For many readers – H.G. Wells and Laurence Houseman, G.K. Chesterton and Noel Coward – for these and thousands more, the most magical stories of modern times are those by that Edwardian wizard E. Nesbit…To come upon any Nesbit today, hitherto unread,…is like receiving a letter from a friend whom you have believed dead….
Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) has been acknowledged as an influence on many 20th- and 21st-century authors, including P.L. Travers, Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, Dianna Wynne Jones, Michael Moorcock, and J.K. Rowling, just to name a few.
She can be considered a kind of faerie godmother for authors of fantasy stories. 110 years ago, it was Edith Nesbit who put fantasy and magic into children’s literature, with novels such as Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Enchanted Castle, and The Magic City. She was responsible for an innovative body of work in which realistic child characters in real-world settings interact with magical objects, have adventures and sometimes travel to fantastic worlds and other historical times.
While a number of authors acknowledge Nesbit as a shaping influence on their developing imaginations, it is in the motifs and images they draw upon to tell their own stories that her influence is most apparent to the reader. For C.S. Lewis, one example is the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which Lewis acknowledges was an image he drew from Nesbit’s short story, “Aunt and Anabel”. Another example from the same story is the Queen who turns people to statues by magic, which resonates with the power of the ring in Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle to turn people and animals into statues. The motif of four siblings adventuring in a fantasy world together is also one commonly emulated by her literary successors. However, it is the ordinariness of her children that is of most note. J.K Rowling acknowledges the significance of these realistic child-characters in the midst of fantasy worlds: “I love E. Nesbit — I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.”
The way in which Nesbit entwines the realistic and the fantastic marks her out as one of the leading lights of Victorian Fantasy. The motif of fantasy breaking into realistic situations, and vice versa, has been influential on many authors listed previously in this post. Moreover, I would also argue that, in her rejection of the contemporaneous “ministering child” genre as he standard of good literature for children, Nesbit takes a stand for the art of story; a stand which continues to echo long after her death in 1924. By employing child-narrators who seek to do good but are flawed, Nesbit demonstrates the power of redemption – the possibility of doing good with what you have. I would suggest that some of the most loved fantasy heroes and heroines implicitly take much from those present in Victorian Fantasy. In this sense, Nesbit is an important figure in a long line of literary ancestors of today’s fantasy literature.
Anna M. Blanch is a regular contributor to Transpositions. She is currently writing her PhD in Theology and Literature, focusing on the theological imagination of Edith Nesbit.
2. For scholarly discussion on Nesbit’s influence on some of these authors, see Mervyn Nicholson, “C.S. Lewis and the Scholarship of Imagination in E. Nesbit and Rider Haggard,” Renascence 51.1 (1998); Mervyn Nicholson, “What C.S. Lewis Took from E. Nesbit,” Children’s Literature Quarterly 16.1 (1991); Marcus Crouch, The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel in England 1945-1970 (London: Benn, 1972). The final chapter of my PhD thesis will explore the influence of Nesbit on J.K. Rowling in greater detail.
3. Edinburgh Book Festival, Sunday 15th August 2004.
4. The ministering child genre is a description given to the Victorian evangelical tales that followed in the vein of Mary Lousia Charlesworth’s 1854 Ministering Children . They focus on the moral development of the protagonist. It is an extreme of the moral tale epitomised by Anna Laeticia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth in the late 18th-century. Nesbit parodies these effectively, particular in the Bastable Trilogy, even as she presents her own didactic tale.
Image Credit: Out of copyright image from author’s collection.