Pretending to be grown-up

Eleanor Fitzsimons:
The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit
Duckworth 2019

There is only one way [to understand children]: to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child. […] There is no other way.

Daisy Nesbit, Edith Bland and Mrs Tommy Tucker: just three of the many sides to one extraordinary character. One a fearful yet imaginative child, deprived of a father at an early age, shifting from pillar to post, to and fro across the English Channel; the second a dedicated socialist married to a prodigious womaniser, soon to become a successful writer of children’s fiction and friend to established and aspiring literati; the last a widow, remarrying for love but plagued by health issues, finally buried in a Kentish churchyard on Romney Marsh.

Edith Nesbit’s singular life — spanning over six decades, encompassing the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and witnessing momentous movements and events — is fully documented in this new Nesbit biography, the second in as many years, complete with references, a detailed index and a selection of some dozen images.

Exceedingly well researched, The Life and Loves of E Nesbit largely lets contemporary documents speak for themselves so that the reader may hear authentic voices and individual opinions, both so important in gauging the impact this woman had on those who met her, knew her, and read her.

Eleanor Fitzsimons has done Nesbit’s personality and legacy proud. Twenty-two chapters, headed with suitable contemporary quotes, chart her life in roughly chronological order. Beginning with the trauma she suffered seeing the Vault of Mummies in Bordeaux (as recounted in Long Ago When I Was Young), the text takes us through her family background and early years, times when she attended a variety of schools or relocated to France with her mother for the sake of her sister’s health. We then hear of her marriage to Hubert Bland and of their shared interests in poetry, stories and socialism.

That social concern lead to the couple being instrumental in the setting up of the Fabian Society, attracting a host of luminaries on the left of political life, notably George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells among others. At the moated Well Hall in Eltham, South London, and in the Kent marshes at Dymchurch she held court to friends, family, protégés and paying guests (‘PGs’), organised fundraisers and devised entertainments for disadvantaged children and their families, was active in the proceedings of the Fabians, and put the grounds of Well Hall to good use for fun and recreation, for fêtes, and, around the time of the Great War, for dairy produce, flowers and fruit.

Edith as a young woman, before she began parting her hair in the middle

Above all she wrote: reams of poetry, her first love; plays for charity as well as the theatre; tales of terror, inspired by her early trauma and lively imagination; adult novels, often in collaboration with Hubert or a young protégé; political tracts, articles and correspondence to the papers; and of course, increasingly, the children’s fiction for which she is largely, and rightly, remembered.

And, all around her, her extended family, from which came both happiness and tragedy. Her philandering husband who loved too much, even fathering two children by Alice Hoatson whom Edith brought up as her own; the death of their young son Fabian, from which she never quite recovered; her falling out with prominent Fabians over matters like women’s suffrage (which, as a putative feminist, she uncharacteristically opposed); the dwindling popularity of her adult fiction which let her to greater financial straits; and finally the death of her first mainstay Hubert even as her own health and strength was failing. But there were fun times too, with parties and charades and seaside holidays.

With her bohemian life and appearance — a loose-flowing Liberty dress, jangling bangles up to her elbows, and an ever-present lit cigarette in a long holder — her unconventional approach stemmed not from a desire to outrage but from a deep-seated concern for those less fortunate than herself, combined with a sense of a magical world just beyond one’s grasp. She was forever badgering people for story plots, which she then wove into an imaginative narrative full of novel insights with not a little dash of what we might now call autobiografiction.

What made her writing for young readers different from the stock moralistic fodder of the time? Edith herself declared that she was among those who “feel to the end that they are children in a grown-up world”. In the biography’s final pages Fitzsimons quotes extensively from Wings and the Child — correctly, in my opinion — with Edith writing that she was one of those who

just mingle with the other people, looking as grown-up as any one — but in their hearts they are only pretending to be grown-up: it is like acting in a charade. […] And deep in their hearts is the faith and the hope that in the life to come it may not be necessary to pretend to be grown-up.

In these final, beautifully expressed paragraphs I must confess I shed a little tear — for Edith, for myself, and for all the children “disguised by grown-up bodies”. For a few authors like her the ability to write for children in their language, about their concerns, allows these disguised children to let their façades slip so that they can be recognised for what they truly are.

For such a detailed book I spotted relatively few typos — 1889 for 1898 at one point, for example, or ‘Pavlova’ misspelled (though corrected in the US edition). The indexing was meticulous (even a brief reference in the endnotes usually merits an entry) though I was surprised the seemingly self-effacing Alice Hoatson wasn’t given an entry in her own right, being included only under Edith’s entry; also under this entry were listed ‘major and significant works’ in place of a separate select bibliography.

What I missed though was a timeline of principal events in her life and, though I suppose the chapters provided a sufficient chronological outline, I’m probably being greedy in wanting it all.

But these are all trifling quibbles: the author is to be hugely congratulated for such a meticulous and microscopic picture of a wonderfully contradictory yet admirable woman. Do I detect, under Fitzsimons’ relatively dispassionate account, someone very much in sympathy with her subject?

* * * * *

Here are links to my reviews of some of Nesbit’s children’s books:

Long Ago When I Was Young is a series of vignettes of her early childhood.
The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, and The New Treasure Seekers all concern the Bastable children and their friends.
A collection of short stories entitled The Magic World along with The Enchanted Castle are a mix of fairytale and fantasy.
Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet are the first two titles in the Psammead series, followed by The Story of the Amulet.

This review of Irish writer Eleanor Fitzsimons’ recent biography for today, St Patrick’s Day, is a contribution towards Reading Ireland Month 2020 as well as for Women’s History Month.

17 thoughts on “Pretending to be grown-up

  1. Sounds like an interesting bio of an interesting person–I’ve read her books but not much about her, and this would be a great way to get to know her. I love the Psammead books and the Treasure Seekers. Enchanted Castle somehow I didn’t take to as much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Enchanted Castle is an odd story but one I’m rather fond of, despite its gawkiness compared to the more accessible novels you mention, Mallika.

      I’ve been eager to read this biography for a year now and am glad I finally got round to it — the bare outlines of Edith’s life I knew from reading up as I pottered through the books of hers I reviewed but it’s really handy to have her career mapped out and to have choice contemporary accounts quoted so tellingly. Of course there’s so much more I’d want to know about the people she interacted with — ‘below stairs’ for example — but that would’ve necessitated another volume!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This has been on my radar for a little while and your review has encouraged me to finally do something about it. What a fascinating woman. Like you I particularly like the ‘children in grown up bodies” description. Perhaps the ability to reach the child within is what makes some of us enjoy reading children’s literature? A lovely review, thank you.

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    1. The phrase “pretending to be a grown-up” reminded me of those two contradictory NT texts, the St Paul epistle which declares, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” and the gospel which tells us that unless we become as little children we’ll never enter heaven. I’m not religious, Anne, but I do think that children’s fiction written from the point of view of a “child in a grown-up body” often has more to tell us about being human than much adult fiction. Anyway, a bio worth reading, as you’ve probably guessed from the above!

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  3. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month Week 3 round-up!

  4. Thank you, Chris, for this terrific review of one of my favorite writers. Somehow I missed some of your reviews of her novels (you are so prolific that I can’t keep up), so I will now go back and read them. As a girl I read and re-read The Story of the Amulet, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, and The Railway Children, and I know that they were formative in so many ways. I felt that E. Nesbit was speaking to me as an equal, not down to me from the lofty (I first wrote ‘lefty’–Freudian slip!) and impossibly distant heights of adulthood. Children’s play was never just play, though; it was children’s work. and as such serious business, earnestly undertaken. Issues of public and private morality and social justice were discussed, but though I certainly noticed her authorial voice speaking to me, I never felt I was being lectured to. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nesbit’s children’s fiction has never come over as patronising, as Fitzsimons notes, because she understood how children felt from herself retaining a child’s point of view. Interestingly I now also feel the need to sample her adult writing, to compare and contrast, and wondering if her distinctive voice is compromised. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed this review, Josna, and that it brought back happy memories!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Fiction tends to be well proofread, but studies have so much in the way of footnotes, endnotes, referencing, indexing that more is likely to be missed, however carefully the text is combed through.

      The aristocracy is an area I have little knowledge of or, if were honest, interest in, but if you have expertise I can appreciate how errors may niggle. But though I knew a little about Nesbit this bio was still an eye-opener!


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