Today I'm delighted to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of a new biography of E Nesbit, to tell us more about a relatively unknown side the Nesbit's life - her strong Marxist beliefs and their influence on her stories
SOCIALISM IN THE STORIES OF E. NESBIT
Nowadays, we know E. Nesbit as the author of wonderful stories for children and a source of inspiration for writers from C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling. Yet poetry was her true passion. As she told one friend “only my socialist poems are real me”. Nesbit’s close friend and fellow Fabian Society member George Bernard Shaw described her as “a committed if distinctly eccentric socialist”. Her commitment to a fairer society was informed by her experience of genuine hardship when, as a newly married mother, she decorated greeting cards and sold simple illustrations to earn a living for her unorthodox family. She raised three children with her husband, Hubert Bland, and two more he fathered with her friend Alice Hoatson. Although she wrote what the market demanded, Nesbit promoted social reform in her stories for young readers who she regarded, with good reason, as far more open to reforming ideas than their parents.
Before she wrote the books we remember her for, including The Wouldbegoods, The Railway Children and Five Children and It, Nesbit and Bland co-authored The Prophet’s Mantle, a socialist novel inspired by the arrival in London of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Russian exile in The Railway Children is also based on him. Nesbit was keen to fulfill the Fabian society mission, which she defined as “to improve the social system – or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvement of the said SS”. When the children in The Wouldbegoods form a society, Dora describes its aim as “nobleness and goodness, and great and unselfish deeds,” adding: “We wish to spread our wings and rise above the kind of interesting things that you ought not to do, but to do kindnesses to all, no matter how low and mean”.
Nesbit includes a particularly inflammatory public speech in The Story of the Amulet:
Comrades and fellow workers, how long are we to endure the tyranny of our masters, who live in idleness and luxury on the fruit of our toil? They only give us a bare subsistence wage, and they live on the fat of the land. We labour all our lives to keep them in wanton luxury. Let us make an end of it!
Here, her fictional children travel forward in time to a utopian London where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone dresses in comfortable clothing. When the Babylonian Queen time travels to Victorian London she assumes that the workers she encounters must be slaves on the verge of revolt since they are so poorly treated. The children explain that these workers are free and have the right to vote for their government yet they cannot justify why misery persists. Nesbit often exposes the flaws inherent in government policy by having children attempt to explain it.
Elsewhere in The Story of the Amulet, the Psammead points out: “You’ve got your country into such a mess that there’s no room for half your children – and no one to want them”. In The House of Arden, Richard refuses to return to Victorian London, declaring “they make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or be happy in”. The children in The Wonderful Garden persuade an indifferent landlord who owns a castle and a mansion in Belgrave Square to protect one of his tenants, a vulnerable old woman. In The Magic World, when the enchanted crows that inhabit ‘Justnowland’ are changed back into men, they vow “in future we shall not be rich and poor, but fellow-workers, and each will do his best for his brothers”.
The most credible and socially aware of Nesbit’s books is The Railway Children, with its clear message of political criticism and social change. It seems likely that ‘Old Gentleman’ is included to reassure parents reading to their children that wealth and social position are not threatened by socially conscious behaviour. It is not necessary to cede your power, merely to make proper use of it. Victorian literature is not short of moralising tales but Nesbit was never hectoring or po-faced. She often poked fun at fellow socialists and utopian thinkers. The key characteristics of her stories for children are fantasy and humour. She spread her radical ideas on the benefits of a fairer society by embedding them in superbly crafted, gripping stories that continue to resonate with children to this day.
Eleanor Fitzsimons is the author of The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (Duckworth, 2019)