- The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Victorian Iconoclast, Children’s Author, and Creator of The Railway Children by Eleanor Fitzsimons
by Eleanor Fitzsimons; pp. 400.Harry N. Abrams, 2019. $24.98 cloth.
E.nesbit is a somewhat marginal figure in Victorian studies. Beloved by bookish Brits of a certain age, she is far less well known in North America and draws mixed reactions from readers (typical Amazon.com reviews designate her stories “very English,” written in a perplexing “British dialect”). She has not, in spite of Julia Briggs’s magisterial A Woman of Passion (1987), entirely benefited from literary studies’ late twentieth-century reclamatory urge (unlike, say, Mary Elizabeth Braddon), perhaps because she is best known for that perennially under-appreciated genre, the children’s novel. She is also one of those writers awkwardly on the cusp between Victorian and Edwardian, not quite in the “spirit of the age” of either. Yet Nesbit was, as Eleanor Fitzsimons’s new biography makes plain, not only a talented, [End Page 330] generative writer but also in the thick of Victorian and Edwardian literary and political life. Known to and by just about everybody, Nesbit’s at-homes were important nodes in the era’s social and literary networks. She attracted all sorts of rising journalists, writers, and thinkers to her suburban houses in and around south London to “discuss politics into the small hours,” enjoy literary talk, and play hide-and-seek (137). Victorianists and literary scholars will find a veritable Who’s Who of familiar figures in the pages of Fitzsimons’s new book: Olive Schreiner, Oscar Wilde, Richard Le Gallienne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Annie Besant, and more attest to Nesbit’s important and valued place in turn-of-the-century literary and political culture.
Fitzsimons’s book identifies the wellsprings of Nesbit’s quirky, imaginative literature in the writer’s unconventional life, from a childhood spent touring crypts to an adulthood in a ménage à trois. Nesbit’s friend, Alice Hoatson, lived with the writer and her husband, Hubert Bland, as housekeeper, companion—and Bland’s lover; Hoatson bore two children, both of whom were raised and adopted by Edith. Indeed, Nesbit seems largely to have accepted the relationship, and she enjoyed numerous extra- marital amours herself, including with fellow Fabians Shaw and Le Gallienne. Inevitably, a fair portion of Fitzsimons’s biography focuses on Nesbit’s entanglements and on the romances of the next generation—Rosamund, one of the Hoatson/Bland offspring, was involved with H.G. Wells as a teenager. Fitzsimons finds in Nesbit’s intriguing life history clues to her imaginative power, connecting the distinctive, “extraordinary” fiction with Nesbit’s “extraordinary” life (x), although, paradoxically, it is the author’s ability to connect with the ordinary, the everyday, that really distinguishes her: “The key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me” (x).
The biographer’s passion for her subject, and for Nesbit’s fiction, is evident on every page, and Fitzsimons gives ample room to Nesbit’s coolly ironic voice, too. This is an immensely readable book that works hard to remind us of Nesbit’s place in literary London and in the field of children’s literature. Yet there is not, strictly speaking, much new here, in terms of raw facts: earlier biographers have covered similar ground, including, most recently, Elisabeth Galvin, in The Extraordinary Life of E. Nesbit (2018). Two earlier Nesbit biographies in particular laid out key new discoveries—Doris Langley Moore’s E. Nesbit (1933) drew on interviews with and letters from Nesbit’s family and friends, while Briggs’s A Woman of Passion was the first to really come to grips with the ins and outs of Nesbit’s unconventional marriage. And, indeed, a student keen to know more about, say, Wells’s love affair with Rosamund will find more in Briggs’s study, which remains the most serious, meticulously...