- The Language of Attire in Edith Nesbit’s Bastable Stories
We added the girls’ striped petticoats. I am sorry their petticoats turn up so constantly in my narrative, but they really are very useful, especially when the band is cut off.—E. Nesbit, The Wouldbegoods 211
The above quoted passage is from an episode in The Wouldbegoods (1901), the second of the three novels about the Bastable children, Dora, Oswald Cecil, Dicky, the twins Alice and Noël, and Horace Octavius, or H. O., whose mother has died and whose father is in a difficult financial situation, having been betrayed by his business partner. The children spend their days more or less unsupervised by adults and try to find hope through various, mostly well-intended attempts to restore the family fortunes. This episode refers to one such attempt, where the children want to provide poor, thirsty travelers with refreshments by setting up the “Benevolent Bar,” with the petticoats creating a protective cover from the sun.
Oswald may refer to his sisters’ petticoats as useful, but little scholarly attention has been paid to whether these petticoats also function as more than a useful plot element. Yet reading images of attire in the Bastable stories through reference to Anthony Giddens’s theory of identity indicates a radical subtext contained not only in the references to petticoats, but in all images of underwear and dress, undress and cross-dress.1 Giddens’s theory helps us understand that the Bastable children, living in an era that reminds one of Giddens’s posttraditional society, gradually recognize that the fabric of fin-de-siècle English society is being restructured and identity is not conferred upon them because of their gender, class, or nationality. Recognizing also that they must engage in what Giddens calls a self-reflective endeavor of writing their own identity, they “cut off” the “bands” of adult and social expectations and cross the divide between adult and child, boy and girl, English and non-English. Indeed, through images of attire, Nesbit not only emphasizes the need for a childhood not governed by unyielding social norms, but subversively also hints at the need for an adulthood characterized by more social and political progressiveness. [End Page 21]
The lack of scholarly interest in dress images in the Bastable stories is surprising, given the extensive body of literature on the social and psychological significance of attire as well as its function as a medium in the negotiations and expressions of sexual and social identity in both real life and literature.2 When it comes to Nesbit’s novels, though, discussion of dress images is limited to Pamela Richardson’s “Boys, Girls, and Trains: Ambiguous Gender Roles in E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children,” which focuses only on the role of petticoats in that 1906 novel (1905). Richardson’s discussion of how petticoats function in Nesbit’s complex “dissolution of gender boundaries” (97) is highly interesting, but surprisingly, she also cites English author Noel Streatfeild, who in the introduction to Nesbit’s autobiographical Long Ago When I Was Young (1966) claimed that “Nesbit knew perfectly well that at the date when she wrote the book [Railway Children] the girls not only did not wear petticoats but had never seen one” (21). For it is not true that petticoats were no longer fashionable in Edwardian times (Jeikner 65–85), even if Nesbit preferred loose dresses that did not require restrictive underwear in the form of either petticoats or corsets. Indeed, she wanted to be more than a “glorified fashion doll” and rejected not only the petticoat, but also the corset, perceiving “tightly boned and laced underclothing” as preventing her from a “physically active life” (Briggs 67–68). She also dressed her daughter Iris and her adopted daughter Rosamund in Aesthetic fashion, although it made the girls feel uncomfortable because they were “different” (Briggs 213–14). She even encouraged her female friends to dress in nonrestrictive attire, as, for instance, her friend Berta Ruck, to whom she lent a dress in Liberty fashion in 1904 since she “hate[d] blouses and skirts” (Ruck, qtd. in Briggs 240). However, Nesbit’s husband Hubert Bland, English socialist and...