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Behind E. Nesbit’s books is a turbulent tale featuring a bullying husband and his love-children

Behind E. Nesbit’s books is a turbulent tale featuring a bullying husband and his love-children

As cinematic tearjerkers go, it has few peers. On a station platform, a figure emerges out of the steam from a railway engine and a teenage girl, played by Jenny Agutter, rushes towards him with a heart-stopping cry of ‘Daddy! My Daddy’.Audiences for the wonderful 1970 film of The Railway Children wept as the winsome Roberta (‘Bobbie’) was reunited with her lost father. They still do.Here was the triumph of family togetherness as, thrust into difficult times, the three children showed themselves resourceful, adventurous and brave — like all the young heroes in the novels of E. Nesbit, from whose 1906 book, just one of the dozens she wrote for children, the film was made. Audiences for the wonderful 1970 film of The Railway Children wept as the winsome Roberta (‘Bobbie’) was reunited with her lost father. They still do.Nesbit — Edith by name — had an uncanny ability to enter into the minds of children and their make-believe world. She didn’t talk down to her young readers, she lured them to a place they instinctively understood, a place where anything was possible.Explaining her unique rapport with them, she once wrote: ‘You cannot hope to understand children by commonsense, by reason, by logic, not even by love itself. There is only one way — to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child.’ She saw herself as, at heart, a child still.Which was a good thing because — as a new biography of this ageless Victorian author reveals — her adult life in many ways was a train-wreck. Nesbit — Edith by name — had an uncanny ability to enter into the minds of children and their make-believe world. She didn’t talk down to her young readers, she lured them to a place they instinctively understood, a place where anything was possibleA promiscuous bully of a husband cheated on her throughout their stormy, petulant marriage. Amazingly she even brought up his children by another lover as if they were her own.Not that she herself was a saint. She yearned for adventure and threw herself at men in her intense literary circle, with varying degrees of wild success and humiliating failure.Children she instinctively understood, but adult life she found a bewildering struggle.And though in her writings she idealised childhood, her own was no gentle idyll. She was just three when her father, a scientist and a teacher who ran his own boarding school, died suddenly at 43. The loss blighted her for ever.For her there would never be that ‘Daddy, my Daddy’ reunion. Its place in The Railway Children (and others of her books) was wishful, wistful thinking.Her mother battled on alone, providing as happy a home as she could for Edith and her four siblings in a large, rambling house in Kennington, South London. It didn’t last.When Edith’s older sister, Mary, showed signs of tuberculosis — the disease that had killed their father — her widowed mother sold the school and took the sick youngster to the South of France in search of warm weather and a cure.Edith was left behind and from that point her young life was a turbulence of boarding schools (which she hated), various homes of relatives and friends and family reunions in a bewildering array of summer homes, from Brittany to Spain and the Pyrenees.  E. Nesbit is pictured above with John, her husband’s love-child she raised as her own. A promiscuous bully of a husband cheated on her throughout their stormy, petulant marriageShe travelled between them, often on her own and adult-free, developing in her a precocious spirit of independence and adventure.This merry-go-round only stopped when her sick sister died and her mother returned to England, settling with the now 16-year-old Edith in a house in Islington. There Edith — already something of a wild child by Victorian standards — met a young bank clerk and promised to marry him, only to dump him on clapping eyes on one of his colleagues, Hubert Bland. In no time she was engaged to him instead. She had found the love — and the bane — of her life.Bland was big, strong and very pugnacious (he’d trained as a boxer). A seditious type who dabbled with opium and dressed like a dandy in silk hat, frock coat and monocle, he was, writes Edith’s biographer, Eleanor Fitzsimons, ‘attractive to the point of irresistibility to women’.When he met Edith, he had a long-term lover, Maggie, who was pregnant with his child. The baby was put up for adoption and the girlfriend was cast aside — though never entirely, as Edith would discover in the coming years.Besotted and deluded, she gave herself up to the dashing Hubert and by the summer of 1879, aged 20, she, too, was pregnant. Disdaining marriage as a bourgeois institution, he agreed to a last-minute register office wedding, only weeks before the baby, a boy, was born. Edith died in 1924, aged 65, wasted away by lung disease, but her name and her work lived on. Her list of admirers was huge and grew over the years. For Noel Coward, ‘all the pleasant memories of my own childhood jump at me from her pages’Bland was not only a bounder but a penniless one. A business he started quickly went bust, and so it fell to Edith to scrape a living for the two of them — by selling the verses she wrote to various magazine editors and, in extremis, to manufacturers of Christmas cards.Not only were they on the breadline but, after their second child was born, she opened a letter that arrived at home for Bland and discovered he was still seeing, and presumably sleeping with, Maggie.He couldn’t have cared less that his secret was out. He believed, as he once put it, that ‘men love women as the hawk loves the pigeon’. It was his nature to be a womaniser, he professed, and she could like or lump it.Loving him as she did (and always would), she lumped it — and even used the experience as material for a love triangle story she sold to a magazine.From then on, writing was her full-time job, which Bland took up too, and proved to be good at. Together, they churned out short stories, essays, political tracts, pieces of journalism, anything that would bring in money.They collected a coterie of equally unconventional people — aesthetes such as William Morris, academics, literary types, armchair revolutionaries from Hampstead whose heads had been turned by Karl Marx.They held meetings earnestly putting the world to rights, and the Blands led the way in founding the Fabian Society, a socialist think-tank whose members, Edith cooed, were ‘quite the nicest set of people I ever knew’.She herself proclaimed her free-thinking ways by cutting her hair to a mannish bob and replacing her Victorian corsets with flowing Liberty dresses and long scarves. She also took up smoking, a habit then seen as the preserve of men.And, while her husband pursued his amours, she dallied, too, her roaming eye alighting on playwright and fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw. Edith thought him ‘one of the most fascinating men I ever met’.She as good as stalked him, turning up at his lodgings unannounced, managing to bump into him in the reading room of the British Museum and inviting him for hot chocolate or lunch a deux. E. Nesbit is pictured with her children. And though in her writings she idealised childhood, her own was no gentle idyll. She was just three when her father, a scientist and a teacher who ran his own boarding school, died suddenly at 43. The loss blighted her for everThey were often seen walking together, sometimes arm in arm. She told him she was prepared to leave Bland for him.He, though, was embarrassed by her attentions, recalling that ‘she had become passionately attached to me’ and that really wouldn’t do because she was ‘a married woman and her husband my friend’.He pushed her away as gently as he could, but when he refused to commit adultery with her, she told him angrily: ‘You had no right to write the preface if you were not going to write the book.’Bland, meanwhile, continued in his wicked ways, this time surpassing himself.Edith had a special friend, Alice Hoatson, with whom she worked on poems, stories and novelty books for children. It was Alice who nursed Edith through depression when she gave birth to a stillborn baby, moving in and playing auntie to the Bland children.Yet Alice was simultaneously sleeping with Bland and was pregnant by him. When Alice’s daughter Rosamund was born in 1886, she refused to name the father, and Edith, helping out a friend in distress, agreed to raise the child as her own. Six months went by before Alice was pressed into confessing the truth.There was, not surprisingly, an almighty row in which Edith ordered Alice and her baby out of the house, but when Bland threatened to go with them, she reluctantly relented. She was not prepared to lose him, however much he had wronged her.Alice stayed, with her baby, who grew up as part of the Bland household, took his surname and for years believed Edith to be her mother. But from then on, the household seethed with tension.Shaw visited and noted wearily in his diary: ‘Scenes, as usual.’ Another literary visitor, H. G. Wells, was struck by the drama of the Blands’ home life. ‘They loved scenes and situations. They really enjoyed strong emotion.’In later life, Rosamund would recall family meals ‘ending in a hysterical outburst, when she [Edith] would rush from the table and retire into her study with a violent slam of the door.‘Daddy [Bland] would say “Oh, God!” and make for his study, also slamming the door. But always after a short while one would hear him go up to her room.‘She would open the door and one could hear a murmur of affectionate phrase — “Now Cat [his nickname for Edith] dearest, don’t go on like that. Your old Cat loves you and you love your poor old Cat, don’t you? There, kiss your old Cat and come and have your pudding.” ’As another twist to the plot, Rosamund suggested that it was Edith who had persuaded Alice to seduce Hubert ‘in order to get him to give up another lady whom she loathed’. As cinematic tearjerkers go, it has few peers. On a station platform, a figure emerges out of the steam from a railway engine and a teenage girl, played by Jenny Agutter, rushes towards him with a heart-stopping cry of ‘Daddy! My Daddy’She retaliated to his constant infidelities — his appetite for ‘frilled petticoats’, as she put it — as best she could, surrounding herself with handsome young writers and artists, who flocked to the Bland household to be dazzled by her vitality and beauty.She flirted, she pouted, she stared intimately into eyes, but whether these dalliances developed into full-blown love affairs remains uncertain.Fitzsimons, her biographer, thinks it unlikely Bland would have put up with adultery on her part. He had unashamedly double standards, which nettled Edith.In one poem she wrote:‘Why should one rule be fit for me to follow,While there exists a different law for you?What do I care to be the first, or fiftieth?It is the only one I care to be.’But there was little hope of that, with Alice a permanent part of the household and in 1899 giving birth to another baby, fathered by Bland.With the pattern set, Edith once again agreed to raise — and love — the child, John, as her own.But tragedy was never far away.In 1900, her 15-year-old son Fabian had an operation at home to remove his adenoids, but never came round from the chloroform.Edith lost her mind, swathing his lifeless body in blankets and hot water bottles to warm him back to life and screaming at her husband: ‘Why couldn’t it have been Rosamund?’It was the first intimation to the poor girl that Edith was not her real mother.In her grief for her lost boy, Edith buried herself in her work, leaping on a commission from the Illustrated London News to write a series of children’s stories. The following year they were published in book form, as The Wouldbegoods.E. Nesbit had at last found her true voice.More books followed, weaving magic, fantasy and adventure into the lives of ordinary children. The money began to roll in, with serial rights for her work not only in all the best literary magazines in London but around the world, too.She and Bland were able to move to a large house on the edge of London that became a retreat for all sorts of writers, artists and bohemians, with Edith the queen of all she surveyed (and Bland, as ever, the knave).The continuing melodrama of their lives reached fever pitch when the sexually voracious H. G. Wells, 42, lured the 21-year-old Rosamund away from home on the grounds — not totally improbable — that Bland was trying to seduce her, his own daughter.The eloping Wells and Rosamund were intercepted at Paddington Station en route to Paris, Bland hauling Wells off the train and punching him. She yearned for adventure and threw herself at men in her intense literary circle, with varying degrees of wild success and humiliating failureEdith stood by Bland in this sordid debacle, as she did in all others and would do so until a heart attack felled him in 1914. As with her dead son, she threw herself on his cold body and tried to revive him with hot water bottles, but he’d gone.She was distraught. She put aside all the wrongs she had suffered from him and desperately missed the man she described as ‘my close and constant companion and friend for 37 years’.Widowed, Edith now fell on hard times. Her children’s books had gone out of fashion and there was little money coming in. She took to growing and selling flowers, fruit and vegetables on a smallholding and taking in paying guests to make a living.The consolation in her declining years was that she at last found a love that was properly reciprocated — Tommy Tucker, ship’s engineer on the Woolwich Ferry.‘He is the soul of goodness and kindness,’ she told a friend. They married — and she was contented. ‘I am very, very happy.’ He was, she said, her ‘consolation prize for all sorts of failures. For the first time in my life, I know what it is to have a man’s whole heart.’Edith died in 1924, aged 65, wasted away by lung disease, but her name and her work lived on. Her list of admirers was huge and grew over the years.For Noel Coward, ‘all the pleasant memories of my own childhood jump at me from her pages’. C. S. Lewis and Tolkien borrowed ideas from her books. J. K. Rowling paid homage — ‘I identify with E. Nesbit more than any other writer because she remembered exactly how she felt and thought as a child’.Children were what Edith understood. That’s why she was brilliant at communicating with them and why her books still capture their imaginations.It was grown-ups who remained a closed book to her.The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimons is published by Duckworth, £20. © Eleanor Fitzsimons 2019. To order a copy for £16 (P&P free), call 01603 648155 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk. Offer valid until 26/10/19.

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