enough clues of her childhood behind so that it's possible to get at least a serviceable enough picture of her life and creative mind, then I think the biographer owes both subject and reader the effort required to treat the picture as full as it deserves.

The trouble is that's an effort that Fitzsimmons seems unwilling, or unable to make.  The first sign of this lack of effort comes when she decides to focus on the Bordeaux encounter at the expense of the rest of Edith's childhood.  The biographer has settled on this incident being almost the sole important aspect of the author's young life, and all the rest is considered as secondary.  In reality, a more discerned consideration would tell the researcher that the truth is almost the inverse of that.  First came the nursery, then the games and pastimes and young Victorian adulthood, each of which contributed to, or exerted an influence on the growth of the writer's mind.  These are the key facts that remain unearthed or unexplored, while a formative, yet altogether secondary event is given an outsize importance that the  rest of the life just doesn't appear to support.  The best efforts Fitzsimmons can offer is a vague, general observation such as the following:

"In her late thirties she recast her siblings and herself as the Bastable children.  In The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), she has Oswald and Dickey bury wimpish Albert-next-door in the garden while twins Alice and Noel, surrogates for Edith herself, watch approvingly.  She drew on an incident from her own childhood when her mischievous brothers buried her so firmly in their garden that she had to be rescued by adults.  In "The Twopenny Spell," from Oswald Bastables and Others (1905), young Lucy is affronted at being buried up to her waist by her brother Harry.  She gets her revenge by casting a spell that swaps their personalities, with disastrous consequences.  After Saretta covered her faces with a hideous mask to play an old gypsy woman bent on abducting Edith, who played a "highborn orphan," her dreams were haunted for decades.  This episode informed" and episode "from The Enchanted Castle (10)".

I don't know how apparent the flaws are in that passage.  It's quite possible that they might escape over the heads of most readers.  However this doesn't really change the fact that they're there.  To start with, the passage itself is meant as a bit of commentary on Edith's childhood.  Looked at from that perspective, the slap dash nature of the commentary begins to show itself one at a time.  Fitzsimmons starts by noting that Nesbit based some of her most famous creations on her family dynamic.  Instead of demonstrating the truth of this claim, and exploring how it might have come about, the biographer leap-frogs from there to the planting incident mentioned above.  I brought up that episode in such a way that its occurrence emerged in an natural and organic way, as part of creating a basic, general image of the kind of life Edith lived.  It was written and placed in such a way as to form part of a brief, yet vibrant tapestry of the kind of aesthetic atmosphere in which the author grew up in.  It was also set down in such a way as to give at least the sense of a logical progression going on.  The description has to skim over Edith life because of the requirements of the format, yet even here, an attempt was made to give the reader a sense of chronology, so that it all flowed in a more or less seamless fashion.

Fitzsimmons' style, in contrast, comes off as an ill-patched cut-and-paste narrative.  This cane be seen in the way she knits together incidents from Edith's life with elements from her fiction in the passage provided above.  She doesn't bother much with establishing any kind of valid connecting thread.  Instead, after describing the flower incident, she moves on to give the barest, one note description of one of Nesbit's short stories.  Then she doubles back again to Edith's "nursery charades" with one of her sisters, and from there makes the claim that the experience was the inspiration for a plot element in one of her later novels.  At no point does Fitzsimmons bother much to establish the logic of her thinking about all of these moments.  Instead, her biographical technique seems to be the desire to tell Nesbit's entire life story via this same grasshopper effect, where the viewer is left to start out at one random point in the subject's history, and then intercut with past and future moments where the biographer attempts to show how these older and later incidents connect with the present moment she is ostensibly focused on.  It's possible Fitzsimmons had some idea of where she wanted to go with all this.  However in practice, her efforts just come off as vague, and ill-defined.  The reader never quite gets as good a picture of the author as one had hoped.  Instead, its just an odd, crazy-quilt pattern with no real order to it.


The worst part, however, is how Fitzsimmons treats the stories.  At no point does she offer anything in the way of a real, close-look literary analysis.  Instead, she is just content to leave the  reader with the most basic level of plot synopsis, or else she just chooses to focus in on various incidents from Edith's life at random, and then claim that this or that occurrence is what accounts for images or scenarios in some of her most famous books.  With all due respect, that's just too lazy.  I'm more than willing to believe the idea that some or even a lot of the aspects of Nesbit's published fantasies might take inspiration from certain events in her real life.  However, the way Fitzsimmons goes about trying to demonstrate the idea is just so slap-dash and careless as to be considered laughable.  It's as if the biography was content to just let the eye wander over the correspondence, novels, and other content, and then just decide that, yeah, maybe this or that story idea or plot element could have come from here or there.  The most blatant example of this practice that stands out in mind, for some reason, comes from when Fitzsimmons is trying to paint a portrait of Edith's struggles as an early author:

"At times" Edith "must have felt like Albert-next-door's uncle in The Story of the Treasure Seekers, "pegging away at one of the rotten novels he has to write to make a living."  In The Wouldbegoods, the fictional Alice declares: "People aren't obliged to like everything they write about even, let alone read."  Like Len in The Red House, they "worked hard, hard, hard, and earned enough to keep body and soul and the two of us together in our microscopic house." Sometimes they would fortify themselves by sipping weak tea and gin.  "One tablespoonful in water was our allowance," Alice told Doris Langley Moore (108)".

For some reason, it just comes off as if the biographer is trying to make light of a situation that, while not a dire strait, is still a great deal more serious than she gives it credit for.  On top of which, Fitzsimmons still continues her habit of trying to make the fiction conform to the life, rather than taking the necessary time to really consider where each story may have come from in its proper light.  Perhaps the worst part, however, is that she never offers anything like a close, in-depth analysis of any of Nesbit's major works of fiction.  At no point does she stop to take in the content and themes of an important work like The Phoenix and the Carpet, or even the simplest effort in a short story collection, like The Book of Dragons.  Instead, the biographer just seems interested in whatever can be dug up about juicy bits in the writer's private life, while convinced the fiction just either emerges from or is connected to it in some ill-defined fashion.  In that sense, Fitzsimmons is perhaps successful from one perspective.  Whatever her biography's shortcomings may be, she has nonetheless succeeded in turning a three-dimensional human life into nothing more than a book-length scandal sheet.  The trouble is even there the effect isn't quite what she was hoping for, because the subject just can't made to cooperate the way the biographer might want it to.  There was one big scandal in Edith's life, and the cause lay elsewhere.

It's when trying to discuss this major upheaval that Fitzsimmons sort of tips her hand that she just doesn't care all that much.  If there was ever a great  challenge that Edith had to face, than his name was Hubert Bland.  He was one of those natural born lady-killers, the type who have somehow mastered the knack of sweeping women off their feet.  It is the far from unique ability to desire a woman without having the slightest bit of liking or respect form them.  It's what he managed to do with a young "Daisy" Nesbit.  The way it happened was he made a successful coax, and she fell into it.  The idea of family life never seems to have bothered Edith all that much, and she took to it naturally enough.  That wasn't the problem.  The real trouble is that Bland was a compulsive womanizer.  He had at least one other mistress on call the whole time he was first proposing, and then marrying Edith.  These facts are important enough to warrant turning to one other source for information.  Doris Langley Moore was the first author to publish a biography of Nesbit during the 20th century.  In a retrospective preface to that book's second edition, Moore confessed:

"Now that no one is left who can be hurt by any allusion in these pages, I owe it to my readers to fill in some facts and names which were necessarily suppressed while the subject of my biography had children and a husband living, and while uninhibited frankness might have embarrassed her friends (xi)".  The source of this embarrassment, when traced back to its source all culminates in just one figure: Hugh Bland.  I've said already that he had at least one other mistress at the time that he was marrying Edith, the woman who he decided on as a wife.  Though even the details of the marriage itself are sketchy.  It is just possible that the one reason he took her as a spouse is because he got her pregnant.  It's difficult to say whether he was doing it out of genuine concern for her.  It may have been all about keeping his own name out of the scandal sheets.  The worst part is that the process repeated itself later on.  The salt in the wound came from the fact that the other woman Bland impregnated was a Ms. Alice Hoatson.  She was an editor and collaborator with Edith on some of her early magazine works.  For a brief time, Daisy even considered Alice a friend.  The whole thing was compounded when Edith was either convinced or finagled into letting the unmarried Alice move in with her and Hubert to avoid any social stigma.  The bitter punchline came when Edith learned who the real of father or Rosamund, Alice's new child, really was.

I think the best word to describe what happened afterward is to call it a Rubicon, or a point of no real going back.  In that moment Edith learned what it was like for the sentiments of marital affection to either dry up, like blood being drawn from a vein, or else it might have been all at once, like a candle being snuffed out.  Either way, the result was sort of inevitable.  There never was much chance of Daisy ever learning to confide in the man she used to call her husband ever again.  She was also self-aware enough to realize that as a woman living in the Victorian Era, she was pretty much caught out and netted in a situation that gave Bland the automatic upper hand over both her and Alice.  If Hubert threatened to leave her, Edith knew most of the backlash would fall on her, especially if Hugh decided to stay with Alice, even if it was just out of spite.  Daisy realized that all she could do was settle for an impossible compromise.  She and Alice continued to live under the same roof as Hubert, for the very simple reason that, as two women earning little income, and never getting any sizeable pay for their own efforts, they were, like the old Elvis song has it, "caught in a trap" from which none of them could walk out of.  At least, such things were "just not done" during those times.  

So, Edith had little choice expect to "keep calm, and carry on", as the saying goes.  She may have been able to grin and bear it, however, the marriage never recovered.  Nor does it seem likely that Edith ever managed to have the same level of consideration for Hubert as she might have otherwise for someone who saw women in terms other than mere sensational convenience.  I think the real worst part came in how Bland used this situation on his own children.  He never laid a hand on them, from what I can tell.  He was never able to manage that sort of thing.  However, you really don't have to be capable with your fists in order to be both user and abuser.  Bland seems to have realized there were other ways to exert control over Edith.  The way he did this was through trying to turn the children against their own mother.  He was a success in the case of Rosamund, who even as an adult always maintained a grudge against Daisy.  It was easy for Bland to get away on that score.  Edith admitted that Rose wasn't her mother, and so fanning the flames was almost child's play on Bland's part.  It seems to be thanks to his effort that neither of them could ever reach anything like a genuine reconciliation, and burying of hatchets.

As a result, one of the most frustrating aspects to realize is that in all the material on Nesbit I've run across, there is this constant tug of war going on with each biographer who tackles the subject.  They seem forced to try and recreate the same acrimonious blame game that Edith found herself drawn into.  The result is less of a report on an actual life, and more a familiar phenomenon of total strangers getting involved in a family dilemma, and trying to pretend its a mere argument when the truth is a bit more dire and unfair to the woman involved.  It's the major obstacle standing in the way of an objective consideration of what had to be Edith's lowest hour.  I also can't help thinking it reveals a tendency in certain biographers that might be called a hidden "tabloid mindset".  The thrill of a "free show" seems to have acted as an excuse for them to let their guard down and reveal that they are less interested in Edith as a person, mother, and artist, than as just a target in a very old shooting gallery.  It's a critical weakness that I'm afraid even Fitzsimmons succumbs to.  Why bother getting at the facts when you derive a kind of parasitic enjoyment from the same old song.  There are many words to describe this choice to reduce a human being to a melodrama.  It wouldn't even surprise to learn that there's a clinical term for it all.  However, I'd afraid the one thing you can't call it is professional, or literate.

Because of this, I've yet to see very few critics try and understand the real story that was going on behind this obstacle.  It's true Edith was a very ill-used woman.  What no biographer has yet bothered to realize is also just how brave she turned out to be, and what it amounted to in her real and artistic lives.  One of the reassuring things to realize about Edith's story is that even though she was forced to live under the same roof as a complete and total cad like Bland, she was also determined enough not to be his victim to the point where she did find or discover her own ways of fighting back.  The whole thing could be described as a hard won battle for independence.  The way was often a bitter one and hard.  It was also a fight she could just never bring herself to give up.  It is just possible it is also a fight that she ultimately won, on her own terms.  I could be wrong about this, and anyway, it's just a theory.  However, I can't help being convinced that the progress of her ultimate victory can be traced through the various phases that her creative output went through in the course of her life.  There seem to be three of them in all, and they went as follows.

The Gothic Phase.

E. Nesbit is most often remembered (if anyone can recall at all) as an author of a number of children's books that have since gone on to be regarded as classics of the genre.  That's a very true statement as far as it goes.  However there's something that I think only the most ardent of fans might have noticed.  Edith might have cemented her name forever on the strength of her novels for young adults.  However the road she took to get there was a gradual one.  Nor did it just happen all at once.  For a brief time, before the Bastables and It made their way into her mind and onto the page, there was a moment or two when Edith tried to make a go at it as an author of realistic novels and short stories.  Her original passion, at least at first, however, seems to have been for poetry.  The surviving examples of Nesbit's attempt in this format qualify as minor examples of the genre.  However much Daisy may have loved the artistic qualities of verse, she soon discovered the places where her own voice could be heard.  The fact that it wasn't in verse doesn't make it any less poetic.  The writer may be either an author or a poet, neither format is superior to the other.  What matters in both cases is if the writer is able to realize their creative idea enough to the point that it can be shown and said that the artwork has achieved its poetic effect.  Looked at from this standpoint, it's not too much of a stretch to say that Edith's early childhood games and pastimes stands as a form of poetry both discovering and learning to enjoy its first lights, however dim or unfocused.

As Edith and her critical artistic faculties grew (a process which she must have chose to take great care of as the years went by) she began to form a greater understanding of her own dramatic potential.  There is one major stumble in the path of her artistic development.  It wasn't family, or children, but instead the problem of her choice of husband.  Edith later came to realize Bland, or at least having to stay with him, was the greatest mistake of her life.  It would have been so easier if she'd lived in an age that allowed her to just take the kids and leave.  It would be a mistake to pretend the wish never once crossed her mind.  At the same time, she came of age in an Era when the position between a tyrannized woman, a chooser, and a beggar often occupied the same space.  The result was she initially found herself stuck in a kind of crisis.  The curious part is that her marriage-in-name-only couldn't stifle one thing.  There was nothing Hubert could do about her creative voice.  Indeed, this presented him with the perfect irony.  It was an emotional and psychological life support system that even he sometimes was forced to rely on.  Hubert may never have liked Edith, but he knew that sometimes his household depended on the income she was able to earn for the roof over his head.  For Edith, this amounted to a double discovery.  While she was under Hubert's oppressive thumb in some ways, her writing was a means of asserting at least some measure of control over her own life and circumstances.  She was also able to realize that sometimes writing be a life-support system for living, if not the other way around.


As I've said, her first junior attempts amounted to little more than filler, useful more for the income it brought in, rather than for its intrinsic artistic merits.  Edith started out, as pretty much all writers do, in a state of poetry trying to find its legs.  This she did in the midst of her own family crisis.  It wasn't until she began to think of turning her mind towards the phantasmagorical side of the tracks, that things began to change.  Pretty soon sparks began to fly.  The stories didn't just begin to come at a more rapid pace, it was also the level of quality in them that seemed to improve.  It really does seem as if deciding to write tales of terror counts as the first time Edith was able to discover her own voice, or at least it's first creative facet.  Daisy's brief span of time in the Horror genre is interesting to consider, in the light of the rest of her output.  It was never big, or great, nor was it the spot where her talents came to rest.  It was much more like a way station or a bus stop on the road to other endeavors.  In this sense, its no surprise that most readers of Nesbit might not even realize that their favorite author ever knew how to send a chill or two down the spine.  The fact that Horror was a genre from which she inevitably moved on is perhaps the key reason why her shilling shockers are so little read today.  It's a fact that didn't escape the notice of genre critics like S.T. Joshi, who made a decent enough observation when he writes:

"E. Nesbit's work as a children's writer justifies the bold comment by her most recent biographer, Julia Briggs, that she "is the first modern writer for children."  Her weird tales were essentially a sideline, but she revealed a remarkable range in the eighteen tales that can be considered weird; indeed, these tales come close to exhibiting the full scope of themes, motifs, and approaches of the weird literature of the period.  Many of the most gripping elements in Nesbit's weird stories derive from her own terrors and phobias, many of them dating to her earliest years.  She attested to both a fear of the dark and a fear of the dead, and these two conceptions figure largely in her weird work (13)".  Nesbit's recounting of her time in the Bordeaux crypts is even enough to make Joshi pose what turns out to be a very good question.  "A passage like this makes me wonder why Nesbit wrote no tales explicitly involving mummies (14)".  I think the main reason why might be on account of its being the one fear that often hit too close to home.  Besides, Edith seemed content with working out her fears and phobias in other ways.  At least it's the best answer I've got to that kind of question, anyway.

Aside from this, Joshi makes one observation that I can't help regarding as somewhat crucial to the crisis in Edith's life.  It can also help shed light on just why she might rely on the tale of the supernatural as at least an initial form of creative expression.  "Several of Nesbit's earliest weird stories effect a union between weirdness and romance in an effective manner.  These tales use the supernatural as a metaphor for underscoring moral or social conceptions facing us in our everyday lives.  "John Charrington's Wedding" (1891), for example, tells of a man who speaks of the virtues of persistence in affairs of the heart - so it is not at all unexpected that he keeps the appointment for his wedding, even after his death.  "The Ebony Frame" (1891) poignantly tells of a man's love for the ghost of a woman who his ancestor knew in the past - but this scenario is a transparent metaphor for his dissatisfaction with the woman he is courting in real life.  Somewhat similar, though less emotionally intense, is "Uncle Abraham's Romance" (1893), a brief tale of a man who loves a female ghost.  "The Mass for the Dead" (1892), although generally excluded from collections of Nesbit's weird work, does seem to have a subtle but clearly traceable supernatural element, especially when the two lovers at the center of the tale both hear an organ play at the mass for the dead when it later becomes evident that no organ was playing at the time.  Here again a difficult emotional situation - the tortured love triangle where two men are vying for a woman's affections - is given a supernatural dimension.  Much the same could be said for "From the Dark," a tragic tale of love and death with an ambiguously supernatural ending (14-15)".


The key phrase that jumps out at me from that entire passage is Joshi's observation that "Several of Nesbit's...stories effect a union between weirdness and romance in an effective manner".  I don't think this was anything planned on her part.  Like all good stories with something to think about in them, I'm convinced that it both just happened, and was perhaps something she needed to get off her chest.  Even if she hadn't wanted to vent her frustrations, I'm pretty sure stories like the one's Joshi mentioned above would have still found their way onto the page sooner or later, in one form or another.  I hope this doesn't make it sound as if the author was doing little more than just writing down her anger and exhaustion with her husband.  To be fair, it's a route that can be taken.  However, I can't help thinking that if Edith had really wanted to vent in such a direct fashion, then I doubt these stories would have amounted to anything worth reading, talking about, and re-reading over the years.  Instead, I think a better way of looking at her Gothic fiction is to say that the Horror genre is where Edith's pent up emotions, anxieties, and discontent in her life with Bland was able to find their necessary outlet.

Through her scary stories, Edith was able to enact what are perhaps best described as a series of interrogations about the nature, pitfalls, and sometime necessities of romance, and of being in love.  Her Gothic works are populated from one corner to the next with two variations of a theme.  We have either the doomed married couple, or else there are the unmarried lovers who exist in a fluctuating state of faithlessness.  The more one knows of Edith's domestic situation, the clearer it is to see where a great deal of her influence for this type of story came from.  The key factor, however, seems to be the way she treats the supernatural itself as a plot device.  The horrors of Nesbit's fiction are, in general, a combination of the graphic and the indirect.  Sometimes the horror is shown, yet its description is restrained.  This is no real problem, as Edith seems to have had the knack of making a little bit of description go a very long way.  It's the kind of stylistic technique that Shirley Jackson would make famous years later.  Perhaps the best display of Edith's style can be found in her description of the entity that gives the title for her short story, "The Shadow".


"I glanced through the open door and along the passage. I never could keep my eyes on what I was doing in that house. The cupboard door was partly open; they used to keep empty boxes and things in it. And, as I looked, I knew that now it was not going to be “almost” any more. Yet I said, “Mabel?” not because I thought it could be Mabel who was crouching down there, half in and half out of the cupboard. The thing was grey at first, and then it was black. And when I whispered, “Mabel”, it seemed to sink down till it lay like a pool of ink on the floor, and then its edges drew in, and it seemed to flow, like ink when you tilt up the paper you have spilt it on, and it flowed into the cupboard till it was all gathered into the shadow there. I saw it go quite plainly (119)".

This shadow creature, like every other horror in Nesbit's Gothic stories is marked out by the sense of retribution of just desserts that follows in its wake.  The titular Shadow, for instance, consumes the lives of a household in which the implications of some sort of extra-marital affair, or else some unspoken form of violation has taken place, and the shadow thing is the manifestation of the ill-will generated in the house.  The late Mr. Charrington's principle of persistence seems more about the need to dominate, rather than any genuine sense of love.  While the ghost of the "Ebony Frame", and the one that haunts Uncle Abraham are better described as parasites than they are in any sense romantic.  My personal favorite among all of Edith's Horror tales is "The Power of Darkness".  Like her other shockers, this one features a love triangle at its center.  Two men, one of them honorable, the other a cad, both have eyes for the same woman.  Each of them hopes they have her best interests at heart, yet the story makes clear that just one of them really means it.  

The cad's infatuation, or unloving desire, for the girl is enough for him to try and hatch a scheme to prove to her that her other suitor is a coward.  To do this, he first takes the other suitor on a tour of an underground French wax museum, and makes a bet with him to see if either of them can spend the night there without getting freaked and running away.  The cad decides to take the first night there all by his lonesome, and the results are somewhat predictable once he finds a spot to stow away in among the sculpted effigies of histories great figures.  It's as Nesbit leaves the protagonist alone in the dark, with the gruesome facts of history crowding in from every side, that the reader is given a sample of her Gothic talents of description and building tension at their height:

"The silence was intense, but it was a silence thick with rustlings and breathings, and movements that his ear, strained to the uttermost, could just not hear. Suppose, as Edward had said, when all the lights were out these things did move. A corpse was a thing that had moved, given a certain condition - life.  What if there were a condition, given which these things could move? What if such conditions were present now? What if all of them-Napoleon, yellow-white from his death sleep; the beasts from the amphitheater, gore dribbling from their jaws; that soldier with the legs-all were drawing near to him in this full silence? Those death masks of Robespierre and Mirabeau-they might float down through the darkness till they touched his face. That head of Mme de Lamballe on the pike might be thrust at him from behind the pillar. The silence throbbed with sounds that could not quite be heard (108-9)". 

That single passage is able to contain a level sophisticated dread that most of Nesbit's fans have tended to overlook, and which I don't think we see as much of today.  Perhaps it's time we started to demand a bit more from our tellers of tales.  In any case, while some may regard the ending to this story as a letdown, I remain more open-minded.  This is in part due to the sense of ambiguity Nesbit is able to weave about the events that happen to the main character as he sits and waits in the dark.  The reader is meant to be left asking whether the great majority of the action all takes just inside the mind of a fevered and breaking imagination, or whether or not the mannequins and masks of history really are stirring in the darkness, and making their subtle way toward their victim.  In that case, it might just make the barest kind of sense to describe "The Power of Darkness" as a Victorian Era Twilight Zone episode.  That comparison might also not be so artificial as it may sound.  It's all down to the way Nesbit utilizes the ghostly and the supernatural in her fiction.  I've found that the way an author presents the horror in their stories can sometimes tell a lot of what they think about the world.


In Edith's case, the supernatural can be a double-edged sword.  Nesbit seems to view the tropes of the Gothic genre as embodying two principles, one of them is bad, and the other is perhaps best described as balancing the scales.  There are figures like John Charrington, or the ghost who tried to seduce Uncle Abraham, who find ways to exert a malign supernatural will over the events of their respective narratives.  They make up the archetype of the deadly revanent reaching beyond the grave to cause mischief among the living.  It's just possible that the trope Nesbit used in both of her short-stories would later go on to become the engine that drives the narratives like Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan or Peter Straub's Ghost Story.  On the other hand, there are the stories where the horror serves a more cautionary purpose.  The would-be mad scientist at the center of "The Three Drugs" learns a lesson about "things man was meant to leave alone".  While a similar misguided chemist winds up giving himself a taste of his own literal medicine in "The Five Senses".  The difference is the latter guy is given a chance to recant his hubris.  The other one wasn't so lucky.  Between these poles or narrative trajectories, the reader is able to gain a decent enough sense of Edith's stance as a gothic writer.  

The horror in her fiction is a curious and intriguing mixture of inside and outside evil.  Or rather it's more the case that it's often the protagonists of her story who are constantly inviting supernatural misfortune to reek havoc with their lives.  In that sense, her stories all seem to be powered by the idea of the violation of boundaries, and the consequences that entails.  Aside from that main theme, there is just one other constant, recurring motif in Nesbit's supernatural fiction.  At the heart of many of these stories is the invariable setup of lovers who are either unfaithful or uncaring of each other.  Charrington sees his beloved more as a possession than a person in her own right.  Boyd Thompson, the scientist at the heart of "The Five Senses", only learns to appreciate his wife, and even his own life, after coming within inches of being buried alive.  While the protagonist of "The Ebony Frame" finds the deadly allure of a ghost more seductive than the woman he is betrothed to.  At last, there's the repeating love triangles in "The Power of Darkness" and "The Pavilion".  It's this second preoccupation that I think shows the real value this stories might have had for Edith, not just an author, but as a woman learning to find her voice.

I don't think it's too much a stretch to say that finding out the horror story allowed Daisy to find her own voice also allowed her an outlet for a lot of what was troubling her at home.  In these tales of the supernatural, Nesbit is able to pour out her frustrations and misgivings about her own domestic situation.  In doing so, Edith was able to enact a series of drams that asked about the role of women in all of these arrangements.  The results she was able to turn up, or uncover, are interesting for what they reveal to posterity.  Edith seems to have discovered that love can't be written off as some form of collective delusion.  It's just that there are some people out there who are too damned immature to even go near it with a fifty foot pole.  Hubert Bland was one such individual.  However, she also seems to have arrived at the following conclusion.  The situation of compromised love does not have to be a permanent one.  It is just possible, Nesbit suggests in stories like "The Pavilion" or "The New Samson" that such choices can be corrected, or canceled out by the moral consequences they entail.  A false love, she seems to intuit, can be replaced by the real thing.  It's creative discoveries like these that give Edith's Gothic fiction the kind of flavor that Rod Serling would help make mainstream several decades down the road.  Both authors tend to view the horrors of a Horror story as a kind of retributive ordering agent.


In addition to finding her voice, Edith seems to have realized that the discovery of her creative talent might be a way to gain the upper hand in a situation where all the dice were loaded against her, and her children.  Her stories allowed her to find an outlet for her frustrations, while at the same time bringing in the sort of income that kept the household afloat during times when Bland was too sick to work.  Another discovery Edith made was that, one the whole, her literary efforts tended to outsell anything Bland might have tried to put to paper.  It was a slow discovery of these varying, yet interrelated facts that might have served as a series of much needed compensations in an otherwise intolerable situation.  It could also have served as a boost to Daisy's artistic confidence.  This in turn may help explain the creative risks she was willing to take by transitioning from a writer of short stories to one who was able to make a living churning out full-fledged novels.

The Treasure Seeking Phase.

Nesbit's gothic stories don't seem to have ever been as well read or known as her later books and stories for children.  However those who do know about them tend to be passionate about their quality, and are willing to mount spirited defenses of their enduring literary quality.  I've got nothing to argue about on that score, I grew up a fright fan, so I'm always willing to champion the efforts of that particular genre.  If there's one major complaint that fans of Nesbit's Horror fiction might have, then it's best expressed in the form of a question.  Why, they ask themselves, did she not take the time to devote more efforts in this direction?  I think it's possible to give an answer to that question, and part of it comes when you take a closer look at the progression of her Gothic efforts.  The great majority of Edith's supernatural tales were composed during the closing years of the 19th century.  By the time the calendar reached the year 1900, it seems that Edith's imagination had moved on from spooks more or less for good.  She released one or two token gestures down the road.  However, a good look at these efforts gives all the explanation for moving on that either Daisy or her readers may need.  These later efforts show all the signs of the author having to draw on previous scenarios, and repeating character tropes from the published material that had gone before.  It was perhaps the best proof, if any were needed, that Edith's imagination had moved on, and there were glimpses of greener pastures starting to crop up in the dark.

A lot of it has to do with the fact of Daisy's growing confidence in her artistic abilities.  Tapping into the fantastic seems to have shown her where her strengths lay as a writer, and it probably wasn't too long before she began to see the potential for certain types of stories that would help to bring out all those capabilities.  In the preface to a re-issue of The Shining Stephen King makes an observation that I think might have been pertinent to this stage in Edith's life.  "I think that in every writer's career - usually early in it - there comes "crossroads novel," where the writer is presented with a choice: either do what you have done before, or try to reach a little higher.  What you realize only in retrospect is how important that choice is.  Sometimes the moment comes only once (xv)".  A similar logic was going on when Edith approached that same crossroad.  The one difference is there seems to have been a bit more calculation involved in her case.  Like King, Nesbit had an idea for a story would have to take up the space of a full-length novel.  Unlike him, Daisy's crossroads novel was also her first big breakout success.  It was one of those proverbial home runs that are knocked right out of the park at first bat.


It was a children's novel that put Edith's name in the spotlight, and I can't shake the idea that the whole thing was part of a long game on the author's part.  A lot of it was down to just how self-aware she was to the literary milieu going on around her, and of the growing sense that success as a writer would grant her a greater amount of authority in her own home situation.  My own theory is that rather than stepping into this new field blind, Edith may have had a general sense of the kind of stories she wanted to tell.  She'd had enough practice in writing horror stories to get a good grip on the fantastic, and how to deploy in a work of fiction in such a way that played to her particular talents and narrative voice.  It wouldn't be too long before it occurred to a smart girl that a great deal more potential could be done with such a setup if it were written in a quasi-fairy tale format.  

The fact that she didn't just jump into this idea right away shows, I think, another sign of Daisy's combination of artistic drive and caution.  She wanted to perfect her voice before seeing if she had what it took to be ready for the genre of the Brother's Grimm.  To that end, she started out small, and worked her way up to ladder of the fantastic.  The baby steps she took in that direction are an accomplishment in and of themselves. The best critical discussion I've seen on Nesbit comes from the pen of Prof. Sanford Schwartz, and his simple introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of two of Edith's stories does a good job of giving a more than decent layout of the literary scene that Edith wound up throwing her hat into.  


"The life of Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) spanned the period that is now regarded as the golden age of children's literature in the English-speaking world.  The major pre-condition for this development lies in the emergence of the modern industrial society, which produced not only an increasingly literate middle-class population but also a sharp division between home and workplace that effectively created the concept and condition of "childhood" as we now know it.  Books for children have a long history, but there is little precedent for the boom in children's fiction that began in the mid-nineteenth century.  The new literature appeared in a variety of forms, including among others, the boys' adventure tale, the family story (a specialty of women writers), and the fantasy novel, which was often cross-written for children and adults.  The adventure story, which descends from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and its many imitators, was pioneered in the mid-nineteenth century by Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), R.M. Ballantyne (1825-1894), and Mayne Reid (1818-1883), and somewhat later by the prolific G.A. Henty (1832-1902), "the boys' own historian," who wrote more than one hundred novels featuring young...heroes caught up in significant historical conflicts...Among the finest fruits of this genre are the classics by Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, 1883; Kidnapped, 1886) and Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884).  The family story, which also rose to prominence in this period is associated primarily with women writers such as Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901), Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885), Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921), and, in America, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), whose Little Women (1868) is widely regarded as the first masterpiece of this tradition, which paved the way for later classics such as Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and its sequels (xvi-ii)".    

It was in Treasure Seekers that Nesbit introduced the world to what would turn out to be the first in a long list of child protagonists.  The group consists of siblings; Dora, Oswald, Dickey, Alice, Noel, and Horace: the Bastable clan.  The kids, as the old rock song tells it, are pretty much alright.  They are and aren't normal in most respects.  There's no way a fictional character can be said to have a real life, grounded behavior.  Actual human beings don't tend to possess the caricatured or heightened level or poetical quality of behavior that fictional characters do.  Even very good actors have to drop the act at some point and just be themselves.  The only reason fictional characters are allowed to be more outlandish than real life is because the basic demands of any possible narrative demand it.  In order to do its job right, the one thing any good story needs to generate is the basic, building-block component known as drama.  The ability to reach that kind of result requires the sort of fictional "devices" that raise the story and its characters always just a bit above the ordinary.  Even the criminals in a Sherlock Holmes mystery are a lot more theatrical than they are in real life.  The same is true for the Bastable sibs.


While their first adventure revolves around the basic goal of trying to make money to keep their family afloat, the kids go about it in such a way that they always wind up trying to push any sense verisimilitude off to the sidelines.  The narrator, for instance, always relates certain events with a tongue-in-cheek style that is so loaded with Victorian cliches that it's easy to tell both character and author are in on the joke and want their audiences to be as well.  I think it might just be one of the first times that what is nowadays called the meta-literary technique was used in a work of fiction.  Also, their money making schemes tend to grow more fantastical from a reality standpoint, until they are literally reduced to trying to look for any buried treasure they can find.  The plot of Treasure Seekers, and its sequels The Wouldbegoods, and The New Treasure Seekers, are often described as episodic, which seems to be a polite way of saying the critics often find Nesbit's plots to be vague and uninteresting.  

While it can be argued that the third novel might just be an on-demand and financially obligated retread, I think the charge of the plot being ill-focused is a bit short-sighted.  A lot of it has to do with the changing conception of what a proper fictional plot should be.  Today we tend to think of a story as either a straight-forward, linear narrative, or else a main plot with a b-plot tacked on here and there.  With the advent of video games, there might even be a thrid subset who demand no plot as such, and just a setting in which the player avatar can roam around and kill time in.  The main reason for lobbing such criticism in Nesbit's direction, however, seems to come from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to limit the nature of what kind of plot a story can or is supposed to have.  


We seem to have overlooked the fact that the Victorians had a different idea of what a story structure could be like.  If you go back and read through any of Dickens' non-Christmas texts, you'll find that the author likes to keep taking these little side-streets and labyrinthine alley-ways in order to reach the point of his plot.  Mark Twain was another author who liked to do the same.  It's a technique that seems to have fallen out of favor, perhaps due to the overburdening of the job market through technology, or else something like it.  The point is while such a writing style may be out of favor, I find it somewhat comforting that it still has its fans here and there.  Stephen King's The Green Mile, where the entire plot is a build-up to the final act, is one good example of this.  The main point is that just because Edith copied a plot structure that is out of fashion, this in itself tells us nothing about its inherent quality.  For my part, I find that it never really gets in the way.  On the contrary, it seems like a neat, if forgotten example of how authors can ease their audiences into their secondary worlds.  Giving the plot a slow, unraveling quality can sometimes have a legitimate point.  It forces the reader to walk a mile or so with the characters in order to grow comfortable with them.  Once that's done, the task of the writer can sometimes be a bit smoother, if never really any easier.

The Final, Fantasy phase.

With the advent of the Bastables,  Edith was able to cement both the more or less permanent nature of her true artistic voice, and throw a bonus into the bargain.  With books like The Treasure Seekers, she was able to establish what might be called "The Nesbit Setup".  It's one that has passed on into so much of the plot structure of some of the best fantasy novels and films, that's its very ubiquity has tended to overshadow its originator.  The way things tends to start out in this kind of situation goes as follows.  You have a main character, or set of leads, in what starts out looking like an ordinary modern setting.  Then sooner or later an imperceptible boundary line gets crossed, and things start to look and sound a bit less like real life.  This is when the first hint of the supernatural, magical, or otherworldly begins to exert an influence on the proceedings.  

The way Nesbit launches her characters into the fantastic elements of the plot often tends to come about through happenstance.  She lets her cast go through what they believe to be the motions of their ordinary lives, like taking a simple holiday on the beach, or else purchasing an old, used rug as a desperate kind of impulse buy.  These are small, almost menial gestures on their behalf, and that appears to have been the way Edith liked to unfurl this type of situation.  Here we see it being used for perhaps not the first time, yet it might be one of the most successful examples of pulling off this trope in a modern setting.  When the border between the real and the ethereal is crossed, Nesbit often does her best to make sure her readers don't know any more than her young main leads.  From there, it's just a quick transition or two until the first of the bizarre marvels are brought on-stage.  Nesbit often likes to have one of these otherworldly beings act like a kind of tour guide for her child protagonists, and hence for the reader.  It's their powers and abilities that often facilitate the rest of the narrative.

Once this setup is in place, Edith was content to give her imagination free reign.  This allowed her pen to take her characters and readers on any sort of adventure that cropped up in her head. Sometimes these adventures could involved another familiar trope.  It's the one in which a group of ordinary kids must journey to a fantastical realm that's removed from the mundane world.  The reason for going there usually centers on fulfilling a quest of some kind.  This is the situation that greets the two main leads of Nesbit's later novel, The Magic City.  It's a fair certainty Edith never originated this trope either, though she may be one of the first to give it its initial taste of mainstream, household popularity.  For Sanford Schwartz, this is another example of Edith's natural talent for tapping into just the right kind of story that would resonate with her audience.  It all seems to have been a matter of being in and at the right place and time.  


"In retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable children's genre to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century is the cross-generational fantasy novel.  Inspired by the immensely popular fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm...and Hans Christian Anderson..., the fantasy tradition was built on the firm foundation established by three Victorian authors - George MacDonald (), Charles Kingsley (), and Lewis Carroll () - who produced a series of masterpieces over the course of little more than a decade.  These include MacDonald's Phantastes (1858), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), and The Princess and the Goblin (1872); Kingsley's singular classic The Water Babies (1863); and  Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871).  In the first decade of the twentieth century, this tradition produced an especially rich harvest...It's not coincidence that in this same brief and remarkable period, which came to an end around World War I, E. Nesbit also produced nearly all of the children's fantasy novels for which she is now remembered (xvii)".

The other names in that "harvest" Schwartz mentioned includes Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and Walter de la Mare (ibid).  Looked at from this perspective, it just makes sense to say that Edith, and all the others made up one of those informal artistic groupings that tend to crop up during certain periods of history.  There have been other outcroppings of this phenomenon here and there over the years.  However, it really does seem like the example Edith belonged to has somehow managed to be the one to cement itself as the most iconic, at least in terms of all the major fantasy genres.  A lot of it seems to be down to the way in which each of their individual works sort of helped together to create something like a permanent identity for what a classic work of fantastic literature is supposed to be like.  The way Edith helped out in this regard comes from how she took the elements of folklore and found their modern expression.


In terms of keeping her audiences glued to the page, Edith's imagination seems to have been more than up to the challenge of packing her pages full of incident.  She thinks nothing of letting a little brat named Maurice get a taste of his own medicine when he wakes up one day to discover he has switched places and species with the house cat through some unexplained means.  Or else an average modern lad will find himself transported to the past, where he has to avoid becoming the chosen victim of the next pagan sacrifice.  One of her most striking images, however, is probably the scene that takes place in The Enchanted Castle.  It's dead of night in the Crystal Palace when the statues of old dinosaurs and ancients Greek gods begin to stir and come to life.  "It was indeed moving...She could see...as it waddled along...The huge beast swung from side to side.  It was going faster...The floor of its stomach sloped.  They were going downhill.  Twigs cracked and broke as it pushed through the belt of evergreen oaks; gravel crunched, ground beneath its stony feet.  Then stone met stone.  There was a pause.  A splash!  The were close to water - the lake where by moonlight Hermes fluttered and Janus and the dinosaurs swam together (359)". 

For those who feel a nitpick is in order, it is possible that some may feel the whole atmosphere of the scene deserves an elevation in style.  Nothing too arch or high, but rather somewhere in the realm of simple poetics that can carry over the idea of the marvelous in action.  Perhaps an author with the verbal skills of a Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, or Peter S. Beagle would have been capable of giving the entire scene the stylistic and emotional weight it deserves.  Before dismissing Nesbit's own skills, however, consider this.  Ask yourselves just how clear an image you have of the dinosaur in your heads, even without being given any explicit details.  In my mind, it always looks like either an Apatosaur or some kind of Brontosaurus.  If just the barest words are able to plant a similar image of clear vividness in your mind's eye, then I'm afraid it's a testament to the implicit skill that comes with artistic simplicity when done right.  However, the real importance here isn't just the images for their own sake.  What Schwartz singles out is that it's the narrative direction each marvelous event or character takes that is a pointer to what matters most.   

"Nesbit's fantasy novels often hark back to traditional fairy tales, and behind Five Children and It lies the well known tale of "the three wishes," which appears in many version around the world.  Once the children realize that" the titular It of the novel "will grant their wishes, they consider the implications of one of the variants of the traditional tale - the 'black pudding story (p. 20), in which a man who dislikes his wife's cooking wishes for a helping of black pudding, to which she reacts by wishing the pudding on his nose; he then must use the final wish to undo the effects of the second.  (Coincidentally, a darker and instantly famous version of the tale, W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," appeared in 1902).  While expressing our desire to transcend the limits of ordinary existence, the fairy tale of "the three wishes" warns us to beware of our own wishes, dreams, and fantasies by revealing the consequences of their literal fulfillment.  As Bruno Bettelheim points out, however, the self-canceling circularity of these tales is also reassuring and enhances our willingness to accept the reality of things as they (xxiv)".


I think what's really going on at the heart of most of her fiction is the author's realization of human fallibility, and the various ways in which these faults can interact and bounce off of all the familiar tropes of folklore and myth.  It's a note that sounds throughout all her best work, and by doing so, Edith seems to have begun what amounts to a career length, protracted interrogation of the Romantic impulse.  I'm not using that word in its normal Boy meets Girl phrasing.  I'm talking about the same imaginative instinct that allows for the fictional concept of an enchanted forest, and the like.  It's the same impulse at the heart of the poetic movement that bears its name.  I've used the term Victorian Romanticism to described the flourishing and proliferation of all the great children's books that were published during the 19th century.  It's an informal movement with a very prominent place for Edith on it's list of great names, I don't deny that.  Nor am I implying that she was either suspicious of, or didn't recognize the value of Romanticism itself.  Instead, she seems more concerned with the question of human motivations, and the ethical ramifications that come attached with it.

Her stories are populated with protagonists who often start out in a nebulous, moral gray area.  Most  of them never manage to fill in the criteria of bad.  A better word for them would be to say that they are incomplete.  The events they go through in the course of their respective narratives often have the benefit of showing them going through a series of positive changes which can, under the best circumstances, leave them off as better characters.  Before they get their, however, her main leads find themselves confronted with situations that force them to come to terms with the choices they make in life.  Often in these moments, the flaws of her characters tend to paint them in less than flattering colors.  However, it's to their credit that most of them don't choose to linger in such a state.  The trials they undergo often have the merit of not just highlight their flaws.  They can also reveal their strengths, some of which they never even knew they had, or failed to appreciate.  

That's where another common thread of Nesbit's fiction comes in.  She's not afraid to have stories in which the magic isn't always as good as it's cracked up to be.  Her children often begin by wishing to escape their own lives, and then a magical quality is introduced that allows them to act on their desires.  Perhaps its the fact that she really doesn't always sugar coat the otherworld in her stories that makes it more memorable than it would have been.  Rather than just being an answer or tonic to their problems, the magic in Edith's stories sometimes just tends to exacerbate the troubles of the protagonists.  It's a thematic note that seems to tie her in with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, of all people.  Both authors seem to take a view toward the fantastic with the same mixture of criticism and respect.  They are well aware of the abuses that can come from enchantment, while at the same time acknowledging that magic and heroism play an important part in the life of the mind.  Taken all together, it seems as if Nesbit's main concerns are the matter of how character is defined by the choices we make as human beings, and the need to make an honest, necessary distinction between true and false Romanticisms.  Edith has nothing except praise for the well told flight of fantasy.  In fact, it seems precisely because she knows the value of the genre that accounts for the note of encouraging caution that gets sounded time and again throughout her work.

On a personal level, the breakout success of her fantasy novels gave Edith something that I think mattered more to her than just financial security.  It also gave her a sense of control over her destiny into her own hands.  As the health of Hubert Bland began to decrease over the advancing years, by the time a book like The New Treasure Seekers was in stores, the situation at home had reversed to such a degree that Edith was placed as the de facto bread-winner and head of the household.  By the standards of today, it might seem like cold comfort for change.  However, it is just possible that Edith knew she had moved from a state of powerlessness to one that allowed her to assert herself in a way that would have seemed impossible back before she had found her creative strengths.  As things shook out, while Edith was never able to be rich, it is just possible she was able to find real happiness.  


In 1914, Hubert Bland passed away.  Daisy was able to survive him by at least ten more years.  She seems to have been determined to live her remaining time to the best she could envision.  Spending the rest of your life in a cozy little cottage married to a retired sea captain didn't strike many of her friends as an ideal situation.  I'm not real sure what other people make of it, to tell you the truth.  The best I can offer is this.  When I think of the overall picture of Edith's last years, despite some financial difficulties, the picture I keep coming back to is that of a woman who has fought hard to achieve something of the good life.  The kind of living Edith had in mind isn't too difficult to conjure up.  It can be found on the pages of her children's books, which feature warm, and sympathetic households that were open enough to allow room for one girl's dreams.  Somewhere during the final phase of her career, she seems to have found ways of realizing those hopes.

Conclusion.

If I had to look for a phrase that would sum up Eleanor Fitzsimmons book, then it would have to be: one great, big, missed opportunity.  There's a bit of a trick involved with most biographies.  Sooner or later, the author has to tip their hand in terms of where their personal loyalties or philosophies lay.  Even if they don't intend it, I'm not sure how it's avoidable.  In that sense, maybe even biographies fit under the heading of confessions.  When I read Fitzsimmons book, I have a hard time getting as clear a picture of the woman at the center of it.  I've had to look elsewhere in order to find that.  Instead, what I'm left with is the sense that I've run across one of those neighborhood gossip types.  The one who can't even manage to take the dirtiest of laundry with any degree of sincerity.  To be fair, such figures are common enough in real life to qualify as types.  And it is just possible that their behavior can act as pointers to stories worth telling, the irony is that I'm pretty sure its the one bit of information they might wish to conceal.  I wonder what that's all about.  However, the fact remains that such writers are perhaps not the best choice to select for telling the life story of a famous children's author.

The fact that she's seems to have been the only one to come up with a book-length study of Nesbit is telling.  I think it says something about her lack of recognition.  Edith's days as a "brand name" with tons of "pre-awareness" attached to it must have ended a long time ago.  How else do you explain the fact I was able to turn up no more than 5 books about her in total, and just one of them was anything like a genuine study of her literature.  The problem was that one dated all the way back to 1958.  When looked at from that perspective, there's nothing much new under the sun when it comes to Nesbit.  She's one of those author's who are often left to sit unnoticed on the shelf while the latest attention-getter of the week takes up all the time (until it doesn't).  I find it interesting that her works even manage to hang on, even after countless other flavors of the month have faded from memory.  If it means anything at all, then I suppose it has to do with the difference between talent and flattery.  A bad author will tell you anything you desire from one moment to the next.  A good one will always disclose the truth inside the lie, no matter how inconvenient.  Edith was always good at letting the truths of her books speak for themselves.

That's just one of the facets of her remarkable life and career.  It's a story that deserves a certain amount of care and critical attention.  It's just a shame that Eleanor Fitzsimmons is not up to the task.  My real worry, though, is what the appearance of such a biography might mean in terms of its subject's public perception.  One of the hard facts of the writing life is that the author's work is always at the mercy of the audience.  What that means, more often than not, is that the ability to see or perceive all the potential layers or depths of one of Edith's novels will hinge a great deal on the current zeitgeist of the moment.  The result amounts to a weird zigzag trajectory in the book's fortunes.  One generation may look at her in terms of a woman pioneer.  Another will be focused on whether she qualifies enough to fit in with the current standards of the age, or whether she is too old fashioned to be of use to anyone.  Right now, the appearance of the Fitzsimmons book means the current interest is going through a People Magazine phase.  We're not interested in the author as an artist, but more like some exotic African bird to be displayed for our amusement.  Others have come before, on pretty soon this too is bound shift into some other gear. 


That's been my experience of how audience reception works, and mind you, that's counting the one's who label themselves as enthusiasts.  These shifts of focus in critical attention can be traced by going back through older texts and examining how Edith, or any other writer for that matter, has fared over the passage of time.  Most of it goes unremarked about now, and that's no real surprise when you just stop and take in the reality facing even the most talented artist.  The great majority is never given much of a chance or incentive to take an interest in any sort of fiction.  As a result, the real miracle is that writer's like Nesbit are still around after all this time.  My great concern in all this is that this constant shifting of attention will cause both critical and casual readers to neglect the most important aspects of her legacy.  It's really down to the stories themselves, and what (if anything) they have to say that matters more than anything else.  That sounds like the best place to start when talking about an author like Edith Nesbit.  For now, I'm afraid I'll have to report that a real in-depth 21st century biography on her life and art still has yet to appear.  Fans who are thinking of buying Fitzsimmons book are advised to think twice and try elsewhere.  The best of the old material still seems to be Julia Briggs's A Woman of Passion.  In the meantime, all I can do is leave off with a summary of the author from the same introduction by Sanford Schwartz.  It paints the best picture of E. Nesbit that I know of.


"In "The Book of Beasts," the first story in her popular collection The Book of Dragons (1900)...Nesbit tells the tale of a boy who unexpectedly inherits the throne of his country.  Like his somewhat eccentric predecessor, the new king is soon drawn to the treasures of the royal library.  Ignoring the advice of his counselors, the boy approaches a particularly handsome volume, 'The Book of Beasts', but as he gazes at the beautiful butterfly painted on the front page, the creature beings to flutter its wings and proceeds to fly out the library window.  Unfortunately, the same thing occurs with the great dragon who appears on a subsequent page, and soon the beast starts to wreak havoc (though only on Saturdays) throughout the land.  After the dragon carries off his rocking horse, the young king sets free a hippogriff from the 'Book of Beasts', and together the boy and his white-winged companion lure the dragon to the Pebbly Waste, where the fiery creature, now deprived of the shade that keeps it from overheating, wriggles back into the book from which it came.  The rocking horse is recovered but asks to live in the hippogriff's page of the book, while the hippogriff, for its efforts, assumes the position of King's Own Rocking Horse.

"The release of fantastic creatures into the real world, at once serious and playful, exemplifies the most distinctive feature of Nesbit's fantasies: the ceaseless interplay between the imaginary and the actual, the fluctuation between the magical world that her children inhabit through their books, games, and adventures, and the limiting conditions of everyday life.  Unlike most of her predecessors, who situate the action of their books entirely in an imaginary realm or swiftly transport their protagonists into it, Nesbit's fantasies are perpetually shuffling back and forth between the marvelous and the real, and much of their fascination lies in the interaction and confusion between them.   


"In Five Children and It (1902), her first fantasy novel, the children's exercise of imagination comes simply from the opportunity to have their wishes granted, and the results, however amusing to us, are sufficiently troublesome or embarrassing to make them welcome (at least temporarily) the return to the ordinary.  In The Enchanted Castle (1907), the magic is more elusive and complex, and it leads to a serious meditation on the gift of imagination - its multi-form capacity to produce butterflies as well as dragons, and above all its power to redeem and transfigure, as the hippogriff does, the distress, insecurity, and inevitable sorrows of this world (xv-xvi)".  At the same time, part of what makes Edith Nesbit stick around is her over-arching knowledge that even dragons can be defeated.

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