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The Life of Edith Nesbit, author of The Railway Children

Edith Nesbit (whose married name was Edith Bland) 1858 – 1924 was an English author and poet who published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit. A political activist and co-founder of the Fabian Society, she wrote or collaborated on over 60 books of fiction for children, several of which have been adapted for film and television (including most famously The Railway Children).

Born in Kennington, Surrey, the death of Edith’s father when she was four and the continuing ill health of her sister meant that Nesbit’s childhood largely consisted of her family moving across Europe in search of healthy climates, before returning to England for financial reasons. Her education came mainly through reading, until, when she was 17, her family finally settled in London, When aged 19, Nesbit met Hubert Bland, a political activist and writer and when Nesbit found she was pregnant they became engaged, marrying in April 1880. Initially, they lived separately, Nesbit with her family and Bland with his mother and her live-in companion Maggie Doran, but Nesbit discovered a few months into the marriage that Bland had been having an affair with Doran. However, Nesbit did not end the marriage, moving in with her husband and becoming friends with Doran. She then supported Doran and her own family by writing and selling poetry.

Nesbit and Bland became increasingly politically active and in 1883 were amongst the founding members of The Fabian Society, a socialist group that would have an effect on the politics of Britain. They named their third child Fabian after the society. Nesbit then invited her close friend Alice Hoatson, who was unmarred but pregnant, to live with the family as housekeeper and secretary and agreed to adopt the child to prevent a scandal. However, it soon became clear that the father of the child was none other than Bland and Nesbit demanded that the mother and baby leave her house but relented and adopted the baby, Rosamund, and later dedicated her book The Book of Dragons to her.

Written under the pen name of her third child 'Fabian Bland’, Nesbit’s earlier books for adults were not successful, and Nesbit instead generated an income for the family by lecturing around the country on socialism and as editor of the Fabian Society's journal, Today.

In 1899, Alice Hoatson had another child, John, with Bland and the family moved to Well Hall House in Eltham, Kent. In 1900 Nesbit’s son Fabian died suddenly from tonsillitis, a loss which had a deep emotional impact - numerous subsequent of her books were dedicated to his memory. At the same time, Nesbit was gaining success and fame as an author for children, having published The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers in 1899 to great acclaim.

Here are a few quotes from her works:

'When you are young so many things are difficult to believe, and yet the dullest people will tell you that they are true - such things, for instance, as that the earth goes round the sun, and that it is not flat but round. But the things that seem really likely, like fairy-tales and magic, are, so say the grown-ups, not true at all. Yet they are so easy to believe, especially when you see them happening. And, as I am always telling you, the most wonderful things happen to all sorts of people, only you never hear about them because the people think that no one will believe their stories, and so they don't tell them to anyone except me. And they tell me, because they know that I can believe anything.’

'Don't bother about believing it, if you don't like it,' said the Princess. 'It doesn't so much matter what you believe as what I am.'

’There is nothing more luxurious than eating while you read - unless it be reading while you eat. Amabel did both: they are not the same thing, as you will see if you think the matter over.'

'I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.'

'There are brown eyes in the world, after all, as well as blue, and one pair of brown that meant heaven to me as the blue had never done.’

'Gerald's look assured her that he and the others would be as near angels as children could be without ceasing to be human.'

'Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right - in the way that's best for us.'

‘Do you really believe that, Mother?' Peter asked quietly.

Yes,' she said, 'I do believe it - almost always - except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true - and I try to believe it.'

'People think six is a great many, when it's children.... they don't mind six pairs of boots, or six pounds of apples, or six oranges, especially in equations, but they seem to think that you ought not to have five brothers and sisters.'

'There is no bond like having read and liked the same books.'

'Aunt Emily says grown-ups never really like playing. They do it to please us.'

'They little know,' Gerald answered, 'how often we do it to please them.'

'This is why I shall not tell you in this story about all the days when nothing happened. You will not catch me saying, “thus the sad days passed slowly by” - or “the years rolled on their weary course” - or “time went on” - because it is silly; of course time goes on - whether you say so or not. So I shall just tell you the nice, interesting parts - and in between you will understand that we had our meals and got up and went to bed, and dull things like that.'

'Then suddenly Jack was a changed boy. Something wonderful had happened to him, and it had made him different. It sometimes happened to people that they see or hear something quite wonderful and then they are never altogether the same again.'

'Also she had the power of silent sympathy. That sounds rather dull, I know, but it's not so dull as it sounds. It just means that a person is able to know that you are unhappy, and to love you extra on that account, without bothering you by telling you all the time how sorry she is for you.'

'It's an odd thing- the softer and more easily hurt a woman is the better she can screw herself up to do what has to be done.’

'Ladylike is the beastliest word there is, I think. If a girl isn't a lady, it isn't worth while to be only like one, she'd better let it alone and be a free and happy bounder.'

'It is all very wonderful and mysterious, as all life is apt to be if you go a little below the crust, and are not content just to read newspapers and go by the Tube Railway, and buy your clothes ready-made, and think nothing can be true unless it is uninteresting.'

'I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don't want to be un-friends.'

'So he caught her in his arms and kissed her, and they were very happy, and told each other what a beautiful world it was, and how wonderful it was that they should have found each other, seeing that the world is not only beautiful but rather large.'

'...Albert-next-door doesn't care for reading, and he has not read nearly so many books as we have, so he is very foolish and ignorant, but it cannot be helped... Besides, it is wrong to be angry with people for not being so clever as you are yourself.'

'Time is but a mode of thought.’

'Grown-up people find it difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse. Yet I daresay you believe all that about the earth and the sun, and if so you will find it quite easy to believe that before Anthea and Cyril and the others had been a week in the country they had found a fairy.'

'Oh, if I could choose,' said Mabel, 'of course I’d marry a brigand, and live in his mountain fastness, and be kind to his captives and help them to escape and-'

'You’ll be a real treasure to your husband.' said Gerald.'

'everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep all on.'

'For really there is nothing like wings for getting you into trouble. But, on the other hand, if you are in trouble, there is nothing like wings for getting you out of it.'

'Daddy dear, I'm only four

And I'd rather not be more.

Four's the nicest age to be,

Two and two and one and three.

What I love is two and two,

Mother, Peter, Phil, and you.

What you love is one and three,

Mother, Peter, Phil, and me.

Give your little girl a kiss

Because she learned and told you this.'

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