Edith Nesbit and the history of modern magic for children

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Edith Nesbit is considered to have “single-handedly invented the story of modern magical adventure for children”, and her literary impact is still felt today.

Dnutria flooded Victorian England. Dragons the size of a fly, dragons the size of a sheep, dragons the size of a pigeon. Some only ate prime ministers when they were there. Others ate only lily of the valley. But it was the dining-sized dragons that you had to watch out for, especially if you were a little boy or girl. Who could save His Majesty’s kingdom from this invasion of green scales? Why, dear Saint George of course! At least that’s what can be explained by Effie and Harry, the young protagonists of Edith Nesbit’s short story “The liberators of their country”. But when Saint George cannot help them, what should the children do?

“The Liberators of Their Country” is just one tale in a collection of Nesbit short stories called “The Book of Dragons”. In the opinion of children’s book connoisseur Peter Glassman, Nesbit “single-handedly invented the story of modern magical children’s adventure,” and her literary impact is still felt today. Like many writers, she was quite eccentric and led an often tumultuous life. Nesbit was born in Surrey in 1858 and her father passed away suddenly when she was almost four years old. Much of her childhood was then spent either in boarding school or traveling to Europe with her family for her sister’s health. Various poems were his first published works, but it was not until 1899, when his first children’s book The story of the treasure hunters was published that she was successful. And what a success it was. His book Children of the railroads has never been out of print since its publication in book form in 1906.

Why have so many generations of children flocked to Nesbit’s tales? Yes, there is humor and adventure, but most important is the fact that, as Nesbit biographer Doris Langley Moore said, his stories “were the product of a mind capable of get rid of all the chains of adulthood in an instant while retaining all the skills of experience. She had an incredible ability to write about kids we can relate to, kids we would like to be friends with, in the most realistic way. In his stories there are arguments and fights, tears and efforts for peace, fear and bravery, all told in a simple and engaging style.

It is this way of writing that really sets Nesbit apart and makes his work immediately recognizable. The most shocking details are told in the most down to earth way, as seen in this paragraph from his short story “Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger,” about a rather peculiar island:

Of course, the consequence of the island turning the wrong way was that when the animals started growing on the island, they all grew the wrong size. The guinea pig, as you know, was as big as our elephants, and the elephant – dear little pet – was the size of the silly little dogs, black and tan, that women sometimes wear in their sleeves. The rabbits were about the size of our rhinos, and all over the wild parts of the island they had dug burrows as large as railway tunnels. The dormouse, of course, was the largest of all creatures. I can’t tell you how tall he was. Even if you think of elephants, it won’t help you at all. Fortunately, there was only one of him, and he was still sleeping. Otherwise, I don’t think the Rotundians could have put up with him. In fact, they made a house for it, and it spared the expense of a marching band, as no marching band could have been heard when the dormouse was talking in his sleep.

Especially in his short stories, Nesbit’s characters perform the most unexpected deeds or are faced with amazing circumstances, but in the British way, they rarely seem to do more than raise an eyebrow. Magic, of which there is a lot, is treated with the utmost respect and presented to the reader in the most logical manner. That’s not to say that the magic is somehow “demystified”, far from it. You see, there are rules to magic and its uses, and the characters in Nesbit find out – often to their dismay. As Naomi Lewis wrote in her 1988 introduction to Nesbit’s illustrated edition Melisande, “She knew that magic has its rules, and most important of all is the question of wish. Be careful, she warns us story after story: your wish may very well come true, but not in a way that you wish or like.

During his professional life, Nesbit has written over 40 books, plays and short stories for children and adults. She has also influenced, directly and indirectly, renowned authors such as JK Rowling, Edward Eager and CS Lewis. The first of Lewis’s Narnia books, The Magician’s Nephew, even refers to the Bastable children, the heroes of Nesbit’s first book. Readers may be more familiar with his three-book series starting with Five children and that, where Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane and the Lamb (the baby) discover a Psammead (Sam-mee-add) who can grant wishes. Adventures and hilarity ensue as children learn the true meaning of “Be Careful What You Wish”. We see these children again in The Phoenix and the Carpet, in which they acquire a magic carpet and hatch a very proud and posh Phoenix in their living room fireplace. The history of the amulet also showcases children and is full of exciting getaways.

Because its styling is so distinct, Nesbit is not suitable for all readers. Even this fan finds some of his works boring, like The enchanted castle, or just too weird, like The history of the amulet. That said, all of her stories that I have had the pleasure of reading provide a charming glimpse into the life of an English child at the turn of the century. Nesbit herself was heavily involved in societal events of the time, as she was an overt socialist and a founding member of the Fabian Society (where the Labor Party has its roots).

Despite my few complaints, I am a strong promoter of many Nesbit tales. The most beautiful, I believe, is this one Melisande. This mathematical and magically correct fairy tale shows Nesbit’s “penchant for number games,” as Naomi Lewis put it, and draws many other themes. In it, poor Princess Melisande is cursed with baldness at her christening, but a reckless wish on her 16th birthday gives her more hair than she can handle. It’s a delightful and cheerful tale, rendered even more in picture book form with illustrations by PJ Lynch.

“But what about Effie and Harry?” You must be wondering. “You never said whether they saved England from the dragons or not.” Well if you have to know they to do get carried away by a dragon, and unfortunately it’s the size of a dining room. But as to whether or not they become the liberators of their country, I’d better not say it. You might like to find out for yourself.

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Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National exam and an associate editor for National exam magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is passionate about children’s literature and passionate about Mendelssohn 4.


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