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Daily Magic

by Edward Eager

nesbit_story of the treasure seekersIt is customary, in writing of E. Nesbit, to begin by telling how one first read her stories in The Strand Magazine, either devouring the installments one by one as they appeared, or perhaps even better, coming upon them unexpectedly in old bound volumes in some grandmotherly attic.

This did not happen to me. My childhood occurred too late for the original Nesbit era, and too soon for the revival sponsored in this country by William Rose Benét, Christopher Morley, May Lamberton Becker, Earle Walbridge and others (not to mention the firm of Coward-McCann, which earned everlasting honor by beginning to reissue her books in 1929, and has continued to do so ever since).

I was dimly aware of the renewal of interest in Nesbit in the early thirties, but since I was then entering my own early twenties, with no thought of ever again having anything to do with the world of children’s books, it all seemed very remote.

It was not till 1947 that I became a second-generation Nesbitian when I discovered a second-hand copy of Wet Magic, while casting about for books to read to my son. I have not got over the effects of that discovery yet, nor, I hope, will I ever.

Probably the sincerest compliment I could pay her is already paid in the fact that my own books for children could not even have existed if it were not for her influence. And I am always careful to acknowledge this indebtedness in each of my stories; so that any child who likes my books and doesn’t know hers may be led back to the master of us all.

For just as Beatrix Potter is the genius of the picture book, so I believe E. Nesbit to be the one truly “great” writer for the ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-old. (I don’t count Lewis Carroll, as in my experience the age when one stops being terrified by, and begins loving, Alice is about thirteen and a half. And Kenneth Grahame, whose The Golden Age had an undoubted influence on the Nesbit style, is an author to wait for, too, I think. As for Mrs. Ewing, so sadly forgotten of late, she is best come upon a bit earlier, except for Mary’s Meadow, which might almost have been written by E. Nesbit herself.)

How to describe the Nesbit charm for those who don’t yet know it? Better for them to stop reading this article and read the books themselves. I have read all I could find of those that matter (she wrote countless potboilers that are not worth searching for). And I have read the excellent biography by Doris Langley Moore, never published in this country but still obtainable, I believe, from England.

From this book the real Edith Nesbit Bland emerges life-size and unforgettable, stubborn, charming, wrongheaded, parading in flowing gowns, scattering ashes from her omnipresent cigarette. One finds her plunging ardently into Fabian socialism, handling unconventionally but with childlike directness the problems presented by a philandering husband (a whole novel could be written about her marriage with Hubert Bland). Later one grows impatient, watching her waste valuable time and energy trying to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

Then there is the charming interlude of what might be called her intellectual flirtation with H. G. Wells. Wells, whom she admired immeasurably (he is the “great reformer” in chapter twelve of The Story of the Amulet), had read some of her writing, decided (incomprehensibly) she was a man, and named her Ernest in his mind, a nickname that was to remain through their friendship. One day, after they had met, he appeared at Well Hall unexpectedly, bag and baggage, announcing, “Ernest, I’ve come to stay.” E. Nesbit was delighted. In the words of Mrs. Langley Moore, “nothing could have gratified her more than this frank confidence in her Bohemianism.” And of course we see plainly that nothing could have. It was such an un-grown-up thing to do. So unconventional an arrival must have gone straight to the heart of the child Edith, still very much alive somewhere inside the fascinating, unconventional Mrs. Bland.

Elsewhere in the book we are told that E. Nesbit resented the time taken up by her children’s stories, and yearned to be free of them in order to devote herself to writing novels and poetry. We may be forgiven for not believing it. Maybe Mrs. Bland felt like that, or pretended to, but not E. Nesbit. Naturally, moving in the circle that she did, among all those witty people doing and saying such grown-up things, she must have known times when she pined for recognition on an adult plane. Recognition, and the very much needed money that went with it, were always important to her.

But her books for children were never the mere potboilers she claimed they were. Every page shines with the delight the writer took in fashioning it, and this is a thing that cannot be faked. I know. In truth it is her “adult” writing that bears a synthetic stamp. Her poems and novels are mere self-conscious attitudinizing, the little girl playing “lady” in borrowed clothes, and all of them have long been forgotten. It was when the child in her spoke out directly to other children that she achieved greatness.

I do not mean to equate genius with arrested mental or emotional development. But there are lucky people who never lose the gift of seeing the world as a child sees it, a magic place where anything can happen next minute, and delightful and unexpected things constantly do. Of such, among those of us who try to write for children, is the kingdom of Heaven. And in that kingdom E. Nesbit stands with the archangels.

Of course there are other people who plainly have never known what it is like to be a child at all, who  would suppress fairy tales and tell children “nothing that is not true.” (I once knew a lady who denied her children Santa Claus, till they rebelled and forced her to relent. And when one year she so far relaxed as to say that he had been there and brought one of the presents, her little girl cried, “And did he wear a red coat and a white beard?” “No,” said the lady, stubbornly progressive to the end. “He wore a business suit!”)

Tragically, toward the end of E. Nesbit’s life, the fantasy-haters were in vogue (again)! One of the saddest chapters in Doris Langley Moore’s book is the one that tells of her sending stories to publishers, only to have them returned with the comment that there was no longer any demand for “her sort of books.”

The thought of these lost, unpublished Nesbits is enough to make the reader weep. “Bitter unavailing tears ” indeed! It is true that the books of her later years are not so strong as her first work, but who knows? She might have found a second wind and finished in a burst of triumph, like Verdi. And if not, even second-rate E. Nesbit is better than no E. Nesbit at all. Which is my justification for having dared to write second-rate E. Nesbit myself.

Still, even without these forgotten manuscripts (what one would give to know even the titles!) there remain in print today, on one side or the other of the Atlantic, fifteen books. And fifteen books of such golden quality are a priceless treasure for any child.

First in any listing of E. Nesbit’s works always must come the three books dealing with the Bastable children, delectably titled The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, and The New Treasure Seekers. (There is a fourth book, Oswald Bastable and Others, obtainable in England, which contains four additional Bastable adventures, as well as eleven other short pieces.)

Who could forget the Bastables, particularly the noble Oswald? One sees them as perpetual pilgrims, marching forever down the road with peas in their shoes and a brave plan in mind to save the family fortunes, stopping by the way to dam the stream (and later cause a nearly-disastrous flood) , forgetting in their zeal the cricket ball left lodged in a roof-gutter (which still later is to cause a flood of another kind).

And yet, so short are the memories of critics that one frequently sees the Bastable books listed as fantasies, or among “magic stories.” They are of course nothing of the kind, but belong firmly in the realistic tradition of heroic naughtiness, or naughty heroics. And surely of all the naughty children in literature, none were ever so heroic as they, nor any heroes so (unintentionally, of course) very naughty!

Nevertheless, in spite of all the fun, in spite of the unforgettable, endearing Oswald, I question whether the Bastable stories are the best introduction to E. Nesbit today, at least for American children. Because they are realistic books, the details seem more dated, the “Britishness” more marked, than in the Nesbit magic stories. The things these children do are too different from the things children do today for them to qualify as “easy reading.” Thus the very elements which make these books unique may be the elements which stand in the way of their acceptance.

If there is resistance to E. Nesbit on the part of some American children in these days, I think it may well be because they encounter the Bastable stories first. Certainly every child should know the Bastables, but if on first exposure he doesn’t see their charm, let him meet E. Nesbit instead in the world of fantasy, where background counts for less and once the story gets going, all is gas and gaiters. Then, if he is a right-minded child, he will be won to her forever, and Oswald and his brothers and sisters can follow later.

Before passing on to the Nesbit magic stories, there are two more “realistic ” books, one of which must be ordered from England, to be mentioned briefly. Five of Us and Madeline is a collection of E. Nesbit’s last stories, published after her death and edited by her daughter, Rosamund Sharp. Ten of the stories introduce a new family modeled on Bastable lines, and very nice, too. And “the fell Madeline,” pale and mousy and sniffing and cowardly, yet capable of great moments when hard pressed, is a personage to remember. Interestingly, this is the first book illustrated by Nora S. Unwin. The drawings were done when she was still a girl in her teens and, frankly, their interest is purely historic.

Of The Railway Children it is the accepted thing to say that it is too sentimental, and perhaps it is, though the sentiment is never false and often touching. And if the story is unbelievable, still the things that happen to Roberta and Peter and Phyllis are just the things that any child would know ought to happen to a family that moves to a house near the railway tracks. Yes, The Railway Children deserves wider circulation.

With The Wonderful Garden one comes close to the very best of E. Nesbit, yet it is a book hard to define. Is it “real”? Is it fantasy? It is either or both. Here is a book in which every event could have a prosy, dull, boring, logical explanation. Or there could be magic at work, and of course the children in the book, Caroline and Charlotte and Charles, know that there is. This “magic or not?” formula is one oddly challenging and tempting to the writer, and devilish hard to bring off. I know, because I’ve just finished trying it, myself. E. Nesbit handles it with consummate skill, to make an almost perfect book. The Wonderful Garden, with its incidental and fascinating flower-magic lore, is a book peculiarly attractive to the adult reader, and for this reason I would hesitate before pressing it over-enthusiastically on any non-Nesbit-innoculated child. Again, let him meet her first in the purely “magic” books. Then he will demand all the rest.

Of these magic books there are eight, and of these eight two, The Magic City and Wet Magic, are late works and, authorities agree, inferior to her best writing. Perhaps. But who could forget Philip waking in the night and walking over the bridge and into the city he has built himself, of blocks and books and bric-a-brac? Who could forget those engaging dachshunds, the cowardly Brenda and the heroic Max? Who could forget the languishing mermaid in Wet Magic (“We die in captivity! “) and, later, the battle of the books, with its picture (by H. R. Millar, of course) of Boadicea vanquishing Mrs. Markham and the Queen of the Amazons dealing with Miss Murdstone? (Here again, however, adult appreciation may be different from a child’s.)

We are left with a golden half-dozen. There are the “five children” books (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet). There are the Arden stories (The House of Arden and Harding’s Luck). And, shining proudly by itself, there is The Enchanted Castle.

Who can choose among them? Who can describe perfection? Given only one choice, I would take The Enchanted Castle for my desert island, but Doris Langley Moore would not agree, though Roger Lancelyn Green (in Tellers of Tales, Edmund Ward, England) feels as I do.

But why make comparisons? Read them all. Step up, step up and meet the Psammead and the Mouldiwarp (and the Mouldierwarp and the Mouldiestwarp) . Learn how to make Ugly-Wuglies (and then see what happens)! Find out how it feels to own a magic carpet and a phoenix at the same time. And what takes place when the magic carpet begins to wear out and develops a hole in the middle? Explore the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Go seeking for the real head of the house of Arden and follow the adventures that begin when a crippled boy in a London slum plants strange seeds in his back garden.

And always remember that magic has a mind of its own and will thwart you if it can. So that if you wish, for example, to be invisible and the magic ring you happen to have on you is geared to twenty-four hour cycles (or twenty-one, or fourteen, or seven; you never can tell with magic), invisible you will remain till the time is up. Or four yards high, as was poor Mabel’s fate on one historic occasion. And think of the complications, as you go about your daily round.

For if there is one thing that makes E. Nesbit’s magic books more enchanting than any others, it is not that they are funny, or exciting, or beautifully written, or full of wonderfully alive and endearing children, all of which they are. It is the dailiness of the magic.

Here is no land of dragons and ogres or Mock Turtles and Tin Woodmen. The world of E. Nesbit (except for some elaborate and debatable business with magic clouds toward the end of The House of Arden) is the ordinary or garden world we all know, with just the right pinch of magic added. So that after you finish reading one of her stories you feel it could all happen to you, any day now, round any corner.

The next time you pick up what you think is a nickel in the street, make sure it is a nickel and not a magic talisman. And don’t go scrabbling about in sandpits unless you want your fingers to encounter a furry form and your startled ears to hear the voice of a Psammead begging to be allowed to sleep undisturbed for another thousand years.

But of course you do want your fingers and your ears to encounter just that; all right-minded people do. The next best thing to having it actually happen to you is to read about it in the books of E. Nesbit.

Edith Nesbit (Mrs. Bland)
Found a Psammead in the sand,
Found a Phoenix in the fire,
Found the Flower of Heart’s Desire,
Treasure sought
and found it, too!
Put it into books where you
Still may find a Magic World
(Out of time by magic whirled)
Where Five Children (more or less)
Eton-capped and starched of dress,
Walk through endless summer days
Down enchanted, castled ways,
Magic-picnicking all year
On goosegogs, buns and ginger beer.*

* To down these was for our hero but the work of a moment.

From the October 1958 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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