E. Nesbit: An Unconventional Woman

by Anna Blanch on August 5, 2009

Interested in a young age in literature, with a great interest in William Morris, 19-year-old Nesbit met bank clerk Hubert Bland in 1877. Seven months pregnant, she married Bland on 22 April 1880; Even then the couple did not immediately live together, Bland preferring to remain in the comfort of his mother’s home, leaving Nesbit to fend for herself. It came to light that Bland was engaged to another woman at this time (his mother’s companion) and it is not clear that his mother was aware of his marriage to Nesbit until after the birth of their son Paul.

Doris Langley Moore’s 1933 biography describes Nesbit as follows:

She was exceedingly lithe and athletic, and even after the birth of four children far more adept than the average Victorian woman in riding, swimming and running…. Dressed in aesthetic clothes, daringly corsetless, she would lie at full length on the rug before the fire with the dogs beside her — so oblivious to the extreme unconventionality of her attitude that she charmed the young people, and disarmed the elderly…. Her manner was as gay and careless as a child’s. Indeed she had a child’s flexibility almost all her life in recovering from every possible distress… —
Doris Langley Moore, from E. Nesbit: A Biography

Bland was an inveterate philanderer who before marriage had also had a son by his mother’s companion. Bland also continued an affair with Alice Hoatson which produced two children (Rosamund in 1886 and John in 1899), both of whom Nesbit raised as her own. Her own children were Paul Bland (1880-1940), to whom The Railway Children was dedicated; Iris Bland (1881-19??); and Fabian Bland (1885-1900), who died aged 15 after a tonsil operation, and to whom she dedicated Five Children And It and its sequels, as well as The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequels.

Nesbit’s love affairs were numerous too – Affairs with a “string of men” – including George Bernard Shaw (who himself had a string of lovers) (Gardner). Nesbit had a succession of relationships with much younger men, as well as an unhappy passion for the young Bernard Shaw who was just embarking on his illustrious career. At the end of the affair, Shaw wrote an unfinished novel that featured an unflattering portrait of the Bland marriage and 10 years later wrote Candida, about a woman torn between her husband and her poet lover. Nesbit and Shaw remained friends, with the latter bailing Nesbit out financially in her later years and even paying for John – Bland’s son by Alice Hoatson – to study at Cambridge.

Unconventional marriage (open) but always maintained conservative public appearances (Briggs 84)…except for Edith’s hair. Despite many of social habits, Nesbit’s view of women was highly traditional. When her friend Eleanor Marx announced her intention to live openly with Edward Aveling, Nesbit (along with many other Fabians) was scandalised. She was never a supporter of the suffragette cause, and her husband in his newspaper columns continually propounded the need for women to know their place – even as his own wife continued to be the family’s major breadwinner.

It seems that the relationships between parents and children in Nesbit’s books are far from being the reality – of either her childhood or her relationship with her own children (Gardner).

Nesbit lived from 1899 to 1920 in Well Hall House, Eltham, Kent (now in south-east Greater London) – this was where she wrote the bulk of her work. On 20 February 1917, some three years after Bland died, Nesbit married Thomas “the Skipper” Tucker, a ship’s engineer on the Woolwich Ferry – a generous man, he was keen to ensure that Hubert Bland was not vilified in any biography of Nesbit, nor that Nesbit was exalted too highly.

Towards the end of her life she moved to a house called “Crowlink” in Friston, East Sussex, and later to St Mary’s Bay in Romney Marsh, East Kent. Suffering from lung cancer, probably a result of her heavy smoking, she died in 1924 at New Romney, Kent, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary in the Marsh.

Nesbit died on 4 May 1924 aged (76 yrs) of Lung cancer.

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