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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian fantasy’

I’m bringing you a blast from the past today, a rare example of Victorian children’s writing that has survived to the modern day. Edith Nesbit was British, born in 1858, and a life-long rebel. She married a socialist writer and was involved in the political causes of the day, including women’s suffrage and worker rights. She was a shocking figure who smoked in public, wore her hair short, and generally showed disdain for Victorian social conventions.

Nesbit began selling poetry at age 15 and continued all her life. It’s a mark of her strong personality that she wrote under her own name rather than her husband’s, which would have been Mrs. Hubert Bland. Yet it’s also telling that she chose to conceal her gender by using her initial, E. Nesbit. Even today, some of our greatest women writers, like C. J. Cherryh and J. K. Rowling, do the same thing.

Amid the constant scramble of writing to keep her family fed, Edith Nesbit made a pioneering contribution to children’s literature. In 1890 there was very little writing specifically for children, and that was mostly sermonizing about how to live a proper British life. Nesbit combined fantasy — fairy tales were big in Victorian literature — with more realistic elements of child behavior and modern life. She referred to real places, such as Crystal Palace, and her child characters were often naughty before their basic goodness won out.

The Book of Dragons is a collection of Nesbit’s short stories, all combining kids, magic, and dragons. Remember that this is Victorian literature. There’s a lot of passive voice. Characters are either good or evil, and not much suspense about the outcomes. All the dragons have just one goal: to eat everyone in the world. Yet Nesbit has great verve, humor, and invention. In many ways, her stories reads like precursors to Roald Dahl and the Oz series of her contemporary, L. Frank Baum.

Of the eight short stories collected here, “The Island of the Nine Whirlpools” is a favorite. A loyal queen is sent to visit a witch by her husband, a stern and unloving enchanter/king. The queen asks to get a baby, sort of like ordering draperies for the palace, but makes a small omission and receives a girl instead of a boy. The king is irate and basically never forgives the queen. The tale strikes me as a poignant comment on women’s lives in the Victorian Era, when men owned everything and women and children struggled to be heard.

Although popular in her time, Nesbit is no longer well known. Her works do survive in “classics” editions by Dell Yearling, or you might find her in a used book store near you. If you like Baum or Dahl, they’ll be worth the hunt.

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