Last week I was talking about Lord Dunsany and his role both as an early 20th-century fantasist and the founder/inventor of the club or bar story. Talking about Dunsany reminded me of another early 20th-century fantasist, E. Nesbit. Edith Nesbit’s work actually pre-dates Dunsany’s, but there are a couple of reasons she’s not as well known, or as well respected outside of our field, as he is.
The first one is fairly obvious: female writers don’t get as much recognition and respect as male writers*, but even more obvious is that she’s considered a children’s writer – not YA – and they get even less respect, regardless of gender. About 40 of Nesbit’s approximately 60 novels were written for children.
Not all of these were gems, of course, but there are several which earn Nesbit a place on anyone’s book shelves. The first notable fantasies are her stories of the Bastable children, The Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), and The New Treasure Seekers (1904). These were widely (and wildly) popular both at the time they were written and subsequently, but I have to say that even as a child myself, I thought Oswald Bastable needed taking down a peg, and my personal favourites were what’s called the Psammead Series, featuring the siblings Robert, Anthea, Jane, and Cyril, along with their baby brother known as the Lamb.
The children first encounter the Psammead, or sand fairy, in Five Children and It (1902). This is a beast that hates to get wet, and must grant one wish a day. We’ve all been children ourselves, and we can imagine the type of trouble their wishes can get them into. One of the interesting things from the sociological and psychological perspectives is just how similar the wishes of turn-of-the-20th-century children are to those of the present day. Or for that matter, to those of adults.
The Phoenix of The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) can’t grant wishes, but it can recognize a flying carpet when it sees one, and children who can wish themselves anywhere can get into just as many adventures as those with a Psammead. In fact, the Phoenix has to recourse to the sand fairy at one point to get the kids out of trouble.
The Story of the Amulet (1906), though it reunites the children with the Psammead, isn’t quite as strong, but is still a very enjoyable story, especially as it reflects the extreme contemporary interest in Egyptology. In fact, if the terms had existed back then, all of the books I’ve mentioned so far would be considered contemporary fantasies. They’re all firmly set in the real world of their time, and the children are living the real lives – sometimes not so happily – of Edwardian children.
Nowhere is this last more obvious than in another of my favourites, the stand-alone, The Enchanted Castle (1907). Here the three protagonists, Gerald, Cathy, and Jimmy, meet a princess who accidentally makes herself invisible. The princess is really Mabel, the castle housekeeper’s niece, play-acting that she has a better life – until the invisible part, which isn’t play-acting at all.
It’s when the children discover the real magic of the castle that the modern reader is most reminded of Dunsany. In the moonlight, the statues in the castle’s garden come alive and the children experience the true mysteries of magic in a way that can’t be done with real things, like sand fairies and phoenixes.
There’s no fantasy in it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what’s probably the most popular and well-known Nesbit novel, The Railway Children (1906). Or perhaps I’m wrong in saying there’s no fantasy. The make-believe and play-acting of children may very well be the fundamental fantasy that drives all of us as adults. Maybe there really is a dragon in the train tunnel. Maybe it only turns into a train as it comes out.
*not arguing the point today, just making an observation.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.