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You are here: Books Monthly Articles The Jerry Dowlen Column 


The Story of Edith Nesbit by Jerry Dowlen


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

An "advanced" Victorian woman: the story of Edith Nesbit (1858 - 1924).

Edith Nesbit, author of 'The Railway Children' and many other best-loved classic stories for children, died ninety years ago, on 4th May 1924.

Her public name was given as E Nesbit, but she was baptised as Edith, in 1858. Her family nickname was "Daisy". She lived first in Kennington, in south London.

Edith's childhood years and imagination were shaped by her experiences of being sent away to France and Germany. Her father - an agricultural scientist and lecturer - had died in 1862 when she was only four. Her mother had to fend alone with five children. Her solution was for Edith to attend boarding schools overseas, and in Brighton. Then at age 17 Edith settled to live with her mother in Halstead, Kent. 

Edith had a keen interest in the literary world. She penned and recited her own stories; she was thrilled to make her publishing debut when her poem on 'Dawn' was accepted by The Sunday Magazine.

Biographers have traced elements of Edith's childhood in some of her best-known fictional stories. For example, she could never remember much of her father, and consequently a father figure was rarely a presence in any of her stories. And as a tomboy in early childhood, imitating her older brothers, she may have been "planted" by them in their Kennington garden one day, as would befall "Albert-next-door" in her delightful story of 'The Treasure Seekers'.

Marriage in 1880 to the journalist and Socialist zealot Hubert Bland added new dimensions to Edith's life. She started a family but she remained as independent-thinking and unconventional an adult as she had been a child. Always interested in outdoor activities and sport, she developed her literary ambitions when her sister Mary's arty acquaintances helped her to meet such notable figures as William Morris, the Rosettis and Charles Swinburne.

Biographers have had a field day - literally! - connecting fictional incidents and places in E Nesbit's stories to her real-life family home and surroundings in Eltham in south London. The big eighteenth-century Well Hall house was home to the Blands and their extended family from the late 1880s onwards. Imposing but dilapidated, covered in ivy, it had a moat, Tudor outbuildings, gardens, orchards, fields, meadows and an adjoining farm.

Writing for the Eltham Society in 1974, Margaret Taylor observed:

"Readers who know Eltham and E Nesbit's books cannot fail to notice how the old house and its surroundings, barely disguised, feature in her stories. 'The Red House', an adult novel, and 'The Wouldbegoods' are obvious examples. In the latter, the children sit in the straw inside a barn to plan their Society-for-being-good. Her fictional family the Bastables play, and well-nigh drown, in a moat. They ring an old bell at the top of the house - there was such a bell at Well Hall. They visit a mysterious tower on a hill and put an extra tombstone in a nearby churchyard. From Well Hall one would easily see Severndroog Castle on Shooter's Hill and the expanse of Eltham Churchyard stretching from the far side of the railway to the High Street."

 

Ms Taylor noted too that Edith became active in the Fabian Society which her husband had helped to found. With her hair cut short, her dresses worn loose and unfashionable, and her cigarettes that she smoked through a long amber-coloured holder, she was the archetype "advanced" late Victorian woman, although she never became a supporter of the Suffrage Movement.

 

By the time that her husband Hubert died in 1914, road, tram and housing development had urbanised Eltham considerably. A lover of such Kent countryside places as Dymchurch, the Medway, Yalding and other beauty spots, Edith moved away in 1923 to New Romney where she died a year later. She had married Thomas Tucker in 1917. Her simple headboard at St Mary-in-the-Marsh churchyard was inscribed: 'Resting. E Nesbit, Mrs Bland-Tucker, Poet and Author.'

Perhaps her best-known and most enduring work is 'The Railway Children': the 1970 film directed by Lionel Jeffries was a box-office hit and is a perennial favourite for repeats on television. A young Jenny Agutter starred in the film and was delighted to return and take part in the television remake in 2000. The plot-line of 'The Railway Children' included an episode from Edith's first marriage when her husband was defrauded by a business partner.

Well Hall House is long demolished, but when its meadowland was covered by the Page Estate in the 1920s, a former pathway became Nesbit Road. Sited near to the present-day A2 road near the Blackwall Tunnel, it is a fitting tribute to a famous ex-resident whose books are still a Treasure, ninety years after her death.

Jerry Dowlen
April 2014

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.