Changing the Map: Bring Your Comfort Food

The holiday season is upon us. The longest night and the shortest day looms closer, and America feels like it’s a tinsel-wrapped pine tree, awfully close to open flames.

So, screw that. Let’s go somewhere else, somewhere in the quintessential British countryside, the fertile home of so many children’s novels. Who hasn’t spent time on a river with a water rats, or been beset by the urge to follow a white rabbit down a hole? Or perhaps you’re like me, still searching for a door into another world, still more then half-convinced there’s a way through, probably via the London Underground these days, to a land where I could ask questions of a phoenix. After all, don’t you want some comfort food — and perhaps a visit to a land where hot chocolate flows and books come alive? Aren’t you dying to curl up in a warm chair with a good book? Let’s embark to the English countryside and E. Nesbit.

A place without the turbulence of politics…

Wait — Edith Nesbit was a fervent socialist? And wrote that into all those books? And more or less adopted her husband’s paramours AND their children? Right on, Sister, right on!

The genesis of what we consider contemporary children’s novels, the influencer of so many who came after her, including C.S. Lewis and Kenneth Grahame, the leader of a movement towards realistic kids, is Edith Nesbit, aka E. Nesbit.

Born in 1858, in Kensington Surrey, Edith was the daughter of a chemist and schoolmaster, who went on to have a roving upbringing as her family moved from place to place, attaining her education primarily from reading. Firmly middle class, her family finally moved to London and at age 19, Edith met Hubert Bland — a man her family had to disapprove of as he was both a political activist and a writer. Ah, the sin. Further sins against morality were committed, and Edith shortly fell pregnant, then in rapid order, engaged and married.

Theirs was always an unconventional relationship, by both modern and Victorian terms. They lived apart at the start, and Hubert swiftly impregnated another woman. They fought, reconciled, and Edith resolved to make friends with the other woman. She supported both families by sentimental poetry, back when there was still a paying market for such things other then Hallmark cards.

Edith and Hubert were among the founding members of the Fabian Society, a socialist group heavily influential in English politics. Then, oops, it happened again — Hubert fathered another child with her friend, Alice Hoatson. One can only imagine this second round of fights. Surprisingly, Edith’s solution was to adopt the baby — and allow Alice to continue to live with them.

She continued to support the blended family (Hubert appears to have been of little use) by her writing, and in 1899 published The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers: Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune. (There are two sequels to this: The Wouldbegoods and The New Treasure Seekers.). Told from a child’s point of view, this was a revolution to the moralizing “ministering children” of Victorian literature. Up until Edith broke the mold, Victorian childrens’ fantasy was of the simpering pious child variety, like The Waterbabies, or terribly pathetic Diamond in At the Back of the North Wind.

 

The kids in her books, are well, kids — mischievous, occasionally naughty, always curious, and having adventures on their own with adults relegated much to the same role as Charlie Brown’s parents — murmuring voices in the background. They entertain themselves on holidays, get into scrapes, and with their own resources and pluck, save the day. Almost always, the siblings are from a separated or incomplete family, reflecting her own rather Victorian improper blend.

Her speculative fantasy includes Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, and The Phoenix and the Carpet, a personal favorite comfort food of mine. In total, she published over forty-four novels and eventually found a second love (Thomas Terry Tucker) after Hubert died. She died in 1924. Since publication in 1905, The Railway Children (about a group of siblings quest to clear their father’s name of treason) has NEVER been out of print.

C. S. Lewis208BCBAB-9E1A-41AA-B3B4-091CAED5193A grew up reading her — in The Magician’s Nephew he mentions the Bastable children in the first paragraph. American writer Edward Eager references the Bastable children in his Half Magic series, and Michael Moorcock seems to have borrowed Oswald Bastable for his trilogy A Nomad of the Time Streams.

Her lineage lingers on in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series.

So while the days grow colder (for half the world), may I urge us all to follow a bit in the patterns of the bears, or the Danish tradition of Hygge. Retreat with proper sustenance of the munchable type and take some time to revisit the land of our youth, which with adult eyes may turn out to still be delightful, for deliciously subversive reasons.

E. Nesbit’s books are chocolate covered pretzels, sweet and sour sauce, or French fries dipped in ice cream. They taste great and have a tang. The perfect comfort food, with a socialistic zippy flavor, all to be enjoyed in that comfy corner of the fantasy map of the English countryside.

3 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom December 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you! This totally made my dreary day better!

    Reply
  • Shara White December 12, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Nesbit, as a person, sounds totally amazing. I’ve never read her work, to my knowledge, but I wonder if I should check it out?

    Reply
    • Calie Voorhis December 12, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      You should. They’ve held up quite well, and I like the spunk of the kids.

      Reply

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