Edith Nesbit (The Early Years)

1858 TO 1875


     Edith Nesbit, an enigma, a rebel, a flawed diamond... Edith has been cast as all of these things and others.To truly come to know her character, it is essential to learn of the events, people and places which all took their part in it's shaping.

     Born on August 15th 1858 to Sarah and John Collis Nesbit, Edith was the youngest child with two brothers, Henry (known as Harry) and Alfred, she had one sister Mary and one half-sister Sarah (Known as Saretta). The family was living at an agricultural college (started by Edith's grandfather some seventeen years before) at 38, Lower Kennington Lane, London. This was a period remembered by Edith as an "Eden", a time of security and happiness. The house stood in about three acres of land with a meadow that Edith (now known as "Daisy"), Alfred and Harry would often play in.

     In March 1862, Edith's father, John Nesbit, an agricultural chemist and teacher, took ill at a friend's house and afterwards died quite suddenly, aged 43. Sarah Nesbit and her family remained at the college for a further four years until her daughter Mary was advised by a physician to move near to the sea air to help ease her illness (tuberculosis). Thus began some six years of an almost nomadic existence.

     The family first moved to Western Road in Brighton Sussex and Edith was sent to Mrs Arthur's school as a weekly boarder, which Edith hated most ardently. However, the Measles put a swift end to her torment and the family went to Buckinghamshire for a holiday. Edith later wrote: "I shall never forget the sense of rest and delight that filled my small heart when I slipped out under the rustic porch at five o' clock the first morning, and felt the cool velvet turf under my feet. Here there were royal red roses, and jasmine, and tall white lilies, and in the hedge by the gate, sweet-briar and deep-cupped white convolvulus".

     In the Autumn, Edith was sent to a boarding school in Stamford where she suffered at the hands of the Headmistress's "second in command", and was punished for even the most trivial offence usually by the forfeiting of meals and to sit in an unheated classroom all by herself. "Day after day I was sent to bed, my dinner was knocked off, or my breakfast, or my tea... Night after night I cried myself to sleep". Edith grew to hate the school and even Stamford itself and she wrote to her Mother to tell her of her plight. However, her Mother was preoccupied with Mary's illness and wrote back to Edith saying that she would soon learn to enjoy herself !. Eventually her mother arrived unexpectedly to announce her latest plans to Edith: "Only when I heard that my mother was going to the South of France with my sisters, I clung about her neck, and with such insistence implored her not to leave me-not to go without me, that I think I must have expressed my trouble without uttering it..."

     In September 1867, Edith, her mother and her sisters set out for France, the boys were sent to a boarding school. The Nesbit's travels took them to Dieppe, Rouen, Paris, Tours, Poitiers, Angouleme, Bordeaux, Arcachon and on to Pau, at the foot of the western Pyrenees. It was here at Pau that Edith's Mother became concerned that Edith had had no formal schooling for several months, She arranged to have Edith placed with a local family so that she could learn to speak French. Here she made a friend of the daughter, who's name was, coincidentally, Marguerite (Daisy) and was of the same age as Edith. They took to one-another immediately, and had many adventures together. The stability and company of a settled family life did Edith a lot of good and when after three months she had to leave to join her Mother and sisters at yet another new home in Bagneres de Bigorre, she wept bitterly at her departure.

     Several more temporary homes were found in the South of France and one in Spain before Edith was despatched to England for a short while, staying in a house in Sutherland Gardens and attending a "Select Boarding School for Young Ladies", run by a Miss Macbean. Edith recalled, "If I could have been happy at any school, I should have been happy there". During this time Edith's Mother had been searching for a suitable home for the family in France. She eventually found a house that formed part of a farm at Dinan in Brittany. Edith later wrote about her arrival at the farmhouse, which went by the name of La Haye: "Up a hill wound the road, a steep wooded slope on one side, and on the other side a high, clay bank set with dainty ferns. Here and there a tiny spring trickled down to join the little stream that ran beside the road... The cart turned in at a wooden gate. We followed along the carriage-drive which ran along outside the high red wall of the big garden, then through a plantation of huge horse chestnut trees. To the left, I could see ricks, cows and pigs, all the bustle and colour of a farm-yard. Two great brown gates swung back on their hinges and we passed through them into the courtyard of the dearest home of my childhood. The courtyard was square. One side was formed by the house; dairy, coach-house and the chicken-house formed the second side; on the third were stable, cow-house and goat-shed; on the fourth wood-shed, dog-kennel and the great gates by which we had entered. The house itself was an ordinary white-washed, slate-roofed, French country house, with an immense walled fruit garden on the other side of it. That summer was an ideally happy one. My Mother...allowed us to run wild; we were expected to appear at meals with some approach to punctuality, and with hands and faces moderately clean. Sometimes when visitors were expected, we were seized and scrubbed, and clothed, and made to look something like the good little we were not...".
Edith's novel "The Wouldbegoods" has it's roots here, and the adventures the Bastables were to later have were built on the those that Edith and her brothers had during their idylic summer holidays at La Haye.

     All good things come to an end though, and after Alfred and Harry went back to school, Edith was sent to Mademoiselle Fauchet's "Select School for Girls" in Dinan, but whilst on a school walk she recognised a stream that she and her brothers had explored, and suffering greatly from homesickness, she decided there and then to run away back to the farmhouse and life she loved. Fotunatley Edith was not sent back this school, but was sent to the Ursuline convent in Dinan which, for once, she seemed to settle into and enjoy. She remained at the convent for about a year and was then moved to yet another school, this time in Germany. Edith's brothers were also at school in Germany and once she tried to run away to meet them because she was so miserable. The Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 and Edith had to be sent back to France via neutral England. Shortly afterward she was back in England, staying with a Dr Bolton and his family near Penshurst in Kent. Unfortunately, Edith's sister Mary had died of her illness in Normandy on 30th November 1871, and now her Mother was once more looking for a new family home, this time it would be in England.

     Upon her return to England, Mrs Nesbit found and consequently rented a new home for the family. "Halstead Hall" as it was (and still is) known, stands in the village of Halstead in Kent, located between Tonbridge and London. The surrounding countryside is fairly hilly with substantial woodland and sits atop the chalk of the North Downs. Edith described the house thus: "The Hall, it was called, but the house itself did not lend itself to the pretentions of it's name. A long, low, red-brick house, that might have been common-place but for the roses and ivy that clung to the front of it, and the rich heavy jasmine that covered the side. There was a smooth lawn with chestnut trees round it, and a big garden that ran round three sides of a pond with the fourth side accessible to the rest of the villagers. In the garden flowers and fruit and vegetables grew together, as they should, without jealousy or class-destinction. There never was such peonies as grew among our currant-bushes, nor such apricots as hung among the leaves on the sunny south wall. From a laburnum tree in the corner of the lawn we children slung an improvised hammock, and there I used to read and dream and watch the swaying green gold leaf and blossom". This house was to be remebered by Edith as the favorite of all her childhood homes and she spent three very happy years there in a period of security and consolidation.
Although Edith's childhood was virtually over, at the age of fourteen, there were still many pleasent interludes and adventures to be had , especially when Alfred and Harry came home for the holidays. The boys built a raft for the pond ("Which was but a dull thing when the boys were away at school"). They had also discovered a marvelous secret hiding place, which could only be reached by climbing up through a hatch in Edith's bedroom ceiling into the roof space and then traversing a narrow passageway which runs all around the house between the ceiling and the eaves. They could eventually emerge by means of a narrow door, out on to the flat centre of the roof surrounded by by four tiled ridges. "This until the higher powers discovered it, was a safer haven (for privacy) than even the shrubbery. Happy vanished days, when to be on the roof and to eat tinned pineapple in secret constituted happiness.
There was one more diversion for Edith and her brothers, if they ran down the field at the back of the house, they would come to a railway line that ran in a deep cutting with a distant tunnel in either direction. It was her memories of this line that came to play such an important part in her classic children's novel "The Railway Children". One can easily imagine Edith, Alfred and Harry walking along the railway sleepers to Chelsfield Station, perhaps playing "raging torrents" on the way, and to befriend the porters and Station Master when they got there. Chelsfield Station would have been about three miles walk for the children, the more local Knockholt Station was not opened until a year after the Nesbits had moved back to London. During her time at Halstead, Edith had started to concentrate on her poetry, her south-facing upstairs room had an old bookcase and bureau drawer that could form a desk for her to write at. Edith kept the drawer locked, to be brother-proof. "I don't know whether it was the influence of the poetry I read, or merely a tendency natural to my age, but from fourteen to seventeen all my poems were about love and the grave. I had no sweetheart in real life , but in my poems I buried dozens of them and wept on their graves quite broken-heartedly". Edith plucked up enough courage to show her Mother some of her work and her Mother was impressed enough to pass this on to a Mr Japp, a contributor to the Sunday Magazine and Edith later had pleasure in recording the following: "The first poem I ever had published was a non-committal set of verses about dawn, with a moral tag. It was printed in the Sunday Magazine. When I got the proof I ran round the garden shouting 'Hooray!' at the top of my voice, to the scandal of the village and the vexation of my family."

Edith enjoyed her time very much at Halstead Hall, she spent her early youth there (14 to 17 yrs of age), but all too soon this "perfect existence" was to come to a sudden end. It is not known whether it was a general shortage of funds or that, quite simply, the lease had come to an end on the Hall, but either way Edith's days at Halstead were numbered. Sarah and Edith Nesbit packed their belongings and moved to Islington in London, where little is known about the next two years of Edith's life, except that it set the stage for the next development in her somewhat turbulent life.

Pete Coleman 1999