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Friday, 21 October 2011

Gracious, I missed that Mari Ness at Tor was reviewing all the books by E. Nesbit!

I didn’t see a mention of how in her golden period Nesbit wrote for The Strand, so her books appeared first in that magazine in chunks and only later were collected. That helps to explain their episodic rhythm, especially in the early years.

Ness gets rather cutting on a time-travel novel that I haven’t been able to complete, Harding’s Luck:
Nesbit also choose[s] to make Dickie into a poor crippled orphan, and thus, Extremely Good, so Good that Dickie is willing to return to poverty and disability, giving up the pony, just to turn a homeless beggar and thief into a hardworking, honest man.

I’m not certain that any writer could have pulled this off; certainly Nesbit couldn’t. I can believe in Nesbit’s magical rings and wishes; I can certainly believe in her portraits of children who do thoroughly selfish and foolish things or spend more time thinking about food and fun than about being good. But not this. . . .

By 1907/1908, when Nesbit was planning and writing Harding’s Luck, she was well established as a popular, clever, children’s writer. But then, as more than occasionally now, “popular,” “clever,” and “children’s” did not add up, in the eyes of important (and generally male) critics, as “good” or “of literary merit.” . . . Nesbit, on personal, friendly terms with some of these literary critics, knew what they were looking for, and she was prepared to change her writing to meet it. Thus the serious tone of this book, and its often self-conscious “literary” feel.
That’s not a selling review, is it? The title of this illustration by H. R. Millar might sum up the tone that Ness disliked in the book: “It hurt, but Dickie liked it.”

I think Nesbit was much more comfortable writing about upper and upper-middle-class children, though they might (as in The Railway Children) be in danger of falling into genteel poverty. Poor Dickie might have made her nervous, in her good Fabian Socialist way, so he had to end up better than life.


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