Longdog Library: 1893 – The Year of The Nesbit

By John Linwood Grant

Today for the Longdog Library we browse some Victorian oddities, and end up going supernatural and historical at the same time. Why? Well, because every fine library should contain a selection of classic books from the year 1893. Trust me. They may not all be brilliant – or, indeed, entirely readable – but many of them are certainly odd.

For example, published that year you have Byron Alden Brooks’s ‘Earth Revisited’, one of those end-of-the-century Utopian novels. Early SF, basically, though with a lot of spiritualism thrown in.  Brooks, incidentally, is credited as inventing the first typewriter where you could shift between upper and lower case. Also in 1893, H Rider Haggard published what he considered to be the last of his decent books, Montezuma’s Daughter, though I’m not sure I’d recommend that one.

Then there’s Hartman the Anarchist, or the Doom of the Great City, by Edward Fawcett, brother of the explorer Percy Fawcett – who disappeared looking for the Lost City of Z (recently filmed). The illustrated 1893 version of this tale of anarchists, socialists, giant airships and the like is often overlooked, but always worth a browse, especially when London is set ablaze from the air.

Or how about Anatole France’s At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, which tells of the struggles of a young meat-turner amongst alchemists and wicked uncles? Part of the novel draws on ‘Comte de Gabalis’, a 17th-century French occult book by the Abbé de Villars, and the main alchemist is on the hunt for salamanders. The magickal kind, not the newt-like fellers.

However, we covered a lot of men in our previous outing, so let’s pick out a female writer who had two collections published in that same year. Do you remember those heady days? We laughed, we shared brandy by the Seine, and you were sick in a gendarme’s hat. We snuggled close and read E Nesbit’s scary tales. Later that year, the First Matabele War started in South Africa, so we went back to knitting socks for the missionaries. The Nesbit carried on, to some acclaim.

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was a typical British housewife of her time. Oh, apart from:

  • Her friendship with Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist dissident
  • The fact that she adopted two children fathered by her first husband, and let the mother live with them as secretary
  • Her Marxist-socialist beliefs and involvement in founding the Fabian Society
  • The seventy or eighty books she wrote or co-wrote
  • Her political lecture tours, which included the London School of Economics

Strange, then, that nowadays she is best known as a children’s author, the woman who wrote the Railway Children, The Five Children and It, the Bastable series and the Enchanted Castle. Not that these have been without influence. Her children’s stories are referenced in C S Lewis’s Narnia series; Noel Coward and J B Priestley both admired her work.

Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, in 1964:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B. Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive, and they prove to be most disagreeable.

(Yalding Towers, incidentally, from the Enchanted Castle, is a setting in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

Her approach to writing children was less sentimental than many, making her legacy more important. Some call her the first of the modern children’s fantasists, escaping the twee or moral tales of earlier Victorian writers. As a result, adaptations and derivations continued long after her death.  The Psammead stories are well known. Jenny Agutter’s career (see also further down) was boosted by her performances in two adaptations of The Railway Children (1968 and 1970), which allowed her to have less clothes on in Walkabout (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976). These latter two films certainly influenced many teenagers. Ahem.

And Michael Moorcock wrote a series of books with an adult Oswald Bastable (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar), drawing partially on Nesbit’s Fabian views of where the British Empire should be going.

But to the point. E Nesbit wrote four collections of ghost or supernatural tales. Something Wrong (1893), Grim Tales (1893), Tales Told in the Twilight (1897) and Fear (1910). Naomi Alderman wrote, of Nesbit’s ghost stories:

“There is darkness in the corners of these stories, like that gathering shadow – ordinary callousness turning into something more disturbing.”  Guardian Arts (2016)

Her ghost stories are variable. Some contain musings which could have been left out, others evoke a worrying mood but don’t exactly scare. However, when she gets it right, she is excellent, with a less “period” style than some of her contemporaries, and she can be truly chilling. She evokes images of the dead who are determined (or cursed) to keep going long after the grave has beckoned. And when I say images, I mean not only intangible revenants but also too, too solid dead flesh. In fact, she has a penchant for corporeal returns, which places her firmly in the horror genre.

As I can’t go into every scary E Nesbit story here, you might start in 1893 with her volume ‘Grim Tales’. This collection includes two of her most anthologised stories, ‘John Charrington’s Wedding’ and ‘Man-Size in Marble’.

  • The Ebony Frame
  • John Charrington’s Wedding
  • Uncle Abraham’s Romance
  • The Mystery Of The Semi-Detached
  • From The Dead
  • Man-Size In Marble
  • The Mass For The Dead

Within ‘Grim Tales’ you will find questions of the nature of love – the selfish and the selfless aspects of love are both explored. There are many unhappy endings, yet also sad visions of what might have been – and what might have been avoided. And as suggested earlier, you will find the determination of the dead to wreak damage. Things walk when they should not…

You could buy the book, but Grim Tales is also available free from Project Gutenberg, as is The Enchanted Castle (for children) mentioned above. Add them to your library one way or another.