A Neglected Socialist Writer: E. Nesbit, Poet, Novelist, and Children’s Writer

“You must remember it’s two thousand years since I had any conversation—-I’m out of practice.”  From The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit

It is an odd thing about the socialist writer E. Nesbit: I seem to be the only American woman of my generation who grew up reading her children’s novels. Did I reside in a parallel reality? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. After I read her tour de force, The Enchanted Castle, I climbed our back-yard fence into the narrow yard of Ardenia, an apartment house of eccentric design, with a false castle front.  It seemed exactly the kind of place where one would have a “magic adventure.” Naturally, nothing happened, except a black cat meandered by.

So here I am, many years later, musing about the brilliance of E. Nesbit (1858-1924), a poet, novelist, and member of the Fabian Society, who has survived into the 21st century as a writer of children’s classics.

And delightful indeed are these all-ages classics.  I am currently enjoying a reread of The Phoenix and the Carpet, which is witty and whimsical, one of her most popular books, and the thing to read in 1904 (and in 2020).

The Phoenix and the Carpet was acclaimed by critics, who felt she had found her voice in children’s books.  Rudyard Kipling, one of Nesbit’s favorite writers, wrote a letter thanking her for a copy of Phoenix.  He said he hadn’t had a chance to read it, since his children had grabbed it and run off to the nursery –but soon he would know it too well, since the kids couldn’t read,  and would demand that he,  his wife, and their nurse read it over and over.

H. G. Wells was enthusiastic: he wrote a letter saying that Phoenix was the greatest of her characters.

Nesbit grabs your attention: the book literally opens with fireworks.  Robert, Anthea, Jane, and Cyril decide to test their fireworks (for the Guy Fawkes celebration) by setting off a few indoors.  One of them explodes and the  fire destroys the nursery carpet.  So their tolerant mother buys an old Persian carpet, which looks like nothing special, but when they unfurl it they find a big egg, which they think is an ornament.

Illustration by H. R. Millar

One day the egg hatches, and the Phoenix pops out. He is is used to veneration, and his feathers ruffle since they are not as overwhelmed as the ancients. And he explains the carpet is not a rug but a magic wishing carpet. (Beware what you wish for, or the cook will accidentally walk on the carpet at the wrong moment, and end up hysterical on the beach of a southern island, while you try to reassure her that she has not gone mad. And when the savages like the look of her and name her the queen, she decides to stay on the island but thinks she is in a dream.)

I do love the Phoenix’s manner of speaking.

“I must have an hour or two’s quiet,” it said. “I really must. My nerves will give way unless I can get a little rest. You must remember it’s two thousand years since I had any conversation—-I’m out of practice, and I must take care of myself. I’ve often been told that mine is a valuable life.”

To complement my rediscovery of Nesbit, I have also read The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, by Eleanor Fitzsimons.  This fascinating biography is illuminated by numerous quotes from Nesbit’s work.  Nesbit wanted to be a poet, but wrote anything and everything, articles, fairy tales, adult novels, and horror, to support her family: her husband Hubert Bland, their children Paul, Iris, and Fabian, Bland’s mistress, Alice, and Alice’s two children with Bland, Rosamond, and John (known as “Lamb), whom Edith raised as her own.

Nesbit and Bland were ardent socialists and members of the Fabian Society. She infused her work with socialism.  In The Phoenix and the Carpet, Jane encounters a burglar, who is actually an orange peddler down on his luck, and she does not turn him in to the police, because she and her siblings had a distressing encounter with them.  Earlier that evening, the police threatened to arrest the children because of the mewing of 999 hungry   Persian cats, delivered by the carpet.  The Phoenix draws the police away, by flying down the street and screaming, “Help!  Murder!”

When the burglar says he’d rather that she call the police: “I daren’t,” she says, “and anyway I’ve no one to send.  I hate the police.  I wish he hadn’t been born.”

Nesbit wrote prolifically, but was also sociable and had hundreds of friends.  She was a vivacious and witty hostess, and guests competed to arrive early at her weekend parties so they could bag a bedroom. And at the parties she was always surrounded by men.  Fitzsimons  thinks most of these friendships were platonic.

Although Nesbit’s poetry seems very slight to me, Swinburne and Oscar Wilde encouraged her.  Let me end with this short poem.

“The Choice” by E. Nesbit

PLAGUE take the dull and dusty town,
Its paved and sordid mazes,
Now Spring has trimmed her pretty gown
With buttercups and daisies!

With half my heart I long to lie
Among the flowered grasses,
And hear the loving leaves that sigh
As their sweet Mistress passes.

Through picture-shows I make my way
While flower-crowned maids go maying,
And all the cultured things I say
That cultured folk are saying.

For I renounce Spring’s darling face,
With may-bloom fresh upon it:
My Mistress lives in Grosvenor-place
And wears a Bond-street bonnet!

10 thoughts on “A Neglected Socialist Writer: E. Nesbit, Poet, Novelist, and Children’s Writer”

  1. Nesbit’s ghost stories – characteristically Victorian, but good – were reprinted in the UK in paperback a few years ago.
    Oswald Bastable, with his Caesarian narrative technique, is one of the most persuasive story-tellers in English literature.

    1. I have read one or two of her stories in anthologies. She turned up in a Dover collection of women’s SF stories.
      I suspect I will appreciate the Bastables more now than I did years ago. I kept waiting for the “magic adventures.”

  2. Interesting that the books you remember the most are the fantasy novels. In the UK when you mention Nesbit’s name it is always The Railway Children that comes to people’s minds first.

    1. Fitzsimons writes about the popularity of “Railway” in her biography. I do remember enjoying Railway mildly, and it certainly sounds wonderful in the biography! I may have preferred the fantasies because there was nothing like them in the U.S. And they are very charming, of course.

  3. I vividly recall being the only child I knew who loved Nesbit. I knew her thanks to the wonderful Looking Glass Library produced by Random House (I notice that you have the Looking Glass volume). Teachers and librarians thought I had “invented” her and slowly explained that they could find no record of her in their memories. Nor in the card catalogue! I think that the local library never heard of her because they refused to buy “series books” on the grounds that our intellect would be compromised. Thank you so much for your blog.

    1. I’m so glad you discovered Nesbit, too! They were spellbinding, but no one else ever heard of her. Somehow we all knew C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, but Nesbit got short shrift. Still, I noticed many of her books are in print a Puffins, so maybe she has an audience.

  4. Maybe she’s simply better known over the pond? I grew up with Puffin packetbooks too (from the ’70s and earlier reprints) and didn’t know anything about her non-fantastical stories until I was fully grown. The one whose cover I most adored was The Enchanted Castle (from a vintage made-for-TV series…which absolutely DELIGHTED me at the time…even though I was very sad that I could never watch such GOOD SHOWS–at least I was sure they would be good).

    1. Yes, she really IS an English writer, and in Gore Vidal’s article on Nesbit for The New York Review of Books (1964), he says what a shame it is that magic was practically banned from American books in that era and a kind of sappy realism had replaced food for the imagination. I do know what he means.

  5. Oh…do you know Edward Eager’s stories? The family in Half Magic reads Nesbit and one of the sisters reads her aloud while the kids are walking home from the library because they cannot wait to find out what’s going to happen next.

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