Like many of my contemporaries — people who grew up in a British colony — my childhood literary upbringing was primarily that of the Mother Country: Rudyard Kipling, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis and so on.
Another was a female author, E. (Edith) Nesbit, who wrote Victorian-era children’s classics such as The Railway Children and The Story Of The Treasure-Seekers. As a child, I remember my parents reading both to me at bedtime.
One always thinks of the authors of children’s literature — especially female authors — as quiet, spinsterly or even virginal. In the case of Edith Nesbit, it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.
So far, Edith had been rather a passive participant in ‘free love’, but she now began to even the score with Hubert, embarking on a series of romantic affairs with young writers whom she mentored. Some of these relationships may have been platonic rather than passionate, such as her fling with George Bernard Shaw, who she met through the Fabian Society.
It’s likely her other lovers were less reserved. The young poet Richard Le Gallienne was captivated by Edith’s beauty and unconventional style – she refused to wear a corset and cut her hair boyishly short, drifting around in flowing robes, her wrists jangling with bangles – and she contemplated leaving Hubert for him.
A young accountant, Noel Griffith, was the next to be dazzled by her, although he found her ménage à trois with Alice and Hubert bizarre, observing that Alice seemed uncomfortable and that Edith found Alice irritating. The only real beneficiary was Hubert, who was ‘very hot-blooded’ and ‘abnormally sexual’ – which didn’t stop him moralising about the importance of fidelity in his newspaper columns. Meanwhile, Edith let her children run wild, playing on the railway, and turned a blind eye to domestic chaos.
Sounds positively 21st-century, dunnit?