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The Story of Edith Nesbit by Jerry Dowlen
Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives
An "advanced" Victorian
woman: the story of Edith Nesbit (1858 - 1924).
author of 'The Railway Children' and many other best-loved classic stories for
children, died ninety years ago, on 4th May 1924.
Her public name was given as E Nesbit, but she was baptised as Edith, in 1858.
Her family nickname was "Daisy". She lived first in Kennington, in
Edith's childhood years and imagination were shaped by her experiences of being
sent away to France and Germany. Her father - an agricultural scientist and
lecturer - had died in 1862 when she was only four. Her mother had to fend
alone with five children. Her solution was for Edith to attend boarding schools
overseas, and in Brighton. Then at age 17 Edith settled to live with her mother
in Halstead, Kent.
Edith had a keen interest in the literary world. She penned and recited her own
stories; she was thrilled to make her publishing debut when her poem on 'Dawn'
was accepted by The Sunday Magazine.
Biographers have traced elements of Edith's childhood in some of her best-known
fictional stories. For example, she could never remember much of her father,
and consequently a father figure was rarely a presence in any of her stories.
And as a tomboy in early childhood, imitating her older brothers, she may have
been "planted" by them in their Kennington garden one day, as would
befall "Albert-next-door" in her delightful story of 'The Treasure
Marriage in 1880 to the journalist and Socialist zealot Hubert Bland added new
dimensions to Edith's life. She started a family but she remained as
independent-thinking and unconventional an adult as she had been a child.
Always interested in outdoor activities and sport, she developed her literary
ambitions when her sister Mary's arty acquaintances helped her to meet such
notable figures as William Morris, the Rosettis and Charles Swinburne.
Biographers have had a field day - literally! - connecting fictional incidents
and places in E Nesbit's stories to her real-life family home and surroundings
in Eltham in south London. The big eighteenth-century Well Hall house was home
to the Blands and their extended family from the late 1880s onwards. Imposing
but dilapidated, covered in ivy, it had a moat, Tudor outbuildings, gardens,
orchards, fields, meadows and an adjoining farm.
Writing for the Eltham Society in 1974, Margaret Taylor observed:
"Readers who know Eltham and E Nesbit's books cannot fail to notice how
the old house and its surroundings, barely disguised, feature in her stories.
'The Red House', an adult novel, and 'The Wouldbegoods' are obvious examples.
In the latter, the children sit in the straw inside a barn to plan their
Society-for-being-good. Her fictional family the Bastables play, and well-nigh
drown, in a moat. They ring an old bell at the top of the house - there was
such a bell at Well Hall. They visit a mysterious tower on a hill and put an
extra tombstone in a nearby churchyard. From Well Hall one would easily see
Severndroog Castle on Shooter's Hill and the expanse of Eltham Churchyard
stretching from the far side of the railway to the High Street."
Taylor noted too that Edith became active in the Fabian Society which her
husband had helped to found. With her hair cut short, her dresses worn loose
and unfashionable, and her cigarettes that she smoked through a long
amber-coloured holder, she was the archetype "advanced" late
Victorian woman, although she never became a supporter of the Suffrage
time that her husband Hubert died in 1914, road, tram and housing development
had urbanised Eltham considerably. A lover of such Kent countryside places as
Dymchurch, the Medway, Yalding and other beauty spots, Edith moved away in 1923
to New Romney where she died a year later. She had married Thomas Tucker in
1917. Her simple headboard at St Mary-in-the-Marsh churchyard was inscribed:
'Resting. E Nesbit, Mrs Bland-Tucker, Poet and Author.'
Perhaps her best-known and most enduring work is 'The Railway Children': the
1970 film directed by Lionel Jeffries was a box-office hit and is a perennial
favourite for repeats on television. A young Jenny Agutter starred in the film
and was delighted to return and take part in the television remake in 2000. The
plot-line of 'The Railway Children' included an episode from Edith's first
marriage when her husband was defrauded by a business partner.
Well Hall House is long demolished, but when its meadowland was covered by the
Page Estate in the 1920s, a former pathway became Nesbit Road. Sited near to
the present-day A2 road near the Blackwall Tunnel, it is a fitting tribute to a
famous ex-resident whose books are still a Treasure, ninety years after her
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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