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!

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!

Gifts under the Tree: Books, of Course!

Merry Christmas!   

We’ve opened our gifts, and we’re feeling jolly.  Well, of course we are.  We picked out our own books, so everything is perfect.  I now have a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s controversial novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.   And I have begun Eleanor Fitzsimons’s well-reviewed new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which is very good indeed.

I’m sure you have heard of Ellmann’s novel, which is 1,000 pages long, published by a small press, and written in one sentence from the point-of-view of an American housewife.  The critics love it.  I hope I will.

My favorite book as a chld.

You may not be familiar with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), who was best-known for her children’s fantasy novels.  When I was a child she was my favorite writer, so my sensible mother gave me her books for Christmas and birthdays.  I read these books over and over from the ages of 10-12.  The Enchanted Castle was my favorite.

Although I didn’t know it then, Nesbit also wrote for adults. You can very cheaply buy an e-book edition of her Complete Works, which contains all her adult books as well as the children’s books. Nesbit is undergoing a revival:   Penelope Lively selected Nesbit’s delightful adult novel The Lark for the Penguin Women Writers’ series in 2018.  Furrowed Middlebrow has also published an American edition of The Lark.   And for those of you who love trivia, Nesbit and her circle were thinly-veiled characters in A. S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Children’s Book.  

I am loving Fitzsimon’s biography, because Nesbit was absolutely fascinating and very “progressive.”  She was a Fabian socialist who hung out with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous writers; she was willing to write anything, from newspaper articles to books, to support her unemployable husband, Hubert Bland, along with their five children, Hubert’s mistress, and his two children with her.

Well, enough about my good books!  I love the bio, and will start the Ellmann soon.

Have a Contented Christmas!