Mother of Five, Fairy Godmother to All
by E. Nesbit
Hutchinson and Co, 1922, Penguin, 2018
reviewed by Seana Graham
Oh, Pallas, take your owl away,
And let us have a lark instead
–Thomas Hood (epigraph)
Although Gore Vidal wrote in a 1964 essay in the New York Review of Books that Edith Nesbit’s children’s books were not easy to find in the America of that era, due to librarians’ practical streak, they were actually rather easy to find in a library in a small portable building in Dublin, California back then, because I found them, and I was no girl sleuth. In fact, her books, along with those of Edward Eager and L.M. Travers were exactly the kind of books I gravitated toward, books where a group of appealing but otherwise rather ordinary children stumble upon something in their everyday world that turns out to be extraordinary, and even magical.
So it was with some surprise and great delight that I found an unassuming single copy of The Lark by E. Nesbit in the regular adult fiction section of a San Rafael bookstore not long ago. I hadn’t known that Nesbit also wrote books for adults (Vidal says in his essay that none of her books were written for children, but I’m not so sure of that—after all, she did have five of them.) In fact, she wrote eleven novels for grownups, which pales only in comparison to the forty books she wrote for (or at least about) children. This one has been republished by the Penguin Women Writers Series, which put out four titles in celebration of the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain in 1918. (In the U.S. it took till 1920.)
As Penelope Lively comments in her brief introduction, fans of Nesbit will recognize her voice and style immediately. In fact, the only differences, really, are that the protagonists of the story are adults—just—and that there are no magical creatures or objects, though the story does open with a kind of summoning that is not exactly unmagical either. In fact, the novel begins with a spell.
I was surprised to learn from Lively that the plot is what she calls a set-piece of the era: “genteel young women deprived of their inheritance and obliged to set up in business.” In Nesbit’s hands, this makes for a remarkably congenial experience, and it is really by dint of their own determination to treat the whole experience as a droll adventure that the two young women Jane and Lucilla manage to take this reversal of fortune and spin it round till it turns up right again.
Even optimists can’t always view everything as a lark, however, and our friends have a few miserable moments. But the spirit of seeing things in this light carries them through a lot. Some of the other characters have not been through larks, though—one is a returning veteran of World War I. It’s because of the knowledge of darker experiences that this book has a certain depth despite its lightheartedness over all. After a more dismal experience, Jane says,
“We lost our heads a little last night and lost sight of our guiding principle. The great fact of life. Life is a lark—all the parts of it, I mean that are generally treated seriously: money, and worries about money, and not being sure what’s going to happen. Looked at rightly, that’s an adventure, a lark. As long as you have enough to eat and to wear and a roof to sleep under, the whole thing’s a lark. Life is a lark for us, and we must treat it as such.”
“It isn’t a lark to the people who haven’t got enough to eat and wear and sleep under,” said Lucilla.
“Isn’t that exactly what I’m saying? We have. And for us it is. As for the other people, all we can do is to help them when we come across them, and to keep going ourselves, or else we shan’t be able to help anyone else.”
Rather famously, Edith Nesbit was forced to write prolifically because she had a philandering husband who couldn’t hold down a job, and five children to feed. Penelope Lively adds the startling information that she also took in her husband’s two illegitimate offspring and their mother as part of the household staff. I’m not sure that her life was exactly a lark. But I suspect that she tried as often as possible to make it so, for herself and those around her.
Happy Mother’s Day, Edith Nesbit.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.