E Nesbit Long Ago When I Was Young
Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1966
If, as Wordsworth proposed, “the Child is father of the Man,” then reading someone’s childhood memoirs may help hold up a mirror to the adult mindset. If that someone is a noted author such as Edith Nesbit, then it’s hard not to see in the accounts of youthful escapades a key not just to understanding their motivations as a grownup but also for revealing the inspirations for their writings. And so it is with the reminiscences in Long Ago When I Was Young, written for publication when Nesbit was nearly forty but just before she embarked on The Treasure Seekers, the first of her many books aimed specifically for children.
Edith (or Daisy as she was known to friends and family) was born in 1858. From the age of seven, three years after her father died, until the age of twelve she lived the life of a nomad, travelling with her family and attending schools in England, France and Germany. Her mother Sarah was much concerned with Daisy’s consumptive sister Mary (also called Minnie), and sought ways to relieve her chronic disease by taking her daughter abroad, leaving Daisy in English boarding schools, first in Sussex and and then in Lincolnshire. When these periods proved to be disastrous, Daisy stayed with a French family near the Pyrenees, then, after a brief time back in an English school, to Dinan in Brittany where, with her mother, half sister Saretta, sister Minnie and (in the holidays) brothers Alfred and Harry, she had a semi-idyllic life in a Breton farmhouse, at liberty to roam the countryside.
By the last chapter she finds herself “only ten years old, and […], moreover, with not one-tenth of those ten years recorded”. After a further period on the Continent experiencing the Franco-Prussian War (“I have left myself no space to tell you of my adventures in Germany and France during the war of 1870”) the family, following Minnie’s death, returned to England, to Kent, to live a more settled existence – for a while more, at least – at Halstead Hall. Here, Daisy’s memories are of sunny days reading in the garden and “a little room of my own … with a long low window and a window-ledge, where bright plants in pots, encouraged by the western sun … blossomed profusely”. She had a bookcase with writing-table by this same window where she would write verse. Daisy had found her life’s work.
Reading these memoirs is often a melancholy affair. If it’s possible to gauge one’s overriding adult philosophy from recalling that first strong childhood memory, and if that applies to the young Edith Nesbit, what are we to make of the first two chapters spotlighting her being bullied, first by a fellow pupil, then by a nursery teacher? Or of the next two chapters, focusing on her fear of the dark and on her terror at seeing desiccated bodies on display in a Bordeaux church? Certainly the latter two would help furnish material for the score of ghost stories she would pen during her literary career. A further chapter is entitled ‘Disillusion’, and another chapter recounts a frightening experience for the four females travelling in the wilds of 19th-century Auvergne.
Not all is sombre, however. That farmhouse near Dinan was a bright interlude in her life, as was her time at Halstead. The darker episodes that provided themes for her fiction, for example the ghost stories (which have recently been re-published in a collection entitled The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror), perhaps helped to exorcise their malignity. Other neutral memories find their way into her children’s books: for instance, the bazaar in chapter 6 and various elements in chapter 8 (the windowless tower with its legend of treasure, the bottomless pit and the wayside shrine) are polished up for The Phoenix and the Carpet, and chapter 10’s expedition up a stream is reminiscent of a chapter in Five Children and It.
Originally appearing as ‘My School-Days: Memories of Childhood’ in The Girl’s Own Paper between October 1896 and September 1897, Long Ago When I Was Young finally appeared in book form in 1966, some forty-odd years after Nesbit’s death. With an insightful introduction by Noel Streatfeild, children’s author and Nesbit biographer, and around two dozen charming pen-and-ink drawings by Edward Ardizzone, the twelve chapters are faithful reproductions of the instalments. The sunny times that emerge in the final instalments echo the beginning of the Wordsworth poem which includes the line “the Child is father of the Man”, a poem that Daisy the budding poet probably knew by heart: “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky. / So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man …”
Quoting other lines by Wordsworth (“Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her”) Edith the poet adds her own comforting rejoinder in a verse epilogue: calling to mind “our old garden at home” she tells us that
There may be fairer gardens – but I know
There is no other garden half so dear
Because ‘tis there, this many, many a year,
The sacred sweet white flowers of memory grow.
A bitter-sweet ending, then, but perhaps that’s not surprising.