‘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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