Love letter #53: Edith Nesbit.

“I couldn’t help wondering as we went down to the garden, why Father had never thought of digging there for treasure instead of going to his beastly office every day.”

E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers

I love Edith Nesbit and the way in which her writing for children illuminates the imagination. We are reading The Story of the Treasure Seekers, which you can enjoy for free online, and find myself guessing which passage Max must be reading when I hear his amused guffaws and chortles.

A sketch of Nesbit from the Kitchen Sink Dramas website.

Nesbit was a feminist at a time when most women were content to remain “the angel in the house”. She even sported a Liberty dress, chucked her corsets, and made fashion statements supporting The Rational Dress Society (which I’ve always secretly admired as the forerunner of upcycling and Etsy-dom). Trying to convey what it is exactly that makes Nesbit’s books such a treasure at the Coryell Castle is no simple task. But I think Gore Vidal sums it fairly well in his by-no-means-current review for The New York Times Book Review:

As a woman, E. Nesbit was not to everyone’s taste. H. G. Wells described her and Hubert Bland as “fundamentally intricate,” adding that whenever the Blands attended meetings of the Fabian Society “anonymous letters flittered about like bats at twilight” (the Nesbit mood if not style is contagious). Yet there is no doubt that she was extraordinary. Wanting to be a serious poet, she became of necessity a writer of children’s books. But though she disdained her true gift, she was peculiarly suited by nature to be what in fact she was. As an adult, writing of her own childhood, she noted, “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.” With extraordinary perceptiveness, she realized that each grown-up must kill the child he was before he himself can live. Nesbit’s vow to survive somehow in the enemy’s consciousness became, finally, her art—when this you see remember me—and the child within continued to the end of the adult’s life.

E. Nesbit’s failure in the United States is not entirely mysterious. We have always preferred how-to-do to let’s-imagine-that. In the last fifty years, considering our power and wealth, we have contributed relatively little in the way of new ideas of any sort. From radar to rocketry, we have had to rely on other societies for theory and invention. Our great contribution has been, characteristically, the assembly line.

I do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, wouldn’t it be interesting if…? he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it will be like to own a car and make money. As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American society, and though a reading of E. Nesbit is hardly going to change the pattern of a nation, there is some evidence that the child who reads her will never be quite the same again, and that is probably a good thing.

The only disagreement I find with Mr. Vidal is his assumption that only the child “will never be quite the same again”. This woman finds herself quite un-same and rather tickled with joy.

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