Read an Excerpt
From Sanford Schwarz’s Introduction to The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It
It is easy to underestimate Nesbit’s influence on modern children’s fiction, especially in North America, where she has never enjoyed the same level of popularity as she has in the British Isles. Historians continue to debate the degree of her originality, but they seem to agree that however much she was indebted to her Victorian predecessors, Nesbit brought a new and more modern voice to children’s fiction, and in certain respect, her distinctive fusion of magic and realism, which cast a spell on later generations of children’s authors, endures to this day. According to Colin Manlove, “After Nesbit, children’s fantasy was never quite the same again. She showed just how much fun could be made of bringing magic into the ordinary domestic lives of children: And she introduced to children’s fantasy the idea of the group of different children, rather than the frequently solitary child of earlier books. Her books demonstrated that fantasy could be wildly inventive and yet follow its own peculiar laws.” All of these Nesbit trademarks—the family ensemble, the mixture of the magic and the realism, the rites of passage between worlds—are prominent features of C. S. Lewis’s classic cycle The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956). With good reason Lewis’s admirers emphasize the influence of George MacDonald and members of his own literary circle, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. But as several Lewis scholars have pointed out, the Narnia series is in some ways far more closely related to Nesbit’s fiction, which informs the narrative voice, the basic elements of character and plot, and a surprising number of specific details, particularly in The Magician’s Nephew, which is set in Nesbit’s turn-of-the-century London and draws liberally on her works. On the other side of the Atlantic, Lewis’s American contemporary, Edward Eager, author of the popular “Half Magic” series (1954–1958), openly identifies Nesbit as the source of his inspiration. At the outset of the first volume, Half Magic, a family of four book-loving children forbids oral recitation after suffering through Evangeline, but “this summer the rule had changed. This summer the children had found some books by a writer named E. Nesbit, surely the most wonderful books in the world. . . . And now yesterday The Enchanted Castle had come in, and they took it out, and Jane, because she could read fastest and loudest, read it out loud all the way home, and when they got home she went on reading, and when their mother came home they hardly said a word to her, and when dinner was served they didn’t notice a thing they ate.” It is arguable that Nesbit’s influence has ebbed since the days of these mid-century testimonials, and that children’s fantasy itself has shifted terrain in the last few decades. But Nesbit’s imprint is still apparent in some of the genre’s most popular practitioners, including Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling, and even in cinematic productions such as Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), a direct descendant of The Magic City (1910). Admittedly, a century after their appearance her novels seem embedded in a bygone society and reflect some of its now outmoded values. Moreover, as a writer who seems to have one foot planted in Victorian society and the other in the twentieth century, Nesbit has sparked debate over the extent to which she departs from the heavy-handed didacticism of her literary predecessors, and it is often difficult to decide whether she is subverting or affirming the norms of her notably class-conscious and patriarchal society. But what seems to have endured beyond the cultural trappings of her transitional era is the freshness of her narrative voice, the vivacity and playful humor that in the right circumstances might modulate into high seriousness, and, perhaps above all, the perpetual fusion and confusion between the imaginary and the real, the books we read and the lives we live, the magical lure of our wishes, dreams, and desires, and the inevitably limited conditions of existence that they ceaselessly enchant.