I'd like to end the week with one more passage from Alison Lurie's writings on children's books, this time from her essay on E. Nesbit (1858-1924), published in Don't Tell the Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature:
"Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. In the most widely read British authors of the period -- Frances Browne, Mrs. Craik, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and even the greatest of them all, George MacDonald -- the usual manner is that of a kind lady or gentleman delivering a delightfully disguised sermon. Only Lewis Carroll's Alice books completely avoid this didactic tone....
In the final years of Victoria's reign, however, an author appeared who was to challenge this pattern so energetically and with such success that it is possible now to speak of juvenile literature as before and after E. Nesbit. Although there are foreshadowings of her characteristic manner in Charles Dicken's "Holiday Romance" and Kenneth Grahaeme's The Golden Age, Nesbit was the first to write at length for children as intellectual equals and in their own language. Her books were startlingly innovative in other ways: they took place in contemporary England and recommended socialist solutions to its problems; they presented a modern view of childhood; and they used magic both as a comic device and as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination. Every writer of children's fantasy of since Nesbit's time in indebted to her -- and so are some authors of adult fiction."
A little later in the text, Lurie returns to the subject of magic in Nesbit's work:
"Though we tend to take it for granted, the importance of magic in juvenile literature needs some explanation. Why, in a world that is so wonderful and various and new to them, should children want to read about additional, unreal wonders? The usual explanation is a psychological one: magic provides an escape from reality or expresses fears and wishes. In the classic folktale, according to this theory, fear of starvation becomes a witch or wolf, cannibalism an ogre. Desire shapes itself as a pot that is always full of porridge, a stick that will beat one's enemies on command, a mother who comes back to life as a benevolent animal or bird. Magic in children's literature, too, can make psychological needs and fears concrete; children confront and defeat threatening adults in the shape of giants, or they become supernaturally large and strong; and though they cannot yet drive a car, they travel to other planets.
"Magic can do all this, but it can do more. In the literary folktale, it becomes a metaphor for the imagination. This is particularly true of Nesbit's stories. The Book of Beasts, for instance, can be read as a fable about the power of imaginative art. The magic volume of its title contains colored pictures of exotic creatures, which become real when the book is left open. The little boy who finds it releases first a butterfly, then a bird of paradise, and finally a dragon that threatens to destroy the country. If any book is vivid enough, this story says, what is in it will become real to us and invade our world for good or evil.
"It is imagination, disguised as magic, that gives Nesbit's characters (and by extension her readers) the power to journey through space and time: to see India or the South Seas, to visit Shakespeare's London, ancient Egypt, or a future Utopia. It will even take them to Atlantis or to a mermaid's castle under the sea. All these places, of course, are the traditional destinations of fantasy voyages, even today. But an imagination that can operate only in conventional fantasy scenery is in constant danger of becoming sentimental and escapist. At worst, it produces the sort of mental condition that manifests itself in plastic unicorns and a Disney World version of foreign countries. True imaginative power like Nesbit's, on the other hand, is strong enough to transform the most prosaic contemporary scene, and comedy is its best ally. Nesbit's magic is as much at home in a basement in Camden Town as on a South Sea island, and it is never merely romantic. Though it grants the desires of her characters, it may also expose those desires as comically misconceived. Five Children and It, for instance, is not only an amusing adventure story but also a tale of the vanity of human -- or at least juvenile -- wishes. The children first want to be 'as beautiful as the day'; later they ask for a sand pit full of gold sovereigns, giant size and strength, and instant adulthood. Each wish leads them into an appropriate comic disaster....
"It is also possible to see the magic in Nesbit's tales as the metaphor for her own art. In many of her fantasies the children begin by using supernatural power in a casual, materialistic way: to get money and to play tricks on people. Gradually they find better uses for magic: in The Story of the Amulet, to unite the souls of an ancient and modern scholar, and at the end of The Enchanted Castle, to reveal the unity of all created things. Nesbit, similarly, first used her talents to produce hack work and pay the bills; only much later did she come to respect her gift and write the books for which she is still remembered.
"Nesbit's magic can also be read as a metaphor for imaginative literature in general. Those who possess supernatural abilities or literary gifts, like the Psammead of Five Children and It, are not necessarily attractive or good-tempered; they may be ugly, cross, or ridiculous. We do not know who will be moved by even the greatest works of art, nor how long their power will last; and the duration and effect of magic in Nesbit's stories in unpredictable in the same way. Certain sorts of people remain untouched by it, and it is often suspected of being a dream, a delusion, or a lie. The episode of the Ugly-Wuglies also suggests that things carelessly given life by the imagination may become frightening and dangerous; the writer may be destroyed by his or her second-rate creations -- by the inferior work that survives to debase reputation, or by some casual production that catches the popular imagination and types its creator forever.
"Also, though they were written [over a century ago], Nesbit's books express a common anxiety of writers today: that the contemporary world, with its speed of travel and new methods of communication, will soon have no use for literature. As practical Jimmy puts it in The Enchanted Castle: 'I think magic went out when people began having steam engines...and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing.
"New as Nesbit's stories are in comparison with most children's books of her period, in some ways they also look back to the oldest sort of juvenile literature, the traditional folktale. They recall the simplicity and directness of diction, and the physical humor, of the folktale rather than the poetic language, intellectual wit, and didactic intention of the typical Victorian fairy tale. Socially, too, Nesbit's stories have affinities with folklore. Her adventurous little girls and athletic princesses recall the many traditional tales in which the heroines have wit, courage, and strength....There is no way of knowing whether E. Nesbit went back to these traditional modes consciously, or whether it was her own attitude toward the world that made her break so conclusively with the past. Whatever the explanation, she managed not only to create some of the best children's books ever written, but to quietly popularize ideas about childhood that were, in her time, extremely subversive. Today, when the words of writers like Mrs. Ewing and Mrs. Molesworth and Mrs. Craik are gathering dust on the shelves of second hand bookshops, her stories are still being read and loved by children, and imitated by adults."
For more about Edith Nesbit herself, who lived a radical and fascinating life, I recommend The Lives and Loves of E. Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimons. It is, hands down, the best of the Nesbit biographies. Also, A.S. Byatt's splendid novel The Children's Book owes more than a little to Nesbit, her complicated marriage, and her social circle.
The art today: color illustrations for Nesbit's The Book of Beasts and The Railway Children by Inga Moore; and pen-and-ink drawings by H.R. Millar (1869-1942) from the first edition of Five Children and It (1902).
The passage about is quoted from "Modern Magic" by Alison Lurie, published in Don't Tell the Grown-ups (Little, Brown & Co., 1990). All rights reserved by the Alison Lurie estate. All rights to the color art above reserved by Inga Moore. The H.R. Millar drawings are in Public Domain.