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.
Recently 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 …
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.