Nesbit, Edith (1858–1924)

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Nesbit, Edith (1858–1924)

British novelist, poet, short-story writer and children's author. Name variations: E. Nesbit; (pseudonyms) Mrs. Hubert Bland, Edith Bland. Born on August 15 or 19, 1858, in London, England; died on May 4, 1924, at Jesson St. Mary's, New Romney, Kent, England; daughter of John Collis Nesbit and Sarah Nesbit; attended private schools in England, France, and Germany; married Hubert Bland (a journalist), in 1880 (died 1914); married Thomas Terry Tucker (a marine engineer), in 1917; children: (first marriage) Paul, Iris, Fabian; (adopted) Rosamund (Mrs. Clifford Sharp) and John.

Founded, with Bland, the socialist Fabian Society (1884); published first book (1885); published first children's book (1890).

Selected writings for children:

The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899); The Wouldbegoods (1901); The Five Children and It (1902); The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904); The New Treasure Seekers (1904); The Railway Children (1906, adapted to film, 1972); The Story of The Amulet (1906); The Enchanted Castle (1907); The House of Arden (1908); Harding's Luck (1909); The Magic City (1910); The Wonderful Garden (1911); Wet Magic (1913); Long Ago When I Was Young (1966).

Selected writings for adults:

(with Hubert Bland and others) The Prophet's Mantle (1885); Lays and Legends (1886–92); Grim Tales (1893); The Secret of the Kyriels (1899); Thirteen Ways Home (1901); The Red House (1902); Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism 1883–1908 (1908); Fear (1910); Dormant (1911);

Wings and the Child (1913); The Incredible Honeymoon (1916); The Lark (1922); Many Voices (1922); E. Nesbit's Tales of Terror (ed. Hugh Lamb, 1988).

A prolific British writer who wished to be known as a poet but instead gained fame for her children's books, Edith Nesbit wrote plays, poetry, verse, novels, and short stories for all ages. She is now known to adults mainly for her ghost stories, while her most popular and enduring children's books detail the adventures of the Bastable family in stories based roughly on both her memories of the big brood in which she had blossomed as a child as well as the large family she herself later had.

Nesbit, born in London in 1858, was a roguish tomboy as a child, the youngest of six brothers and sisters. Her father, who had headed up an agricultural college, died when she was three or four. She was sent to boarding school, and when her family later began traveling across France and Germany she was educated in convents, which she despised. (At an early age she displayed a marked dislike for Germany by writing a contemptuous couplet about it.) Through her older sister Mary Nesbit she met a number of the leading Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and William Morris, while she was still quite young. In 1872, her family settled into a country house in Kent, England, an environment which would echo throughout much of her work.

In 1876, Nesbit published her first story in the Sunday Magazine, and in 1880, seven months into a pregnancy, she married journalist Hubert Bland. Early in their marriage Bland was stricken with smallpox and his brush-making business floundered. Nesbit was forced to support the family, which she did primarily by publishing novels and articles, though on occasion also by writing and decorating greeting cards. For years afterward, she continued to earn most of the family income, occasionally in collaboration with Bland. They shared fervent socialist sympathies, and in 1884 their political activity led them to the formation, with some friends, of the Fabian Society. Hoping to further "the reconstruction of Society in accordance with the highest moral principles," the group advocated a gradual transformation of capitalist society through socialism and progressive reform; among its early members were Annie Besant , George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (later the founders of the London School of Economics), Sidney Olivier, and H.G. Wells. An intellectual circle filled with enormously influential thinkers and writers, the Fabian Society, and the ideas it proposed, nurtured England's fledgling Labour Party and remains the oldest socialist organization in England. Nesbit's political beliefs also found expression in her 1908 collection of verse titled Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism 1883–1908.

Bland's infidelities were no secret, and Nesbit, who had three children during their marriage and also, it is believed, several affairs of her own, adopted two of his illegitimate children into their bustling household. She espoused such radical ideas as psychic research and dress reform, and the bohemian couple hobnobbed with prominent artists, writers, and politicians. Bland eventually began editing a magazine called To-Day, which published two of George Bernard Shaw's early novels. He and Nesbit, along with Shaw and some others, collaborated with H.G. Wells on the novel The Prophet's Mantle in 1885. (Wells, despite their friendship, rather harshly illustrated the couple's eccentric private life in his 1934 work, Experiments in Autobiography.)

Nesbit published her first book of poetry, Lays and Legends, in 1886, but it was only as she reached her 40s that she began to garner real success, and then not for her poems but for her children's stories. Her Bastable family series, which appeared first in magazines and then in book form, began in 1899, with The Story of the Treasure Seekers. With these stories, Nesbit created a new form of juvenile literature. Unlike most children's books of the day, her works sought to entertain rather than to moralize or educate, and her young characters were quite realistic. Her biographer Doris Langley Moore notes that Nesbit once commented, "When I was a little child I used to pray fervently, tearfully, that when I should be grown up I might never forget what I thought, felt, and suffered," and she appears to have succeeded. Other books about the Bastables were The Wouldbegoods (1901) and The New Treasure Seekers (1904). While she based these lifelike adventures in reality, with books like The Five Children and It (1902), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Enchanted Castle (1907) she adopted the motifs of fantasy and time travel. Her much-beloved The Railway Children was published in 1906. As the Victorian age drew to a close, Nesbit's stories helped to influence new ideas and styles in children's literature.

In 1914, Bland died, and an exhausted Nesbit watched as World War I took its toll on the sales of her works. She was granted a civil-list pension in 1915 for her services to literature, and in 1917 she married engineer Thomas Tucker, a widower and old friend. Now "peaceful and contented," she did not write much after the war. In 1922, she and Tucker moved to a bungalow in Kent. Nesbit fell ill the following year and died in May 1924. A number of her ghost stories, realistic except for the horrifying twist, continue to be reprinted in "best of" anthologies, including "Man-Size in Marble," "The Shadow," "The Mystery of the Semi-detached," and "John Charrington's Wedding." A good number of her children's books remain well loved and in print. In 1964 Gore Vidal, writing in The New York Review of Books, noted that "she [created] a world of magic and inverted logic … the child who reads her will never be quite the same again."


Contemporary Authors. Vol. 137. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Schlueter, Paul, and June Schlueter, eds. Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. NY: Garland, 1988.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography. 2nd ed. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Vidal, Gore. The New York Review of Books. 1964.

suggested reading:

Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: The Life of Edith Nesbit, 1858–1924. New Amsterdam, 1991.

Moore, Dorothy Langley. E. Nesbit: A Biography. Rev. ed. Chilton, 1966.

related media:

The Railway Children (102-min. film), starring Dinah Sheridan , Bernard Cribbens, William Mervyn, and Jenny Agutter , 1972.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada