Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Nesbit, E

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(1858-1924) UK writer of Children's Fantasy, considered by many the first truly modern writer for children, and certainly very influential on the development of children's literature. She thought of herself first as a poet, but her husband's illness and the failure of his business soon after the birth of their first child in 1880 forced her to write whatever she could sell. Most of her earliest fiction (pre-1890) was written in collaboration with her husband, Hubert Bland (?1855-1914), under the joint pseudonym Fabian Bland. It was not until the publication of a series of stories about the Bastable children, based in part on her own childhood experiences, that EN found her niche. Collected in volume form as The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune (coll 1899), these established her as a major writer for children. But, although two more Bastable serial novels followed, she now turned to fantasy, writing a series of witty Fairytales for The Strand and other papers, collected as The Book of Dragons (coll 1899) and Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (coll 1901). Her first fantasy novel, Five Children and It (1902 The Strand as "The Psammead or The Gifts"; 1902), combined her two main strengths: the depiction of believable children and an inventive, humorous flair for fantasy. The children of the title discover "It" – a Psammead, or sand-fairy – in a sandpit during their summer holidays, and are delighted to learn it will grant them one Wish a day. Few of their wishes work out as they hope, although they do get their hearts' desire in the end. The formula EN established in this first book has been a fruitful tradition in fantasy ever since.

EN was self-admittedly influenced by the work of her contemporary F Anstey, while others before her – including William Makepeace Thackeray and Andrew Lang – had made humorous use of fairytale materials, but EN was the first to write fantasy in such a knowing, modern, non-pious way for children.

Two more books about the "five children" followed: in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1903-1904 The Strand; 1904) they have further adventures after discovering that their new carpet is a magic one, and in The Story of the Amulet (1905 The Strand; 1906) they encounter the Psammead again: it becomes their guide on journeys through Time in search of the missing half of a powerful Egyptian Amulet. These three novels have always been her most popular, and had the greatest influence on later generations of children's writers (of whom Edward Eager acknowledged the debt most explicitly). C S Lewis, Charles Williams and others have cited the lasting imaginative impact made on them by The Story of the Amulet.

EN's richest and most complex work, drawing again upon her own childhood, is The Enchanted Castle (1906-1907 The Strand; 1907), while her personal favourites were the two interlinked time fantasies (complete with Fabian socialist lessons) The House of Arden (1908) and Harding's Luck (1909). The Magic City (1910) developed out of EN's hobby of constructing miniature cities from household objects.

Despite her success with children's books, EN continued to churn out a varied body of work, including a number of romantic novels for adults. Only one, Dormant (1911; vt Rose Royal US), is fantasy, concerning a woman kept immune from ageing in suspended animation for over 50 years. EN also wrote Horror stories, most of which are collected in Grim Tales (coll 1893), Something Wrong (coll 1893) and Fear (coll 1910), the last comprising 5 stories from Grim Tales plus 6 newer stories. In the Dark (coll 1988) ed Hugh Lamb (1946-2019) contains most of EN's horror stories. [LT]

other works: The Prophet's Mantle (1888) as Fabian Bland; The Secret of Kyriels (1899); The Wouldbegoods, Being the Further Adventures of the Treasure Seekers (1901); Thirteen Ways Home (coll 1901); The Literary Sense (coll 1903); The New Treasure Seekers (1904); The Railway Children (1906); The Incomplete Amorist (1906); Daphne in Fitzroy Street (1909); Salome and the Head (1909; vt The House with No Address); The Wonderful Garden (1911); The Magic World (coll 1912); Wings and the Child, or The Building of Magic Cities (1913), with photographs and diagrams for model-building; Wet Magic (1912-1913 The Strand; 1913); The Lark (1922); To the Adventurous (coll 1923); Five of Us, and Madeleine (coll 1925) with linking material by EN's daughter, Rosamund Sharp.

further reading: E. Nesbit: A Biography (1933; rev 1966) by Doris Langley Moore; A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924 (1987) by Julia Briggs.

Edith Nesbit


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.