Her books were the epitome of childhood innocence, but E Nesbit’s own life was anything but. She spent most of her adult years embroiled in a ménage à trois, married to a man who had 15 other affairs, and had her own lovers from the bohemian literary set. Annabel Venning reports.
She was the author of such timeless books as The Railway Children, Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet – wholesome childhood adventures often set in the English countryside in a time of steam trains and straw boaters, complete with buns for tea, saintly mothers and devoted fathers. Edith Nesbit – who wrote as E Nesbit – remains one of the most popular children’s authors of all time, with millions passing on their love of her magical, wonderfully innocent stories to their own children.
Yet Edith’s domestic setup was wilder and more extraordinary than any of her tales, as a new biography by Elisabeth Galvin reveals. Her life began conventionally enough in 1858, the youngest of six children brought up in middle-class comfort in a large house in a pocket of countryside in South London. But when Edith was four, her adored father died suddenly. She never got over this loss: the theme of absent parents recurs in her books. In The Railway Children the siblings are eventually reunited with their father, with Roberta shouting ‘Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!’ as she clings to him tightly, but for Edith, there would be no joyous reunion. A dislocated, unsettled childhood ensued, as her mother went abroad searching for a tuberculosis cure for Edith’s elder sister Mary, leaving a lonely Edith farmed out to a series of boarding schools in England and Europe.
A timid but talented child, she began writing poetry for magazines as a teenager to help the family’s precarious finances. Her career had begun to take off when, aged 19, she became engaged to a young bank clerk. He made the mistake of introducing her to his charismatic colleague, Hubert Bland. Tall and handsome, Hubert oozed confidence and hid his cockney roots behind a sophisticated façade. He was both a social climber and a socialist, fiercely ambitious and utterly selfish.
Edith fell madly in love with Hubert, broke off her engagement and, disregarding her mother’s warnings that Hubert was untrustworthy, let him seduce her. They married when Edith was seven months pregnant – a scandalous situation for a Victorian bride, so she had to hide away during her pregnancy. Even after the wedding they mainly lived apart, with Edith renting lodgings in Blackheath and Hubert remaining in Woolwich with his mother and her live-in companion, a young woman named Maggie Doran. Edith had no idea that during their courtship, Hubert had also been sleeping with Maggie, and proposed to her too. The two women gave birth to Hubert’s children within months of each other, but Edith had no idea of Maggie’s existence.
When she eventually discovered the truth, rather than raging at Maggie, Edith became friends with her. She did not blame Hubert either – at least not then – instead putting a brave face on the betrayal by adopting a bohemian attitude to life. She and Hubert declared that marriage was a bourgeois convention: they loved each other more deeply than anyone else, so it was inconsequential how many other people entered into the equation – although Hubert’s prodigious sexual appetite would put this to the test. His affair with Maggie continued for ten years.
Hubert had become an entrepreneur, but his business failed, leaving him penniless. Edith became the breadwinner, staying up late at night while her baby, Paul, slept to write love stories that she sold to magazines – just like Mother in The Railway Children – and paint handmade greetings cards. One day, pregnant again, cold, hungry and exhausted, she knocked on the office door of a Fleet Street magazine. The journalist who opened it was a Yorkshire woman named Alice Hoatson, who promised to look at her story.
This meeting changed both their lives. Alice not only accepted the story, she soon began staying the night with Edith whenever Hubert was away, helping her with her greetings cards and domestic chores. Edith was beautiful and extrovert, Alice was introverted and mouse-like, but they became best friends. Soon Edith introduced Alice to Hubert, who was now making a name for himself as a political journalist for socialist newspapers – he and Edith were founder members of the socialist Fabian Society. Edith and Hubert collaborated on several short stories, and a novel in which a woman named Alice becomes pregnant by her socialist lover, which turned out to be all too prophetic.
After two more children, Iris and Fabian, Edith became pregnant for a fourth time. When the baby was stillborn, Edith was nearly deranged with grief and, shortly after, Alice moved in with the family to help her heartbroken friend. Edith couldn’t have suspected that Alice was harbouring a terrible secret: she was carrying Hubert’s child, his fifth by three different women.
Alice confessed her pregnancy to Edith but at first did not name the father. A sympathetic Edith promised to help her friend conceal the pregnancy, as she had once done herself. To avoid scandal, she offered to adopt Alice’s baby and pass it off as her own in public. Alice agreed, and after she gave birth, in 1886, putting another man’s name on the birth certificate, she and her daughter Rosamund became part of the Bland household.
According to Rosamund, it was not until six months later that Edith discovered the truth: ‘There was, quite naturally, a hell of a scene.’ Edith threatened to throw out Alice and Rosamund, whereupon Hubert said in that case, he would go too. Edith backed down, and brought up Rosamund as her own.
‘It was my own fault,’ Edith wrote afterwards. ‘I might have prevented the opportunity.’ But even if she had not introduced Hubert to Alice, she would never have had him to herself; he was a compulsive philanderer. In addition to Edith, Alice and Maggie, he had 15 lovers.
Edith and Hubert were generous and gregarious, gathering round them a circle of artists and writers including playwright Oscar Wilde and authors E M Forster and Joseph Conrad. They threw extravagant parties and held racy debates, including one about nudity which caused a scandal as it featured a young woman reclining naked on a tiger skin – probably Hubert’s idea.
So far, Edith had been rather a passive participant in ‘free love’, but she now began to even the score with Hubert, embarking on a series of romantic affairs with young writers whom she mentored. Some of these relationships may have been platonic rather than passionate, such as her fling with George Bernard Shaw, who she met through the Fabian Society. Shaw would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, but in 1886, when he and Edith struck up a relationship, he was a struggling writer, while she was striking, successful and sophisticated. They walked and talked late into the night, and she became entranced by him. But he was involved with several other women and Edith, angry that he would not consummate the affair, told him: ‘You had no right to write the preface if you were not going to write the book.’
It’s likely her other lovers were less reserved. The young poet Richard Le Gallienne was captivated by Edith’s beauty and unconventional style – she refused to wear a corset and cut her hair boyishly short, drifting around in flowing robes, her wrists jangling with bangles – and she contemplated leaving Hubert for him.
A young accountant, Noel Griffith, was the next to be dazzled by her, although he found her ménage à trois with Alice and Hubert bizarre, observing that Alice seemed uncomfortable and that Edith found Alice irritating. The only real beneficiary was Hubert, who was ‘very hot-blooded’ and ‘abnormally sexual’ – which didn’t stop him moralising about the importance of fidelity in his newspaper columns. Meanwhile, Edith let her children run wild, playing on the railway, and turned a blind eye to domestic chaos.
Edith’s book The Story of The Treasure Seekers, published in 1899, was the turning point in her career. Unlike most Victorian children’s books, it wasn’t pious or preachy but brilliantly captured how children thought and spoke. It made her rich and the family moved to a huge house in the country. Edith was thrilled to become pregnant again at 41 and distraught when she miscarried. Adding salt to the wound, Alice gave birth not long afterwards to a healthy son named John – fathered by Hubert, now a dad of six.
Once again, Edith decided that she would rather share Hubert with Alice than not have him, so she adopted John as her own. While she had always treated Rosamund differently from the other children, she adored John.
But the strain of maintaining the happy family façade alongside their extravagant lifestyle
began to take its toll. Edith chain-smoked and sometimes exploded in terrible rages. The only person who could calm her down was Hubert. Not even he, though, could help when the family suffered an unexpected, devastating blow. In 1900, 15-year-old Fabian had to have his tonsils removed under general anaesthetic. In the chaotic household, neither Edith nor Hubert had remembered that Fabian should not eat before the anaesthetic.
Hubert went to his bedroom to check on him and found his body cold and lifeless. He was thought to have choked on his vomit. Alice came running, followed by Edith who tried desperately to revive him, but it was no good. In her anguish, she screamed at Hubert, ‘Why couldn’t it have been Rosamund?’ The poor girl overheard and guessed there was some secret surrounding her birth. When she learned the truth, she never forgave Edith.
Edith descended into near madness in her grief and guilt. Her only remedy was to write at a ferocious rate. Over the next seven years she produced her greatest books, including Five Children and It, which became a trilogy, the characters based on her own children, while in The Railway Children, published in 1906, she depicted an angelic mother and a loyal father.
Overshadowed by his wife’s success and distraught with grief, Hubert sought solace in Catholicism. Rosamund, desperate to escape the fraught domestic atmosphere – and what she termed the ‘unfatherly’ attentions of Hubert – began an affair with the married writer H G Wells, a friend of her parents, and planned to run away with him. Hubert caught up with them at Paddington Station and promptly punched Wells, ending the elopement.
Edith’s career then began to falter, along with her health after years of smoking. Hubert too became frail, going blind and dying aged 59. He managed one last betrayal from beyond the grave, cutting Edith out of his will and leaving his money only to his children by Alice. Alice remained living with Edith for several years afterwards, and was still known as ‘Auntie’ by Rosamund and John.
Edith’s relationship with her children was strained and she seemed destined to end her days lonely and miserable. But she was rescued by a fellow socialist, a cockney barge captain named Tommy Tucker, who became her friend and then her second husband. They lived modestly and happily by the Kent seaside and she wrote, ‘For the first time in my life I know what it is to possess a man’s whole heart.’ She died in 1924 aged 65. In her will she divided her property between her own surviving children, Iris and Paul, ignoring Rosamund and John, to settle the score.
As a love-struck young girl, Edith had once doodled her name and Hubert’s, entwined in a notebook. Years later, she wrote in dark ink beside them, ‘Deeply regretted.’
It is a bitter postscript that speaks volumes. But without the misery caused by Hubert’s philandering and the subterfuge over his illegitimate children, and her own sorrow and
guilt over Fabian’s death, perhaps Edith would not have been driven to create the cheerful fantasies into which she could escape, filled with loyal, loving families of happy children and devoted parents whose conventional domestic lives contrasted so poignantly with her own.
The Extraordinary Life of E Nesbit by Elisabeth Galvin is published by Pen & Sword History, £19.99. To order a copy for £15.99 (a 20 per cent discount) until 21 October, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.