The first stories I can remember reading in my early childhood were, it seems, mainly about rabbits. But it was the illustrations rather than the words in Beatrix Potter’s and Alison Uttley’s books that I remember most vividly. After this there is a gap in my memory, though I suspect that Enid Blyton’s prolific volumes filled much of that period. It was not until my mid-teens that I entered the exciting and adventurous worlds of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle (not Sherlock Holmes but Brigadier Gerard was my comic hero).
Much later, after I began writing biographies, I came across several children’s writers I now admire. While working on a life of the artist Augustus John, I discovered that Kathleen Hale, the creator of Orlando the Marmalade Cat, had worked as his secretary in the early 1920s. ‘I felt a frisson whenever he came into the building,’ she wrote. The work of dealing with unpaid bills and unanswered letters was enlivened at times by what she called ‘lots of silly fun’. Out of curiosity, ‘I allowed him to seduce me,’ she added. ‘The sex barrier down, this aberration only added a certain warmth to our friendship.’ I felt something of this warmth and humour when I eventually came to read about her cat with the gooseberry eyes.
One of the significant characters in my biography of Bernard Shaw was Mrs Edith Bland. She appears on my pages as an advanced woman who abstained from corsets, rolled her own cigarettes and called spectacularly for glasses of water at moments of drama at the Fabian Society. This ‘most attractive and vivacious member of the Fabians’ fell in love with Shaw and would accompany him on marathon walks across London which she hoped would end up in his lodgings and which he was determined would lead them to the British Museum. I found myself liking her so much that I began reading her books – the books for children written under her maiden name, Edith Nesbit. According to Julia Briggs’s biography, her
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