Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit, the daughter of John Collis Nesbit, a schoolmaster, was born on 19th August, 1858. Nesbit ran successful schools in Bradford, Manchester and London but died when Edith was only six years old. Despite money problems, Edith's mother managed to educate her daughter in boarding schools in Brighton and France. She later recalled: "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 and felt and suffered then".

At the age of nineteen, Edith Nesbit met Hubert Bland, a young writer with radical political opinions. In 1879 discovered she was pregnant and the baby was born two months after they were married on 22nd April, 1880. According to her biographer, Julia Briggs: "Bland continued to spend half of each week with his widowed mother and her paid companion, Maggie Doran, who also had a son by him, though Edith did not realize this until later that summer when Bland fell ill with smallpox. With characteristic optimism, she forgave him, befriended Maggie, and set about supporting the household by writing sentimental poems and short stories, and by hand-painting greetings cards."

Edith and Hubert were both socialists and on 24th October 1883 they decided with their Quaker friend Edward Pease, to form debating group. They were also joined by Havelock Ellis and Frank Podmore and in January 1884 they decided to call themselves the Fabian Society. Bland chaired the first meeting and was elected treasurer. Nesbit and her husband became joint editors of the society's journal, Today. Soon afterwards other socialists in London began attending meetings. This included Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, Olive Schreiner, Clementina Black, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb.

In April 1884 Edith wrote to her friend, Ada Breakell: "I should like to try and tell you a little about the Fabian Society - it's aim is to improve the social system - or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvements of the social system. There are about thirty members - some of whom are working men. We meet once a fortnight - and then someone reads a paper and we all talk about it. We are now going to issue a pamphlet. I am on the Pamphlet Committee. Now can you fancy me on a committee? I really surprise myself sometimes."

George Bernard Shaw joined the Fabian Society in August 1884. Edith wrote: "The Fabian Society is getting rather large now and includes some very nice people, of whom Mr. Stapelton is the nicest and a certain George Bernard Shaw the most interesting. G.B.S. has a fund of dry Irish humour that is simply irresistible. He is a clever writer and speaker - is the grossest flatterer I ever met, is horribly untrustworthy as he repeats everything he hears, and does not always stick to the truth, and is very plain like a long corpse with dead white face - sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome small straggly beard, and yet is one of the most fascinating men I ever met."

In 1885 Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland also joined the Social Democratic Federation. Other members included Tom Mann, John Burns, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Lansbury, Edward Aveling, H. H. Champion, John Scurr, Guy Aldred, Dora Montefiore, Frank Harris, Clara Codd, John Spargo and Ben Tillet. However, they did not stay long as they found the views of its leader, H. H. Hyndman, too revolutionary.

Edith wrote two novels, The Prophet's Mantle (1885) and Something Wrong (1886), about the early days of the socialist movement, under the pen-name Fabian Bland. In 1885 Edith had a second child and named him Fabian. In February 1886, Edith gave birth to a stillborn child, and her friend Alice Hoatson, the assistant secretary of the Fabian Society, came to look after her. Alice stayed as their housekeeper in a ménage à trois, and the following year, Alice gave birth to Hubert's baby, Rosamund. Edith accepted the situation and brought up Rosamund as her own child.

Hubert's promiscious behaviour encouraged her to have relationships with other men. The poet Richard Le Gallienne was one of those who found her very attractive and was charmed by her "tall lithe boyish-girl figure, admirably set off by her plain Socialist gown, with her short hair, and her large vivid eyes". Another admirer commented on "the sheer magnificence of her appearance... with a long full throat, and dark luxuriant hair, smoothly parted." George Bernard Shaw found her very attractive and met her two or three times a week at local cafes. However, in May 1887 he reported that "she went away after an unpleasant scene caused by my telling her I wished her to go as I was afraid that a visit to me (at his home) would compromise her."

Another close friend was Oswald Barron, a young journalist. Claire Tomalin points out: "He was one of a band of her courtiers, recent Oxford graduates who joined the Fabian Society and were fascinated by the Blands, and notably by Edith. For she was beautiful in her own style - lots of hair and a strong face, trailing Liberty dresses, ropes of beads and dozens of bangles on her arm, incessant cigarettes in a long holder - and the parties she and Hubert gave were famous, with huge meals, wine and games played all over the house."

Nesbit was a regular lecturer and writer on socialism throughout the 1880s. However she gave less time to these activities after she published The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899). Julia Briggs has pointed out: "With the creation of Oswald Bastable, she knew that she had discovered a highly original way of writing about and for children, and from this point in her career she never looked back. She now invented the children's adventure story, more or less single-handed, adding to it fantasy, magic, time-travel, and a delightful vein of subversive comedy. The next ten years or so saw the publication of all her major work, and in the mean time she was also composing poems, plays, romantic novels, ghost stories, and tales of country life."

Other books by Nesbit included, The Wouldbegoods (1901), Five Children and It (1902), The Pheonix and the Carpet (1904), The New Treasurer-Seekers (1904), The Railway Children (1906) and The Enchanted Castle (1907). A collection of her political poetry, Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism, was published in 1908.

Claire Tomalin has argued: "Nesbit's books were hugely popular with children and adults, admired by writers as various as Kipling and Wells, and have remained in print ever since... Their recurring theme of lost and found fathers addresses itself to children's deep fears and hopes. Another theme, that of the wish granted that turns out to be awkward or frightening, goes similarly straight to the heart of the fantasies and semi-conscious terrors of many children."

Hubert Bland died after suffering a heart attack on 14th April 1914. In the summer of 1916 she met Thomas Terry Tucker (1856–1935), a widowed marine engineer who shared her socialistic political views. She told her sister, "I feel as though someone had come and put a fur cloak round me.". Her children disapproved of the relationship because he "spoke with a broad cockney accent and never wore a collar" but she was deeply in love and they were married on 20th February 1917 at St Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Woolwich.

Edith Nesbit continued to write children's books and had published forty-four novels before her death from lung cancer at her home in St Mary's Bay in Romney Marsh, on 4th May, 1924.

Primary Sources

(1) Edith Nesbit, letter to Ada Breakell (February, 1884)

On Friday we went to Mr. Pease's to tea, and afterwards, a Fabian meeting was held. The meeting was over at 10 - but some of us stayed till 11.30 talking. The talks after the Fabian meeting are very jolly. I do think the Fabians are quite the nicest set of people I ever knew. Mr. Pease's people are Quakers and he has the cheerful serenity and self-containedness common to the sect. I like him very much.

(2) Edith Nesbit, letter to Ada Breakell (March, 1884)

The Fabian Society takes up a good deal of my thoughts just now, I am also doing a good bit of serious reading - among other things, Buchner's Man, Mill's Subjection of Women, Louis Blanc's Historical Revelations. You see my reading is rather mixed and miscellaneous - but it is the fate of most women only to be able to get a smattering, and I seem to want to read all sorts of things as once.

(3) Edith Nesbit, letter to Ada Breakell (April, 1884)

I should like to try and tell you a little about the Fabian Society - it's aim is to improve the social system - or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvements of the social system. There are about thirty members - some of whom are working men. We meet once a fortnight - and then someone reads a paper and we all talk about it. We are now going to issue a pamphlet. I am on the Pamphlet Committee. Now can you fancy me on a committee? I really surprise myself sometimes.

(4) Edith Nesbit, letter to Ada Breakell (19th August, 1884)

The Fabian Society is getting rather large now and includes some very nice people, of whom Mr. Stapelton is the nicest and a certain George Bernard Shaw the most interesting. G.B.S. has a fund of dry Irish humour that is simply irresistible. He is a clever writer and speaker - is the grossest flatterer I ever met, is horribly untrustworthy as he repeats everything he hears, and does not always stick to the truth, and is very plain like a long corpse with dead white face - sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome small straggly beard, and yet is one of the most fascinating men I ever met.

(5) Claire Tomalin , The Times Literary Supplement(1987)

George Bernard Shaw was of course a feminist, while Edith Nesbit wanted love; the two things are a puzzle to fit together even when one partner is not reluctant. But for a while Edith found the way of life that suited her, and inspiration too, according to Briggs, when, about the year 1890, she met a young journalist called Oswald Barron, who began to collaborate with her. He was one of a band of her "courtiers", recent Oxford graduates who joined the Fabian Society and were fascinated by the Blands, and notably by Edith. For she was beautiful in her own style - lots of hair and a strong face, trailing Liberty dresses, ropes of beads and dozens of bangles on her arm, incessant cigarettes in a long holder - and the parties she and Hubert gave were famous, with huge meals, wine and games played all over the house.

Julia Briggs credits Edith with a very large number of "lovers" among the young men who gathered about her, some acting as her secretary, more joining in family holidays in Kent or in France. It is never clear whether they were lovers in the modern sense, and, while perhaps it does not matter too much, the picture of Nesbit is undoubtedly changed if she was holding court like Messalina, or on the other hand simply receiving sentimental homage. Whichever was the case, Edith enjoyed the adulation of many young men, but Barron gave her something more; he was erudite, possessed a historical imagination, and "his way of looking at the world came to colour hers strongly". Barron acted, says Briggs, as her "muse or midwife"; and of course she gave his name to Oswald Bastable. Sadly, when he married in 1899 he walked out of her life without a backward glance, and was at great pains in his respectable old age to persuade Doris Langley Moore to omit his name from her book, which seems sad and silly too, if Briggs is right in her assessment of his role.