A Woman of Passion: The Life of E Nesbit by Julia Briggs

So before I read this book what did I know about Edith Nesbit? I knew that she wrote a series of popular children’s books, I knew (thanks to my sister who lives near where Nesbit once did) where she was from and where she drew her inspiration. I also knew (thanks to that same sister) that she had a somewhat unconventional marriage. The other thing I knew was that JK Rowling cites her as a major influence, almost deferring to her as one of the greatest authors for children of all time.

But all that I knew about her paled into insignificance as I turned the pages of this biography of her life. Nesbit did not just have an unconventional marriage, but lived with a husband that was, in all but the strictest legal sense, polygamous. Her husband, Hubert Bland, was already in a relationship with another woman when he married Nesbit, and had no intention of giving her up following his marriage. He also began a relationship with a friend of Nesbit’s, moving her into the family home, along with their child. I cannot stop thinking about how much this must have hurt Nesbit, and how she internalised all of that pain and carried on, writing some of the most captivating and magical children’s stories that would ultimately influence the Harry Potter series (the parallels with some of the themes from the Harry Potter series, and the incorporation of mystical beasts, and the believability of the child characters are particularly apparent as a shared authorial mastery).

Leaving aside the fascinating story of Nesbit’s life, as a biography it is worth noting that it relies heavily on the earlier incarnation written by Doris Langley Moore, whose biography of Nesbit, written in 1933, used interviews with surviving family members, letters, newspapers and the other usual stories to write Edith’s story. It also delves a little further. I have Langley Moore’s biography on my TBR list now, as it will be interesting to consider how much more Briggs could say in 1987 about the unusual marital and living arrangements of Hubert Bland, Edith’s first husband.

That said, I think a modern biography of Edith Nesbit would be warranted. As a woman who influenced one of the greatest living female children’s author of our times, her legacy is one that should be celebrated, and a modern treatment of Edith’s family life would be particularly interesting.

Edith’s biography reveals her as a strong, determined, resilient woman, but also a woman that internalised much emotional turmoil and pain, including the death of her beloved son Fabian, having to accept her husband’s sexual incontinence, and having to reduce herself to accommodate his sense of self. There were times when I was angry on her behalf, wishing that she had just upped and walked away from him. But this is her story… and what an incredible story it is.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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