Grim to the brim

Edith Nesbit at her desk

The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror
by Edith Nesbit,
introduction by David Stuart Davies.
Wordsworth Editions 2006.

‘Very good story,’ he said; ‘but it’s not what I call realism. You don’t tell us half enough, sir. You don’t say when it happened or where, or the time of year, or what colour your aunt’ s second cousin’s hair was. Nor yet you don’t tell us what it was she saw, nor what the room was like where she saw it, nor why she saw it, nor what happened afterwards.’

Edith Nesbit, ‘Number 17’ (1910)

In this selection of Edith Nesbit’s tales of mystery and supernatural occurrences she demonstrates exactly how verisimilitude is a crucial component in ghost stories and their ilk, precisely as the commercial traveller in her short story ‘Number 17’ outlines. But she herself is also an unreliable narrator because with macabre humour she proceeds to break all the rules she puts in the mouth of her commercial traveller: we never discover his name, or of his colleagues, or the location of the inn where the tale takes place; and though we’re given incidental details of how Room 17 is furnished — a coffin-like wardrobe, the red drapes, the framed print on the wall — we end by doubting the reliability of the traveller’s account and thus that of the author.

And here too lie further conumdrums when ghost stories are related: it’s not just the who and what, and the when and where, that go towards their effective reception by reader or listener, it’s how we experience them — the time of day or night, the place, whether orally conveyed or merely seen on the page — and why we choose this genre — our mood or inclination, our desire to be frightened witless — that decide whether such grim tales amuse or bore or chill us.

And, of course, whether the author is the mistress or not of her craft must surely be a deciding factor.

Continue reading “Grim to the brim”

The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

Continue reading “The House Beautiful”

Honest and very human

Edith Bland (née Nesbit) at work

The Magic World by E Nesbit,
Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)

Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes

“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”

And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.

Continue reading “Honest and very human”

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.

Continue reading “Pretending to be grown-up”

Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

Continue reading “Gossamer thin”

Careful what you wish for

E Nesbit: The Enchanted Castle
Wordsworth Editions Ltd 1999 (1907)

Careful what you wish:
Edwardian children find
magic mixed blessing.

There are two types of enchantment in this book. One is the everyday sort, evidenced by how enthralled the reader might be as they proceed through the book, and especially by the young charmer Gerald who sweet-talks his way through pretty much every situation. This is enchantment that lives up to the term’s origins, where chanting, speaking, singing and silent perusal of words creates the magic that keeps us literally in its spell.

Then there is the sort of enchantment that manifests itself most strikingly in this book, the kind described eloquently by Nesbit herself in Chapter Nine: “There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.” And in The Enchanted Castle it inevitably does.

Continue reading “Careful what you wish for”

Outrage

WordPress Free Photo Library

We are living through dangerous times, I think we all agree. Environmental disasters, virulent diseases, extremist politics, hate crimes, the threat of war, increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Anybody who suggests the future is rosy, that we are heading towards sunlit uplands, is an arrant fool — or else takes the rest of us for fools.

So this is a time when we should be channeling our outrage into more than just speaking out, maybe direct action or agitprop, right? We should be actively resisting, demonstrating, doing all in our power to turn hearts and minds in favour of benevolence and communitarianism, surely?

But what do I find myself increasingly doing as each day’s depressing news headlines impinge on my consciousness? I’m immersing myself in children’s fiction. Is this mere comfort reading? Escapism? Burying my head in the sand? Or is there a more profound, if perhaps unconscious, impulse behind this pattern?

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Christmas delights

Above The Dardy, Llangattock, Crickhowell

We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers

Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.

As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.

I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).

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Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit:
Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.

Continue reading “Do children never learn?”

The affectionate author

Dungeness shingle beach, southwest of Dymchurch (Kent)

E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers
Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)

The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).

The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.

Continue reading “The affectionate author”

My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

Continue reading “My top ten mazes”

Resolutions

Scilla in the Banzoota school library
Scilla in the Banzoota school library (from The Winter Sleepwalker)

I’ve always been a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to marking certain times of the year — birthdays, New Year and so on. No doubt that’s down to some disappointment in childhood which I’ve since rationalised away by arguing it’s just mere superstition to grant significance to certain dates, an accident of an arbitrary calendar. But I’ve been trying to mellow a bit in recent years and, while I draw the line at New Year resolutions, I’m willing to contemplate a look back at the past year of blogging. Here’s hoping you don’t Bah Humbug what follows!

First, a look at some titles I’ve reviewed during 2014. I’ve selected a range of genres, from history to drama, classic to thriller, pulp fiction to science fiction, fantasy to autobiography. Continue reading “Resolutions”

Mundane to magical

grimm

Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)

It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:

We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…

Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.

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The sweet white flowers of memory

Nesbit

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. Continue reading “The sweet white flowers of memory”

“It isn’t fair!”

babayaga
Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Diana Wynne Jones Wilkins’ Tooth
Collins Voyager 2002 (1973)
Published 1974 as Witch’s Business in the USA

Is it possible for there to be too many ideas in a novel? Especially in a children’s story of barely two hundred pages? In Diana Wynne Jones’ very first children’s novel images and themes and borrowings and emotions all come out fizzing and popping, like fireworks that one can gasp at while scarcely having time to reflect before the next effect bursts into view.

The book is dedicated to one Jessica Frances, and what better compliment can an author pay to a dedicatee than including them, however obliquely, in the story. Jess and Frank are twins who, bitter at being stopped their pocket money, set up what they hope is a money-making scheme that will simultaneously feed their need for cash while getting a sort of revenge for their economic disempowerment. Jones has written about youngsters’ constant cries of “It isn’t fair!” as not being an adequate response to their situation (Reflections 52-3). A better response, she says, is humour and by the end of the book humour is what wins the day rather than pure revenge, because, as Juvenal in his Satires said, “Revenge is sweet, sweeter than life itself — so say fools.” Continue reading ““It isn’t fair!””