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  • What C. S. Lewis Took From E. Nesbit
  • Mervyn Nicholson (bio)

For anyone who knows the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, there is a story by E. Nesbit in her collection The Magic World that immediately stands out. It is called "The Aunt and Amabel"; it tells of a girl who damages a special flower-bed without meaning to. Her aunt punishes her by confining her to a "bedroom, the one with the wardrobe with a looking-glass in it" (228). The only furnishings described are a bed—and a wardrobe. Then Amabel finds a railway timetable that lists a peculiar destination: "the extraordinary name 'Whereyouwantogoto'." Its nearest "station was 'Bigwardrobeinspareroom'" (224). Intrigued, she opens the wardrobe door and steps inside, like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And like Lucy, Amabel discovers something in it besides coats—in her case a crystal cave. Lucy finds snowy woods, not a cave—but the faun Lucy meets immediately takes her to a cave. In Nesbit, Amabel finds a sumptuous place where she is lovingly welcomed by "The People Who Understand" (231). With their help she and her aunt are reconciled, exchanging forgiveness in a manner characteristic of Nesbit. The motif of human reconciliation is crucial. But the obvious point is that the motifs found in "The Aunt and Amabel" are also found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis was deeply indebted to E. Nesbit, not only in matters of plot, character and image, but even in small details of phrasing. When he set out to write his Chronicles of Narnia, he though of them as being Nesbit books: as belonging to a type or genre practised by E. Nesbit.1 In many respects the Narnia books begin where the Nesbit books leave off: The Magician's Nephew, the first of the series, begins with an allusion to Nesbit. Much has been said about Lewis's place in the tradition of Christian romance and apologetic and of his links to Christian writers like MacDonald and Williams, but this emphasis has obscured his debt to non-Christian and even anti-Christian writers. Of these, E. Nesbit is the most important. What is striking is that Lewis, a belligerently orthodox Christian, who saw his imaginative writing as performing a quasi-evangelistic function, should have so much in common with a writer like Nesbit, [End Page 16] who was a Fabian Socialist with occult interests.2

In both writers, a division between two kinds of world is evident: the ordinary one of adult and childhood experience (the so-called "real" world), and an extraordinary world where impossible things happen—impossible by the standards of the "real" world at any rate. For convenience we may refer to them as, respectively, "This World," and the "Other World." This World is the realm of plausibility or actuality: the social context, normally the society of the author's time. The Other World is a realm of expanded possibilities: the place where anything may happen. Lewis uses the wardrobe as a threshold symbol to link This World with the Other World: the English countryside in 1940 with Narnia under Queen Jadis. E. Nesbit employs the wardrobe image in the same way, to link This World with the Other World, where This World is the realistic place of misunderstanding and punishment in turn-of-the-century England. By contrast the Other World is where such misunderstandings can be dissolved: here the desirable is the obtainable. The brevity of the short story form, however, dictates a very different use of the wardrobe image in Nesbit from what we find in Lewis, where the structure is far bigger and more elaborate. But that Lewis had "The Aunt and Amabel" in mind (however unconsciously) seems clear.

The links are too important to ignore. Both girls, separated from parents before the action begins, find a magic wardrobe. Lucy, under the stress of a competitive game, and Amabel, under the stress of punishment, go through the wardrobe into a world associated with desire (Narnia in one, "Whereyouwantogoto" in the other). Lewis adopts not only the image of the magic wardrobe but even the phraseology used by his predecessor. In...