Edith Bland

28, Elswick Road, Lewisham, Kent

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Edith Bland

Head

M

22

Authoress

Lambeth, Surrey

Paul Cyril Bland

Son

U

10m

 

Brockley. Kent

Sarah Nesbit

Mother

W

63

 

Battle, Sussex

Elizabeth Rule

Servt

U

14

Domestic Servant

Royston, Cambridge

Elizabeth Knight

Servt

U

34

Domestic Servant

Lymington, Hampshire

 

Edith Bland still has her long, brown, curly hair; her strong arms are lightly freckled; she still wears her irritating whalebone corsets. Her baby son is a howling success. Tall, with a sharp eye and a sharp tongue, her new home delights her, but it does not fool her. It is full of disguises. The ugly mantlepiece has been decked with chintz; the shabby sofa has been disguised by rugs; flowers and ferns distract the eye from the scuffed wall-paper. The gaslight in the hall is turned down low, to save some precious pennies. This house is like a bandbox, she has told her husband Hubert. But she is determined to make ends meet, to find somewhere breezier and bigger. There is a guitar in the corner of the room; there is a piano. The bad dreams which have bedevilled her since childhood are beginning to recede - the influence of the child, she thinks. Speaking of which, she knows already that there is a second child on the way. And thank goodness, therefore, for her mother, who has come to stay with her servant. Sighing, she tries out one of her recitations on the air. It will earn her some money, as will her poems, and her carefully painted cards. There is a letter for her husband on the table. Impulsively, she opens it, and reads it through. Opening other people's letters is her vice.

Edith Bland, born on August 15th, 1858, is more familiar to us once we reduce her forename to an initial, and exchange her married name for her mother's. She is E. Nesbit, known best for her children's novel The Railway Children , although many of her other novels were considered more accomplished. She had been married at this time for just over eleven months. The age of her son Paul explains why her mother had declined to attend the (civil) wedding - Edith was heavily pregnant at the time. Edith herself had been Sarah Nesbit's sixth and final child, and was known as 'Daisy' in her youth. Her father, John Collis Nesbit, had been a noted proponent of the teaching of science in schools, and was himself an expert on soil fertilisers. He had run a small "chemical and agricultural college" before dying when Edith was not quite four years old, in 1862. Her mother managed to keep the school going for a number of years.

At the time of the census, however, Edith Bland was facing one crisis, and about to be faced with another. Her new husband, Hubert, had contracted smallpox, and was seriously ill at his mother's house in Woolwich, where he described himself on the census as "unmarried". This was no enumerator's blunder. Hubert had not told his mother he had married Edith, not least because, as far as she knew, he was still engaged to his mother's companion, Maggie Doran, by whom he had already had a child (swiftly adopted). Edith did not know this; Maggie did not know about Edith. It would not emerge until after late 1881, when Edith's second child, Iris, was born. It should also be said that Hubert lived at his mother's house during the week for many years, not merely to convalesce. When he recovered, he found that the business into which he had sunk his capital - it made brushes - had gone bust, allegedly because of the fraud of his partner. If the lease on 28, Elswick Road was to be paid for regularly, it would be Edith who would have to do it. And, although she gives her occupation as "authoress", it was to be nearly twenty more years before Edith became famous as a children's novelist. In any case, she always thought of herself as a poet, although her poetic talent was comparatively limited. At this stage, her stock-in-trade was short and quickly-turned tales.

She was talented enough to make a living through writing and through painting (her husband Hubert also became a successful journalist, at her instigation). She made a successful approach to Sylvia's Home Journal in 1882, where she also made friends with the manuscript reader, Alice Hoatson. Alice was a Halifax girl who had, within a few years, joined the Bland family household as a sort of housekeeper-cum-secretary. Edith meanwhile gained further work with the Weekly Despatch , and with the designs of Christmas cards. At this stage of her career, her writing was vital hack-work, quick and intelligent, intelligible writing which kept the bills at bay. With the assistance of her mother (who relented a little; she had disliked Hubert), and of Alice, Edith Nesbit began to carve out a career for herself. She and Hubert moved in intellectually active circles, and were founder-members of the socialist Fabian Society in 1884, where they mixed with the Webbs, with Annie Besant, with Eleanor Marx, with George Bernard Shaw (Edith had a brief, unconsummated love affair with Shaw). They even called their third child, born in 1885, Fabian.

Edith's family grew to five. This was because - shortly after Edith had suffered a stillbirth - Alice Hoatson revealed she was pregnant. Between them, Edith and Alice practised a simple deception. Alice's child would be passed off as Edith's. It was 1886. It was not until some six months later that Edith realised the nature of the deception: the father of the child, Rosamund, was her husband Hubert. Hubert was to father another child by Alice thirteen years later; Edith once again adopted the child, who was called John. Her only revenge was to omit John and Rosamund from her will. Indeed, she resolved her relationships with her rivals by making friends with them; Maggie Doran was introduced to the Fabian Society. When Maggie was seriously ill in 1903, she moved in briefly with Edith, Alice and Hubert. In a rather similar way, Edith accepted Hubert himself, in encouraging him to write, even if, unsurprisingly, they argued. Her readiness to accept and help those in crisis was in any case well-known amongst her friends and acquaintances. Her generosity was emotional.

 


Edith Bland in 1889

Rosamund only began to realise that her mother was Alice when Fabian, aged 15, died of the effect of anaesthetic after an operation, at home, for tonsilitis. "Why couldn't it have been Rosamund?" wailed Edith. Five years later, Rosamund found out officially. Yet no-one told Alice, who lived to old age, always assuming that her children saw her as an unofficial aunt. Edith blew hot and cold with her children, ironically enough, given her fame as a children's writer. Some of the mothering was left to Alice. The children themselves were free spirits who scandalised the neighbourhood by bicycling in bloomers, or begging money outside the local station. It was a consequence of Edith's status as the bread-winner. Late in life, she was reminded by a friend of a remark of hers, which the friend expected her to repudiate, but which Edith pronounced witty and true:

The affection you get back from children is sixpence given as change for a sovereign.

The Bland homes were known for their entertainments. Guests were made welcome; Edith was an exuberant hostess, who enjoyed games - particularly charades, or devil-in-the-dark. She would knock out popular tunes for her guests to dance. She also enjoyed badminton, and was an essentially athletic woman. By the turn of the century, she was even staging amateur plays, in which established actors were expected to perform. She and Hubert always lived just beyond their means, and, despite the tensions over Hubert's philandering and her own extra-marital flings - usually with younger men - the marriage persisted. By the mid-eighties, Edith had taken on the persona by which she was to be best remembered by her friends - the forty-a-day chain-smoker, the corset-less, short-haired bohemian with her arms looped in bangles. By the time the Blands moved to her favourite home, a dilapidatedly splendid thirty-room house called Well Hall, in Eltham, where she lived for 20 years, she was an established giver of parties. The wife of Noel Griffith (in his younger days one of Edith's lovers) described the scene:

When we had made our entrance, the prospect of dinner seemed to be remote,and we wandered about feeling forlorn and neglected.... Then Mrs. Bland would appear, radiant - in riotous spirits, perhaps, because she had just escaped death by not falling over a dustpan left on the stairs... She always wore the same kind of dress, a flowery silk one, probably with Turkish slippers, and certainly with many silver bangles. These reached nearly to her elbow and were never removed.... The dinners themselves were quite chancy. If poems, articles and books were going well, they were quite grand.

In 1898, she knocked out a series of reminiscences about her schooldays - she and her brothers were kept constantly on the move, because of her sister Minnie's illnesses, and her mother's quest for the right environment for Minnie. If her accounts of her childhood days are to be believed, they were surprisingly unhappy, were times when she was bullied and frightened. It may be that this made better copy for her readers; that her tomboyish nature threw her too frequently against authority; that it is all too easy to identify her with Bobby, the heroine of The Railway Children , and with the optimistic spirit Jenny Agutter brings to the first film version. Yet she and her two brothers certainly did run happily wild as children, did indeed trace the railway track, and she borrowed heavily from her experiences in her sequence of stories about the irrepressible Bastables. In the series, written for the Girls' Own Paper , she also recalls nightmares about her long-dead father. It is hard not to believe that the return of the missing father at the end of The Railway Children - and Harding's Luck - indicates a life-long sense of loss.

Her success came when she was forty, and was considerable. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, she was a best-seller. The success of The Wouldbegoods brought her £1100 in 1902 alone. The direct, realistic approach to the lives of children, however fantastical the plots may sometimes be, sets the standard for English children's writers on the twentieth century. She rooted the imagination of her readers in real, recognisable lives. Many of her readers presumed (and presume) that she was a man - indeed, H.G. Wells, for a while her friend until a falling-out, made this mistake, and called her "Ernest" as a private joke. The falling-out was no minor matter. He was attempting to elope with her adopted daughter, Rosamund. (Curiously enough, Edith herself suggested to at least three men that they run away together - during her marriage). Her later novels are notable for the quiet way in which she invests them with socialist sympathies, for instance in her presentation of refugees, or slum children. However, she was not quite as radical as many of her Fabian contemporaries, regarding women's suffrage, for instance, as unimportant. In this, she was in step with the well-dressed and monocled Hubert, who had inherently conservative views of society.

Hubert himself lost his sight, and died of a heart attack in 1914. Edith now turned to an unlikely figure - the Woolwich ferry's captain, Thomas Tucker, whom she called "The Skipper". They married in 1917. By this time her spending out-stripped her earnings to the extent that she left her idyllic Well Hall, and moved into a two-room, brick building near Dymchurch. It had been hastily erected for the RAF during the war, had been a storehouse and photographic laboratory. It was 1922, the year of her last novel, The Lark .

Edith Bland lived very much for the present, and when her output became less prolific, she accepted the financial consequences. One of her more expensive and obsessive interests, acquired in 1908, was attempting to prove that Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays and the Authorised Version (and that Bacon was descended from Elizabeth I) - the "proofs" were said to lie in cyphers which could be cracked using logarithmic tables. But her pleasures were principally in her music, her poetry, her garden, her flowers, the Kent seaside. The novels for which she is remembered were primarily nice little earners. She died on May 4th, 1924. The Skipper carved a wooden memorial, although she had requested that her grave be unmarked. Her son Paul committed suicide at the age of 60; her only grandchild, Iris's daughter Pandora, was killed in a car crash. Apart from Pandora's adopted children, no direct descendants of Edith Bland survive.

Notes:

Sarah Nesbit, Edith's mother, was widowed twice; her eldest child, Saretta, fifteen years older than Edith, was by Sarah Nesbit's previous marriage. She had already lost her first child by John Collis Nesbit, another John, before Edith was born. Minnie (Mary) died when Edith was thirteen; her elder brother Alfred died in 1894, and Saretta died in 1899. Saretta, although much older, was the closest sister. Her brother Harry survived her by four years: he, like Alfred's children, had emigrated to Australia. Sarah Nesbit died in 1902, out-living all but two of her children.

Sources:

E. Nesbit: A Biography, by Doris Langley Moore, Ernest Benn Ltd, 1933 (revised 1967)

A Woman Of Passion: The Life Of E. Nesbit 1858-1924, by Julia Briggs, Hutchinson 1987

My School-Days by E.Nesbit, serialised in Girl's Own Paper October 1896 - September 1897 (re-published posthumously as When I Was Very Young in 1966)

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