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Nesbit, E. (Edith) (1858-1924)
by Gaipa, Mark


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E. (Edith) Nesbit 1858-1924

Poet, Fabian, author of children's literature.

Also known as Edith Nesbit Bland, Nesbit published most of her work under the gender-hiding signature of “E. Nesbit”; with her husband, she also published under the alias “Fabian Bland.” Nesbit was a prolific writer whose prodigious output allowed her to support her large, sprawling family. Known primarily as a writer of children's literature, Nesbit also sought to be recognized as a serious poet in her lifetime. She may well have been regarded as such in The New Age, where she was an occasional contributor of poetry, mostly in the first two volumes (1907-8); she also wrote, in Volume 1, an article about the “Anglo-Russian Alliance.” A bright, striking woman who circulated in bohemian and Fabian circles, Nesbit could leave quite an impression. Here's how Ada Elizabeth Jones Chesterton remembered her:

Mrs. Bland–E. Nesbit–the popular author of The Would-Be-Good, was always surrounded by adoring young men, dazzled by her vitality, amazing talent and the sheer magnificence of her appearance. She was a very tall woman, built on the grand scale, and on festive occasions wore a trailing gown of peacock blue satin with strings of beads and Indian bangles from wrist to elbow. Madame, as she was always called, smoked incessantly, and her long cigarette holder became an indissoluble part of the picture she suggested–a raffish Rossetti, with a long full throat, and dark luxuriant hair, smoothly parted. She was a wonderful woman, large hearted, amazingly unconventional, but with sudden strange reversions to ultra-respectable standards. Her children’s stories had an immense vogue, and she could write unconcernedly in the midst of a crowd, smoking like a chimney all the while.

Born in London, Nesbit lost her father—a teacher and director at the family's agricultural school—when she was four years old. She unhappily attended boarding schools in England before moving, at age 9, with her mother and sisters to the continent, where she continued her schooling in France and Germany. In 1872 her family returned to England, settling initially in Kent and then back again in London. By her late teens, Nesbit had published poems in a variety of magazines. In 1877 Nesbit met Hubert Bland, a charismatic bank clerk with few financial prospects, whom she would marry three years later when Nesbit was seven months pregnant with Bland's child. Nesbit likened her imprudent relationship with Bland to the romance of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Bland, however, was simultaneously involved with another woman who would remain his mistress through the next decade. When Bland's business venture as a brush-manufacturer collapsed (due to the betrayal of his partner), Nesbit peddled her writing on Fleet Street and undertook other work, like making her own greeting cards, to finance their growing household. Bland often collaborated with Nesbit on her writing, thus beginning the writing career for which he would later be celebrated as a journalist and reviewer. By 1885, Nesbit bore Bland the last of their three children, a boy they named Fabian after their new joint enthusiasm.

Nesbit and Bland were involved in the Fabian Society from its very inception, in the mid 1880's, well before its more famous members (e.g., G. B. Shaw, Annie Besant, Sidney and Beatrice Webb) signed on. Elected to the Pamphlets Committee in March 1884, Nesbit helped publish the first Fabian tract in April of that year. The Fabian Society and its intellectual circle offered Nesbit an intellectual framework and justification for the unconventional role that she, of necessity, played as the main breadwinner in her home. To reflect her status as an advanced woman, Nesbit assumed a variety of traditionally male privileges—she cut off her hair, wore less feminine dress, and began smoking. Nesbit was famous for the parties she gave at Well Hall (her dilapidated moated residence in Eltham), and she was often found there surrounded by her male admirers—courtiers who sometimes became her lovers. She and Bland had an open marriage: even as she had affairs with the likes of G. B. Shaw, Bland had his own affairs—most notably with another Fabian, Alice Hoatson, who bore Bland's child in 1899. Edith adopted this infant into her family—as she did the other children that Bland fathered with a previous mistress.

Nesbit's literary output was tremendous. Writing by herself, she published about forty books for children—either novels or collections of stories; collaborating with others, Nesbit published about as many more. Her children's books are known for entertaining without being didactic. According to her biographer Julia Briggs, Nesbit was “the first modern writer for children”:

[Nesbit] helped to reverse the great tradition of children's literature inaugurated by Carroll, MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame, in turning away from their secondary worlds to the tough truths to be won from encounters with things-as-they-are, previously the province of adult novels. (xx)

Briggs also credits Nesbit with having invented the children's adventure story. Among Nesbit's best-known books are The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1901), which both recount stories about the Bastables, a fictional family that Nesbit likely styled upon her own childhood family. Nesbit's children's writing also included numerous plays and collections of verse.

Among her literature for adult readers are eight novels that Nesbit co-authored with her husband. One of these novels, The Prophet's Mantle (1885), was inspired by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin's temporary residence in London. Much of Nesbit and Bland's writing, signed with the joint alias "Fabian Bland," appeared in serial form in the London Weekly Dispatch. On her own, Nesbit published a dozen collections of short stories, as well as some plays and a great many collections of serious poetry. Her stories and poems appeared in such papers as the Pall Mal Gazette, Girls' Own Paper, and the Illustrated London News. Nesbit's fictional writing is often based on her own life, reflecting the characters who made up her social circle. However, she insisted—perhaps unrealistically—that her poems were mainly “dramatic lyrics,” impersonal statements by fictional characters that Browning might have written.

After the turn of the century, Bland and Nesbit both converted to Catholicism. In 1909, Nesbit's adopted daughter Rosamund would marry Clifford Sharp, who was a Fabian disciple of Hubert Bland, as well as a contributor to The New Age and the future editor of the Fabian New Statesman. Four years after Hubert Bland died in 1913, Nesbit married Thomas “the Skipper” Tucker, a kindly ship's engineer whose lower-class background discomforted Nesbit's family and friends. Nesbit would eventually succumb to lung cancer, likely the result of her years of heavy smoking.

—Mark Gaipa

Sources

  • Julia Briggs, A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924 (1987)
  • Ada Jones Chesterton, The Chestertons (1941)
  • Contemporary Authors, vol. 147 (1981).
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