Fitzsimons (Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, 2017) explores the controversial life and groundbreaking contributions of iconic Victorian children’s author and social activist Edith Nesbit (1858-1924).
Relying on letters, memoirs, poetry, stories, and archival materials, the author reveals familiar as well as unexpected details and anecdotes from Nesbit’s tempestuous, bohemian life. She documents how Nesbit’s father’s death, her sister’s illness, and subsequent family upheavals shaped her into an anxious child with a fertile imagination who began writing poetry at age 11. A life-changing marriage to ardent womanizer Hubert Bland when she was seven months pregnant forced Nesbit to “muster what resources, determination, and ingenuity she had to support her family” through her writing. Throughout their unorthodox marriage, Nesbit tolerated her husband’s many flaws. Attractive and vivacious, Nesbit was “always surrounded by adoring young men” and had “intensely romantic friendships with several,” including George Bernard Shaw. Delving into Nesbit’s formative involvement in the Fabian Society and ardent campaigning to alleviate poverty, Fitzsimons suggests Nesbit’s socialist views influenced her children’s books. Favoring unconventional loose-fitting dresses and short hair, Nesbit’s attitude toward women’s rights and suffrage was surprisingly “hostile.” Frequent quotes from Nesbit’s children’s books illustrate how she “populated her stories with people and events from her past,” recasting herself and her siblings as the Bastable children in The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Fitzsimons ably demonstrates how Nesbit’s singular ability to write from the perspective of a child, weaving magic and fantasy into everyday life in a colloquial style, became the prototype for modern children’s fiction. She shines a welcome spotlight on a life “as extraordinary as anything found in the pages of her books.”
A fascinating, thoughtfully organized, thoroughly researched, often surprising biography of the enigmatic author of The Railway Children.