1900s, Literary History

Edith Nesbit and her Victorian tales of horror

Edith Nesbit is well known for her wonderful contributions to the British canon of children’s literature. Her books have a transcendent quality. My grandparents read them, my parents did, and I was encouraged to as well. Yet, I discovered recently that Penguin re-published her collection of horror stories, titled ‘Tales of Horror’, and it includes some very creepy short stories. I cannot be alone when I confess that I had no idea that Nesbit authored four collections of horror stories. Whether or not this is down to an simple overshadowing by her acclaimed children’s books, or a more biased disbelief in the abilities of a female author to write horror, it is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, four collections of horror stories speak of Nesbit’s enthusiasm, or even a need to write using horror stylistics. Before I go into her stories, it is worth noting several biographical aspects that could shed light some light on her work…

Perhaps a more well known fact about Nesbit was her turbulent and seemingly abusive marriage to Hubert Bland in 1880, with whom she would co-found the famous socialist group the Fabian Society. Her life leading up to her marriage, aged 19, was equality as turbulent. Frequent moves around England and France with her mother and sickly sister, Mary, and the death of her father when she was just four perhaps instilled a resilience to the instability that stayed with her. I can find no other reason why Nesbit would have the courage to withstand her later lifestyle.

Hubert Bland

After falling pregnant, Bland and Nesbit married. Not long afterwards, Nesbit discovered that her husband had already fathered a child with his ailing mother’s companion. Bland would continue this pattern of self-indulgent infidelity, and would father yet another child with Nesbit’s close friend, Alice. It is a testament to Nesbit’s courage and comparative tenderness that she eventually allowed both Alice and daughter to stay within her house, Alice employed as Bland’s secretary. Her daughter was later adopted by Bland and Nesbit. It would appear that Bland’s infidelity stemmed from a desire of an open marriage, something that Nesbit was probably ignorant to until much too late, and of course a practice almost inconceivable for a wife to pursue too. Bland’s contemporaries and biographers have commented on his libertine behaviour,

He was pugnacious, powerful, a skilled pugilist, and
had a shrill, thin voice reportedly like the scream of an eagle. Nobody dared be uncivil to him.¹

 

Yet, it would seem that Bland encouraged Nesbit’s writing, if not only as a form of relatively stable income. As a man who professed he did not support women’s equal rights, and neither did Edith, it is to some credit that he was not so proud to disarm his wife of her pen. Moreover, he perhaps enjoyed the respect that was given to them as a literary couple, he with his journalism and Nesbit with her fiction. I would like to think that this kind-of partnership gave Nesbit at least some happiness and marital fulfilment in an otherwise fairly grim situation.

So this is where I turn to her horror stories. A few critics have noticed the ‘adult sadness’ present within her children’s books, and a few more have hinted that her tales of horror contain numerous superfluously perfect Victorian family norms, especially concerning the relationships between husbands and wives. But Victoria Margree has suggested that because these horror…

endings are frequently brutal, tragic and bleak, and refuse the happy endings that generic conventions compelled in her work in other genres²

 

… it has allowed Nesbit to introduce scepticism about the institution of marriage. For example, in her tale ‘The Violet Car’, an elderly couple struggle with the psychological effects of grief, injustice, and guilt after their daughter is killed by a car and the father is plagued by a ghostly vehicle that only he can see. The theme of blame and emotional suppression is obvious in this story, and Nesbit paints them as equally insidious as the supernatural apparition. The story ends with the father’s death, as if that would fix the problem, yet it only leaves the reader bleakly aware that nothing has been fixed and that the couple’s behaviour is the true horror component.

We cannot really paint Nesbit as a first wave feminist, but its evident that her life experiences and her socialist politics enabled her to question the status quo of the society in which she lived. And as with any thoroughly disturbing horror story, the heart of these stories is shot through with very human suffering, something that was all too familiar to Nesbit.

 

 

¹ Julia Briggs (2004) ‘Bland, Hubert (1855–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, May 2012, librarycatalog.vts.edu/view/article/47683

² Victoria Margee (2014) ‘The Feminist Orientation in Edith Nesbit’s Gothic Short Fiction’. Available at: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/13331/1/Nesbit_revised_submissionFINAL_Margree.pdf

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