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

The Wipers Times

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. A battle which, in the first day alone, injured 60,000 men and wounded/killed more than 1 million soldiers in just a few months. We find it hard to truly get our heads around the horror experienced by these men, especially when statistics, artifacts, and photographs are all we have now. But there is something that we still have that gives an insight to those experiences, a perspective that is both brutal and absolutely hilarious. The Wipers Times.

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Capt. F J Roberts, M.C

This is Capt. F. J. Roberts, M.C. He was part of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, and stationed in Ypres Salient at the front line. Early on in 1916, Roberts and his soldiers (I’ll get to the names later on) stumbled across a printing press, apparently abandoned by a Belgian, forced to flee from his building. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that there was a sergeant in the Foresters who happened to be a printer in civilian life, and thus The Wipers Times was born.

(‘Wipers’ after the Tommy slang for ‘Ypres’)

Other contributors to the paper were Lieutenant J. H. Person DSO MC, Artilleryman Gilbert Frankau, and E. J. Couzens contributed brilliant engravings of a platoon commander that became the paper’s motif.

The Wipers Times, in essence, was a home-grown satirical magazine rather like today’s Private Eye. In fact, Ian Hislop has himself done a huge amount for pushing this piece of WWI history into the public eye, and even co-wrote BBC drama The Wipers Times in 2013. Yet I still believe this wonderful section of WWI history isn’t talked about quite enough as it deserves.

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A group of soldiers reading the Wipers Times, circa 1916

The first edition was published on Saturday 12th February 1916, with 100 copies printed and distributed. Now whilst that doesn’t sound a lot, these guys were printing with limited resources, and under dangerous conditions. Plus, copies would have been read aloud communally and passed from solider to soldier. The Wipers Times was a lighthearted approach to the daily horrors of Ypres. It is also interesting to note that the paper’s name changed in accordance to the movements of the regiment, at times being the “New Church Times” and “The Kemmel Times” etc., which only fueled the amusement at their unrelenting determination to publish.

The content of this magazine was a mish-mash of amusing faux adverts, love-lorn letters to agony aunts, bets, editorials, programmes at ‘Cloth Hall’, and submissions from everyday soldiers. Before I get to the hilariously satirical material in Wipers, I just want to highlight the importance of those submissions by soldiers. Many of those submissions were poetry, often naive and overtly passionate, by amateur poets who craved an output for their strained emotions.

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No. 2: Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“Now hope lies buried, all that once could give a satisfaction, or could soothe the eye, with signs of work, which, being done, would help those other who with jar of rum did hasten about their nightly duty in the line.”

Although the paper teased the infantry about their incessant poetry, “We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry.” it was in-fact a genius way to get men talking about their experiences, and also letting those at home know, as a small facsimile of copies was published as soon as 1918. This was an important aspect in a time where news from the front was often ‘sugar coated’,  a fact that The Wipers Times often satirized:

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No. 2 Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“By Belary Helloc.” was a satirical feature of the paper. It was a crude swipe at the war commentator, Hilaire Belloc, who frequently wrote about WWI in the Land and Water magazine. His articles and political views were not met with widespread agreement from soldiers, his writing could be impersonal, cold, and less than realistic in a time where the reality was destroying lives.

Another feature that I truly love is the ‘Things we want to know’ list in each paper. This part was not meant for outsiders, it was designed to boost morale by shared experiences, and wasn’t afraid to be hilariously rude. For example,

  • “The most pop’lar tree in Belgium”
  • “The price of second-hand Flammenwerfer”
  • “Who leads in Kirchner collections” (‘kirchner’ a euphemism for local brothels)
  • “Who is it that makes an infernal din on a horn at 2am???”
  • “The name of the subaltern who told the Major that to take his wife to Nottingham Goose Fair was like taking a sandwich to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.”

Finally, I have to mention the spoof diaries of ‘Lieut. Samuel Pepys’ entitled ‘Our Diary’ (again with the shared-experience thing) and amusingly describes the day-to-day life of a lieutenant, such as rum-drinking and brothel-attending. The lightheartedness and pomposity of the ‘diary’ almost takes away the drudgery and hurt caused by daily life. However, the idea is a product of the better educated editors (like much of the paper is), and I hope that it wasn’t lost on the majority of working class soldiers.

If you want to find out more, and read The Wipers Times for yourself, Conway have published a complete book of every edition of the paper.

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