E. Nesbit’s Dormant

dormant e. nesbit 13509277644

The hardback is $350!  Thank God for the e-book.

E. Nesbit was my favorite writer as a child, and I especially loved The Enchanted Castle. One of the pleasures of having an e-reader has been discovering E. Nesbit’s out-of-print adult books.    Who knew that this brilliant writer of fantasy classics also penned eight adult novels?  I found only a couple of her adult novels at Project Gutenberg before I purchased the Delphi classics e-book,  The Complete Novels of E. Nesbit ($2.50).

Last year I read The Lark, a charming comedy about two orphaned young women, Jane and Lucilla, struggling to make a living selling flowers from their garden. (I posted about it here.)  It is also a comic riff on the romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Yes, Jane meets a Mr. Rochester, sans mad wife.

Delphi complete novels of e. NesbitRecently I read Nesbit’s strange, uneven, but compelling novel Dormant, which begins charmingly as a comedy about a group of struggling, mostly impecunious,  young people: an artist, a chemist, an editor, doctor,   a journalist, a dressmaker,  and a young man who lives off his father’s pesticide money.  They call themselves the Septet and eat, drink, and debate capital punishment  and women’s suffrage over tea.  The heroine, Rose Royal, is a likable, kind, pretty artist with a small private income.  In London She rents Malacca Wharf, where she inhabits a dilapidated house and rents a decrepit warehouse to her chemist friend Anthony.  She quells some poor children, furious that they are shut out of Malacca Wharf,  with a smile when they throw stones at her house and invites them inside.   Every weekend she invites them to “biscuit parties.”

But there is a hitch in her seemingly perfect life.  She is in love with Anthony, who is not in love with her.  On his birthday, she buys him a science book that dates back to the Renaissance, written in cipher, but with his name and coat of arms in it.  The book belonged to one of his ancestors. The subject is a form of alchemy.

I do love the dialogue.  Here is part of Rose’s conversation with the bookseller.

“I do like the smell of your shop,” she said, reaching out her hand for the book he now held; “ it’s not only the old leather, it’s something that’s like a dream of a dream.”

Later, when she arrives an hour early for tea with the Septet at William Bats’ house (Bats is an editor without much work who is in love with Rose), he jokes about the way everyone is in love with her.

“You remember,” he said, turning the pages of the book, “that the Septet was formed on the distinct basis of our all being as disagreeable as we liked to each other, and I’m the only one who has ever tried to live up to the old ideal. All the others merely grovel before you, wormlike. How you can stand it, I can’t think!”

And here’s one of Nesbit’s authorial comments about Rose’s beauty.

Rose had been the reigning beauty of the Slade, but then quite ugly girls have been that. She was the leader in her set, but then charm is not always of the essence of a leader. She had received from two to five offers of marriage every year since she was seventeen, and at least twice as many offers of platonic friendship; declarations of impermanent adoration at various temperatures …

E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit

Suddenly the novel morphs into a feminist horror retelling of Sleeping Beauty  crossed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The bookseller had predicted Rose’s future:  if her beloved inherited money, it would be a disaster.   Anthony inherits money, a title, and an estate, he proposes to Rose.  But money, and a mysterious laboratory in his house, change him.  It seem Anthony’s ancestor had worked on the elixir of life in the laboratory.  The dead body of a girl named Eugenia is found in the laboratory.  When Anthony brings her back to life, is she grateful to be awake?  Not very. She knows she is a different species.  She is terrified.

This fascinating novel rambles along and doesn’t quite hold together. Nevertheless, I liked it. If you are a  Nesbit fan, you will admire her grip on this comedy-cum-horror novel.  Nesbit wrote horror and ghost stories for adults, so I wasn’t completely surprised by this.

What would Angela Carter have made of it, I wondered.

Surely E. Nesbit is some kind of foremother of retold fairy tales and horror!

Edith and her husband, Hubert Bland, were socialists and members of the Fabian Society. To support her husband and five children, Nesbit wrote children’s books. She also supported her best friend, Alice, who had an affair with Hubert, had two children by him, and became Edith’s housekeeper and secretary. A. S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, The Children’s Book, is based on E. Nesbit and her circle.

Nesbit  can be entertaining, graceful, and brilliant.  In her adult books, her plots do tend to wander. Her children’s books are seamless.

But Dormant is worth checking out.  I’ll probably reread it and decide it’s a work of genius.

Michael Dirda’s Essay on E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle e. nesbit il_570xN.769748903_qjtqWhen I was a child, E. Nesbit was my favorite writer, and The Enchanted Castle was my favorite book. Before birthdays and Christmas, I made a list for my mother of the E. Nesbits I wanted from the local bookstore. (I idiotically sold them in my 20s.)  Nesbit’s children’s books are more entertaining and better-written than most of her adult books, but last  winter I discovered her adult novel, The Lark, a delightful comedy published in 1922.

I was thrilled to find that Michael Dirda has written a brilliant essay, “The Serious Make-Believe of E. Nesbit,” for the Barnes & Noble Review, 

Here is an excerpt:

Not all of E. Nesbit’s children’s books are fantasies, but even the most realistic somehow seem magical. In her holiday world nobody ever goes to school, though all the kids know their English history, Greek myths, and classic tales of derring-do. Again and again, Nesbit’s fiction celebrates the power of reading, coupled with the power of the imagination, as the best way for young people to transform and enchant everyday life.

Between 1899 and the outbreak of World War I, Nesbit scribbled one juvenile masterpiece after another. Everyone has his or her own favorite: Mine is The Story of the Amulet (1906), but other readers would opt for Five Children and It (1902) or The Railway Children (1906) or The Enchanted Castle (1907). In the United States, however, Nesbit isn’t anywhere near as well known as she deserves to be, given her delightful humor, sprightly, conversational style, and all-around irresistibility. Just listen to Oswald Bastable near the opening of The Treasure Seekers:

“There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, “Alas!” said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, “we must look our last on this ancestral home” — and then some one else says something — and you don’t know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is or anything about it. Our ancestral home is in the Lewisham Road. It is semi-detached and has a garden, not a large one. We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides Father. Our mother is dead…”

An excellent essay!  Every adult should know about Nesbit.

E. Nesbit’s The Lark

Frontispiece  by H. r. Millar to E. Nesbit's "The Enchanted Castle"

Frontispiece by H. R. Millar to E. Nesbit’s “The Enchanted Castle”

E. Nesbit was my favorite writer as a child, and my favorite book was The Enchanted Castle.

One of the pleasures of having an e-reader has been discovering Nesbit’s out-of-print adult books.

I just finished The Lark,  a delightful comedy published in 1922.

Nesbit - The lark (cover)In The Lark, Nesbit’s last book, she immediately establishes a quasi-magical atmosphere reminiscent of her charming children’s novels. She combines witty dialogue with comic sketches of work and dreamy descriptions of gardens in this compelling story of two young women struggling to make a living selling flowers from their garden.

E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit

The main characters, both orphans, Jane Quested and her cousin, Lucilla,  are 15 and visiting their friend Emmeline when we meet them in the opening chapter. In the library they find a spell book, a “fat quarto volume with onyx-laid clasps and bosses,” and the adventurous Jane decides it will be “a lark” to try the spell that will reveal her true love.  (Everything is a lark to Jane.)

The novel is also a comic riff on the romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.  Jane is looking lovely and saying her spell in the woods when Mr. Rochester, a handsome man who has missed his train, wanders by.  Their eyes meet.

Will Jane see him again?  Yes, a few years later, when Jane and Lucilla’s guardian loses their money and flees to South Africa, he arranges for them to be picked up from school and taken in a cab to a tiny charming cottage that is the last of their inheritance.  They begin to sell flowers from their garden, because it is all they can think of to do.

Before I go on, I must fill you in on E. Nesbit’s background and fame as a children’s writer.  Her adult books are little-known.

In 1963, Gore Vidal wrote an article, “The Writing of E. Nesbit,” for The New York Review of Books:

After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own. Yet Nesbit’s books are relatively unknown in the United States. Publishers attribute her failure in these parts to a witty and intelligent prose style (something of a demerit in the land of the free) and to the fact that a good many of her books deal with magic, a taboo subject nowadays.

Edith and her husband, Hubert Bland, were socialists and members of the Fabian Society.  To support her husband and five children, Nesbit wrote children’s books.  She also supported her best friend, Alice, who had an affair with Hubert, had two children by him, and became Edith’s housekeeper and secretary.  A. S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, The Children’s Book, is based on E. Nesbit and her circle.

Delphi complete novels of e. NesbitIn The Lark, Jane and Lucilla have sold most of the flowers from their own garden, and wish they could rent the deserted house with a huge garden down the road. When they find the door open one day and decide to explore, Jane falls and turns her ankle.  Mr. Rochester, who is the landlord’s nephew, shows up and take the two girls home in his carriage.    He is smitten with Jane (but we knew that) and arranges for his cranky uncle to allow them to sell the flowers from his garden.  They open a shop in a shed, hire a gardener, and eventually are given the use of his house, where they take in lodgers (which is very, very funny).

One of the things I like most about the book is the young women’s inability to do math.  (That’s why I can’t open a bookstore.)

“It’s so different doing it with real money,” said Lucilla, fingering the little piles of coin on the table of the garden room, where, with two candles in brass candlesticks to light them, they were seeking to find some relation between the coins–so easily counted–and the figures referring to these same coins which all through the week they had laboriously pencilled in an exercise-book.

“I think it’s the garden distracts us,” said Jane, looking towards the open window, beyond which lay lawn and cedars bathed in moonlight and soft spring air.

I adored this book.  It is utterly charming, if a little rambling with its authorial asides (which I loved) and occasional slapstick scenes. But  I love novels about work, and though this isn’t entirely realistic–could someone please give me a garden?–I love the characters, appreciate the poetic descriptions of flowers, and the burglar episode reminds me of her Bastable books.

Alas, it is only available in the Delphi Classics e-book, The Complete Novels of E. Nesbit.  This only  costs a couple of dollars, and I urge you to try it if you are a Nesbit fan.  The Lark seems a perfect book for a print publisher to revive.

The e-reader certainly has its uses!