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Edwardian It Girl

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‘The small material objects that surround one’s daily life have always influenced me deeply,’ wrote E. (Edith) Nesbit in her memoir Long Ago When I Was Young. In my mother’s old nursery were several such objects – a doll’s crib, a triangular book cupboard made by my great grandfather – but the smallest and most influential was a smiling Buddha-shaped figurine: Billikin, God of Things as They Ought to Be.

Every Christmas we went to see Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in London, a faithful restaging of the original Edwardian production, and the second major influence in this fanciful child’s life. For if things really were As They Ought to Be, fairies and adventure would surely follow. It was inevitable, then, that of all the children’s books I loved, E. Nesbit’s magic trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, would take precedence over her more famous The Railway Children or The Story of the Treasure Seekers.

Grown-up, and steeped in nineteenth-century literature as part of a degree course, I was given a collection of E. Nesbit’s ghost stories; in its foreword was the précis of an unconventional life. This, and the dim recollection of a childish enchantment, led in turn to Doris Langley Moore’s biography, and revelation.

Five Children and It, serialized in the Strand magazine in 1901, was published in 1902 and is set in the Kentish countryside E. Nesbit loved. Three of the children are loosely based on her own: Paul, the eldest (Cyril), Iris (Anthea) and Fabian (Robert), who died tragically young after a minor operation. The fourth, Rosamund (Jane), was the daughter of Edith’s husband Hubert Bland and his mistress Alice Hoatson, a sometime journalist who had been employed by the Blands as a companion-help, and who subsequently lived with the family in a ménage à trois for many years

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‘The small material objects that surround one’s daily life have always influenced me deeply,’ wrote E. (Edith) Nesbit in her memoir Long Ago When I Was Young. In my mother’s old nursery were several such objects – a doll’s crib, a triangular book cupboard made by my great grandfather – but the smallest and most influential was a smiling Buddha-shaped figurine: Billikin, God of Things as They Ought to Be.

Every Christmas we went to see Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in London, a faithful restaging of the original Edwardian production, and the second major influence in this fanciful child’s life. For if things really were As They Ought to Be, fairies and adventure would surely follow. It was inevitable, then, that of all the children’s books I loved, E. Nesbit’s magic trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, would take precedence over her more famous The Railway Children or The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Grown-up, and steeped in nineteenth-century literature as part of a degree course, I was given a collection of E. Nesbit’s ghost stories; in its foreword was the précis of an unconventional life. This, and the dim recollection of a childish enchantment, led in turn to Doris Langley Moore’s biography, and revelation. Five Children and It, serialized in the Strand magazine in 1901, was published in 1902 and is set in the Kentish countryside E. Nesbit loved. Three of the children are loosely based on her own: Paul, the eldest (Cyril), Iris (Anthea) and Fabian (Robert), who died tragically young after a minor operation. The fourth, Rosamund (Jane), was the daughter of Edith’s husband Hubert Bland and his mistress Alice Hoatson, a sometime journalist who had been employed by the Blands as a companion-help, and who subsequently lived with the family in a ménage à trois for many years. Poor Rosamund, close in age to Fabian, did not realize until she reached adulthood that the practically invisible, dull ‘Mouse’ was her mother, not the renowned Bohemian author fondly known as ‘The Duchess’. Five Children and It is dedicated to a child nicknamed ‘The Lamb’ – John Bland, the second of Alice and Hubert’s illegitimate offspring, also subsumed into her own family by Edith, whose chaotic home life made it all the more miraculous that she wrote as prolifically as she did. After Hubert died she remarried, and, though extremely happy with her second husband, lived in inexplicable poverty until she herself died in 1924. In the late nineteenth century placing magic within the context of real life was hugely innovative, and it is done with effortless brilliance in the trilogy, though most effectively in the first book. Described by Doris Langley Moore as ‘hearty English children’, Cyril, lofty son and heir, Anthea, engagingly maternal, Robert, all-round good egg, and babyish Jane are solid, ordinary beings to whom extraordinary things happen, and are far removed from the surreal world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and its predecessors. Released from a restrictive existence in London, they arrive in the country, where comparative freedom could have been adventure enough – few rules, absent parents, and servants too busy to supervise. To her juvenile audience, this alone would have been a kind of heaven, but the best is yet to come. The children dig deep into a Kentish gravel pit and unearth a Psammead – the ‘It’ of the title – a strange beast which claims to be a ‘sand fairy’ but is not remotely ethereal. H. R. Millar’s glorious illustrations make it look almost cuddly. Half frightening, with a lozenge-shaped spider’s body, swivelling eyes on stalks resembling a snail’s, and bat-like ears, half reassuringly familiar, with monkey hands and feet and soft brown fur, this is no mythical creature but an enigmatic male animal with extremely human characteristics – the grumpy speech and demeanour of an iconic Aunt, and, as it turns out, the intentional malice of Robin Goodfellow. As capricious as a cat in its pathological fear of getting wet, contempt for humankind (particularly children), tendency to sulk, and to threaten to bite when provoked, the Psammead’s method of granting wishes is as unorthodox as its appearance. No spells are woven nor charms invoked; the creature just breathes in, grotesquely inflates to twice its size, deflates and speedily exits, burrowing mole-like back into the sand and leaving the children to face the consequences. When magic and reality collide, mayhem and misunderstandings follow. Anthea’s hurried first wish, made without consultation with the boys, is to be ‘beautiful as the day’, and the four find themselves unrecognized by the baby, hungry, barred from home and terrified of being turned to stone at sunset – the grisly fate (described with relish by the Psammead) of many previous recipients of wishes. It’s a fate that bypasses these recipients, however, modern wishes being based on constructs, not practicalities, as It eventually explains in high dudgeon. Gold, when asked for, appears in abundance but is not current coin – a version of tainted fairy money, naturally. Only once, when they wish for and are given the most beautiful wings, iridescent and thickly feathered, do the four children seem to have attained their hearts’ desire. Here the world appears for a brief moment more dreamlike, and the magic at its most potent. Predictably things go horribly wrong, and disaster piles upon disaster. Robert, wishing to be ‘bigger than the Baker’s boy’ to teach a bully a lesson, is turned into a giant in an Eton collar. An exasperated wish for irritating baby brother ‘The Lamb’ to grow up causes him to do so suddenly and alarmingly, turning into a louche, insufferable nightmare. In each ghastly scenario the eleaguered children remain unfailingly polite, optimistic and resourceful in adversity. They try to behave honourably and to tell the truth without any hope of being believed, as they encounter adults from every stratum of society – gypsies and tradesmen, a policeman, a vicar and even the aristocracy. By the final chapter, with the return of their beloved mother, each child is longing for a normal, uneventful life. Though they have promised faithfully never to ask for another wish, in the last sentence of the book the narrator promises that their adventures will continue. Five Children and It earned itself a place in the canon thanks mainly to the Psammead, and though her readers clamoured for more, E. Nesbit never invented as memorable a character in subsequent stories. More recently, pale imitations of this wondrous fellow have appeared in film and on television. Ignore them. Should you wish to meet the real thing, open the book and seek him there. A century had passed since Five Children and It first appeared in print, and dear Billikin had been lost and forgotten for more than thirty years when suddenly, ‘I wish there were wolves in Bloomsbury’ announced Harriet, aged 7. It was time to dig out the Psammead again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Sarah Crowden 2005


About the contributor

Sarah Crowden has reviewed books for the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review and others, and is writing a play. She would like to thank her parents for a thoroughly Edwardian upbringing.

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