A Charming Adult Novel by E. Nesbit: “The Lark”

If you read my blog post of August 29, you gathered that E. Nesbit is my favorite writer of children’s books. One of the pleasures of the e-reader has been the discovery of Nesbit’s out-of-print adult novels in e-book form. The best of her adult novels is The Lark, a delightful comedy published in 1922. Since I read the e-book in 2015, it has been reissued in paperback by Penguin in the UK and by Furrowed Middlebrow in the U.S.

In The Lark, Nesbit establishes a magical atmosphere reminiscent of that of her charming children’s novels. The two heroines, Jane and her cousin Lucilla,  are both orphans, and an epidemic of the mumps has gotten them out of school early, since they were lucky enough not to catch it. At their friend Emmeline’s house, they discover a spell book in the library, a “fat quarto volume with onyx-laid clasps and bosses.” And the willful Jane decides it will be “a lark” to try a spell that will reveal her true loves.

“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Wouldn’t I? That’s all you know!”
“You mustn’t dare her,” said a third voice anxiously from the top of the library steps; “if you dare her, she’ll do it as sure as fate!”

I love the  lively dialogue, which depicts the three girls so believably.  As you would expect from the lines “Wouldn’t I? That’s all you know!”,  Jane is adamant.  She speaks aloud the spell in the woods at the moment when Mr. Rochester, a handsome man who has missed his train, is passing by. Yes, the novel is a playful riff on Jane Eyre: Jane and Mr. Rochester fall in love. Sort of. But Jane has no idea if she will see him again.

, Jane and Lucilla are comfortably well-off.  But a few years later, when they are 19, their guardian loses their money and flees to South Africa.  Before he leaves, he arranges for a cab driver to pick them up at school and drive them to a charming small cottage he has bought with the last of their inheritance.

They are unprepared to support themselves–a flaw in girls’ education in the early 20th century, Nesbit obviously thought.  At first they try selling  the flowers from their garden.  It is a difficult business.

Before I go on, let me fill you in on E. Nesbit’s background and the popularity of her children’s books.  She has many  writerly fans, including Antonia Fraser and J. K. Rowling.  In 1963, Gore Vidal wrote an article, “The Writing of E. Nesbit,” for The New York Review of Books.

He wrote,

After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own. Yet Nesbit’s books are relatively unknown in the United States. Publishers attribute her failure in these parts to a witty and intelligent prose style (something of a demerit in the land of the free) and to the fact that a good many of her books deal with magic, a taboo subject nowadays.

Edith and her husband, Hubert Bland, were socialists and members of the Fabian Society.  To support her husband and five children, Nesbit wrote children’s books.  She also supported her best friend, Alice, who had an affair with Hubert, had two children by him, and became Edith’s housekeeper and secretary.  A. S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, The Children’s Book, is based on the lives of E. Nesbit and her circle.

In The Lark, Jane and Lucilla have sold most of the flowers from their own garden, and wish they could expand by renting the deserted house with a huge garden down the road. When they find the door open one day and decide to explore, Jane falls and turns her ankle.  Mr. Rochester, who is the landlord’s nephew, shows up and takes the two girls home in his carriage.   He is smitten with Jane (but we knew that) and arranges for his cranky uncle to allow them to sell the flowers from his garden.  They open a shop in a shed, hire a gardener, and eventually are given the use of his house, where they take in lodgers (which is very, very funny).

One of the things I most relate to is the young women’s struggle with math and accounts.

“It’s so different doing it with real money,” said Lucilla, fingering the little piles of coin on the table of the garden room, where, with two candles in brass candlesticks to light them, they were seeking to find some relation between the coins–so easily counted–and the figures referring to these same coins which all through the week they had laboriously pencilled in an exercise-book.

“I think it’s the garden distracts us,” said Jane, looking towards the open window, beyond which lay lawn and cedars bathed in moonlight and soft spring air.

The Lark is utterly charming, and I enjoy the rambling authorial asides  and occasional slapstick scenes. I also admire novels about work, and though this isn’t super-realistic–could someone please give me a garden?–I love the characters, appreciate the descriptions of gardens, and the burglar episode reminds me of similar episodes in The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Bastable books.

A fabulous weekend read!

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