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Nesbit, E

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1858-1924) UK playwright, poet and author, who also wrote as Fabian Bland and E Bland (the latter being her husband's name, an unknown proportion of whose signed work was by her); she was a founder of the Fabian Society in 1884. Most of her oeuvre, over a wide-ranging career that extended from the 1880s until after World War One, can be considered under three headings: the nonfantastic adult fiction (not discussed or listed here); the supernatural and weird fiction, some of which contains elements of Horror in SF; and the children's fiction which, always in a fantasy frame, clearly incorporates some sf topoi. Her current reputation rests almost exclusively on her work for children, in particular the children's adventure story.

Most of Nesbit's supernatural fiction was written early, most of it in short story form, and most of it assembled in four collections, Grim Tales (coll 1899), Something Wrong (coll 1899), Man and Maid (coll 1906) and Fear (coll 1910). There are several posthumous re-sorts and assemblies, the most useful of these being E Nesbit's Tales of Terror (coll 1983; vt In the Dark: Tales of Terror 1988; exp vt In the Dark 2000) edited by Hugh Lamb. Two stories – "The Three Drugs" (1908 Strand) as by E Bland, and "The Five Senses" from Fear (coll 1910) – involve mysterious Drugs which transform their victims; in the former, a Mad Scientist tries to infect his involuntary subject with an agent that will transform him into a Superman. Salome and the Head: A Modern Melodrama (1909; vt The House With No Address 1909) is a tale of the theatre involving Hypnosis and a performance in which an actress dances Salome not with a prop "head" of John the Baptist but the severed head of her husband. Dormant (1911; vt Rose Royal 1912) is a fantasy-tinged sf novel involving Suspended Animation; the form of Immortality bestowed by the protagonist, who has been awakened after half a century, proves a mixed blessing.

Nesbit's first novel of ambition for older children, after a number of smaller books for younger audiences, was The Story of the Treasure Seekers: Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune (coll of linked stories; 1899), which begins the Bastable sequence of essentially nonfantastic tales. Later authors, like C S Lewis in his Narnia sequence, were clearly influenced by its narrative tone and voice. Oswald Bastable, a child, is the narrator; Michael Moorcock imported a version of Oswald as a grown man into his Oswald Bastable sequence, beginning with The Warlord of the Air (1971) (see Multiverse). The Five Children sequence beginning with Five Children and It (1902 Strand as "The Psammead or the Gifts"; 1902) follows the adventures of five children who discover a psammead, a sand-fairy able to grant wishes, with predictable results [for Answered Prayers and Three Wishes see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; the series as a whole reflects the influence of F Anstey, whose use of fairytale topoi turned topsy-turvy in humorous contemporary fantasy venues – especially the granted-wish tale – had become widely popular. The Fabian Time Fantasies sequence – so named because Nesbit's consistent Fabian socialism is central to the version of British history presented here, and comprising The House of Arden: A Story for Children (1908 Strand; 1908) and Harding's Luck (1909) – carries its cast by Timeslip into various eras, where treasures are found and (wholesomely) unfound, and the Arden family, which turns out to be numerous, is saved. The child protagonists, seeming orphaned by the kidnapping of their parents by pirates, clearly prefigure Joan Aiken's similar orphans in her Wolves Chronicles sequence and elsewhere.

At least two singletons are of interest. The Enchanted Castle (1907) admixes fantasies and genuine fantasy, as the young cast become embroiled in the effects of an Ansteyan Magic ring; the bringing to life of the Ugli-Wuglies, a scrum of ragamuffin scarecrow-like humanlike figures, conveys a sense of unfantasticated reality. The young protagonist of The Magic City (1910) creates an ideal City (see Utopia) on his table top and then enters it (see Great and Small), becoming its saviour. Nesbit's adult fiction sometimes judders from the grim to the farcical, without safe guidelines; her fiction for older children has seemed tonally secure for over a century, and its constant emphasis on a world whose arbitrariness seems keyed to the absence or bankruptcy or loss of parents prickles the attention. She continues to attract new readers. [JC]

Edith Nesbit

born Kennington, London: 15 August 1858

died Jesson St Mary's, near Dymchurch, Kent: 4 May 1924




Five Children

Fabian Time Fantasies

individual titles (selected)

collections (selected)

  • Grim Tales (London: A D Innes, 1893) [coll: hb/]
  • Something Wrong (London: A D Innes, 1893) [coll: hb/]
  • The Book of Dragons (London: Harper and Brothers, 1901) [coll: illus/hb/]
  • Man and Maid (London: T Fisher Unwin, 1906) [coll: hb/]
  • Fear (London: Stanley Paul and Company, 1910) [coll: hb/]
  • The Magic World (London: Macmillan and Company, 1912) [coll: illus/H R Millar and Spenser Pryse: hb/]
  • E Nesbit's Tales of Terror (London: Methuen, 1983) [coll: edited by Hugh Lamb: pb/Richard Sparks]
    • In the Dark: Tales of Terror (London: Equation, 1988) [coll: exp vt of the above: edited by Hugh Lamb: pb/]
      • In the Dark (Ashcroft, British Columbia: Ash-Tree Press, 1999) [coll: exp vt of the above: edited by Hugh Lamb: hb/Richard Lamb]
  • Horror Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2016) [coll: edited with introduction by Naomi Alderman: pb/La Boca]

about the author


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