Edith Nesbit got married at 18 when she was seven months pregnant. Her dandyish new husband, Hubert Bland, was so charming that Nesbit accepted his perennial waywardness — he seldom kept more than two mistresses at once — and even reared children from his liaisons as her own. Strikingly beautiful, Nesbit regularly engaged in light and serious flirtations herself. When playwright George Bernard Shaw ultimately declined to go to bed with her, she coldly informed him, “You had no right to write the preface if you were not going to write the book.”
Famous for her bohemian caftans, an amber cigarette holder and the myriad bracelets she wore on her arms, Nesbit always worked on deadline at top speed. She could crank out 5,000 words in half a day — one draft, no revisions. Throughout the 1890s, she and Bland (both leading members of the socialist Fabian Society) seemed tireless: writing tracts, throwing gigantic Christmas parties for hundreds of indigent children at their London home, hosting weekends of political discussion punctuated by badminton, charades and bibulous dinners. One regular guest, the married H.G. Wells, tried to run off with teenage Rosamund Bland — who wrongly believed that Nesbit was her mother — and the fleeing couple were only apprehended at Paddington station.
Surprisingly, Nesbit opposed the women’s suffragist movement, arguing that it took away energies better spent on furthering the socialist cause. Still, when a doctor in “The Railway Children” explains that girls are “poor, soft, weak, frightened things like rabbits,” Nesbit quickly dispels this nonsense with one of the most thrilling scenes in children’s literature. To prevent a deadly crash, Bobbie must somehow stop the 11:29 express train as it comes barreling toward disaster. With no time to lose, she rushes onto the railroad tracks and stands there, frantically waving her torn-up red petticoat. She keeps shaking her makeshift flags, even after the speeding locomotive finally comes to a halt just yards in front of her.
Even more than previous biographies, “The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit” quotes liberally from Nesbit’s poetry and her half-forgotten novels for adults. In particular, Fitzsimons emphasizes how often elements from real life — people, names, events, Fabian politics — are reflected or repurposed in the fiction. She also provides enjoyable pen portraits of the many extraordinary figures in Nesbit’s circle, including the fiery theosophist Annie Besant and the notorious Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo (who left fleas wherever he sat). What Fitzsimons doesn’t do, however, is discuss the books for children in detail.
In them, Nesbit’s tone is light, humorous, gently ironic. When her bookish children play “pretend” or face real adversity, they almost always model their speech and behavior after their favorite reading. For example, during a game of hidden treasure, pagan princess Alice gives orders in an appropriately archaic high style: “Dig here, and that with courage and dispatch. . . . Dig as you value your lives, for ere sundown the dragon who guards this spoil will return in his fiery fury and make you his unresisting prey.”
At times, Nesbit can be almost Borgesian or Escher-like in her narrative intricacies. In “The Town in the Library in the Town in the Library,” the plot turns on infinite regression. Children build a model city in their house’s library, get miniaturized and discover that the city they have built includes their own house, inside of which is a library with a model city . . . and so on, forever.
In “The Enchanted Castle” Nesbit produced a multi-stranded novel that plays with age-old questions about appearance and reality, the soul’s relation to the body, the need for the numinous in ordinary life. Throughout it mixes Wodehousean comedy with the uncanny and, at one point, the truly nightmarish. Some Edwardian children decide to put on a play and, wanting an audience, create one out of coats, hats, gloves and old shoes held together by string and given vaguely human shape by coat racks and hangers.
Unfortunately, spunky Mabel casually says, “I wish these creatures we made were alive. We should get something like applause then.” At which point, the cobbled-together scarecrows and mannequins begin to clap.
Matters soon grow metaphysically disorienting. The Ugly-Wuglies don’t realize they are just agglomerations of household items. The intrepid Gerald follows one of these creatures to London, where it is recognized as a successful businessman: Mr. U.W. Ugli, Stock and Share Broker. Yet how is this possible? If this just-created Frankensteinian clotheshorse were again reduced to a coat and hat, would all memory of its “human” existence disappear? “Would the mahogany-and-clerk-furnished offices fade away?” A philosophical abyss soon opens before the boy: “Were the clerks real? Was the mahogany? Was he himself real?”
Enough for now. If you’ve never read E. Nesbit’s wonderful fiction, start with any of the titles I’ve mentioned. If you already know her work, learn more about its astonishing author from Eleanor Fitzsimons’s informative and entertaining biography.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE LIFE AND LOVES OF E. NESBIT
Victorian Iconoclast, Children's Author, and Creator of The Railway Children
By Eleanor Fitzsimons
Abrams. 400 pp. $35