There was a time, not so long ago, when things were perfect for the children up at the bright-faced house, at the edge of London. Heaps of toys in the nursery, an enchanted garden that rolled on for ages, and there were always buns for tea.
Mother forever merry, forever there. But then Father died, or was imprisoned for treason, or his business partner absconded to Spain with their money, and the family had to abandon all the best old things and perhaps even the beloved house altogether, being reduced to a dank, crumbling cottage. Mother, too, was soon indisposed—dead or shut up in a room writing stories for pay—which left the children to a crotchety aunt or a kindly old gentleman friend. Mostly it left them to their own devices, unsupervised and largely unschooled, to seek their lost fortune together, with the aid of a time-travelling mole, say, or a sand-fairy who granted wishes. A form of reclamation awaited at story’s end: the return of the family’s comfort and prospects, perhaps even the return of Father.
These are the furnishings of the English writer E. Nesbit’s stories for young readers, and, book after book, she rearranged them with enough invention and emotional intelligence to become one of the most celebrated children’s authors of the Edwardian decade. H. G. Wells wrote to Nesbit, regarding her book “The Phoenix and the Carpet,” “I knock my forehead on the ground at your feet in the vigour of my admiration of your easy artistry.” In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C. S. Lewis wrote that Nesbit provided the older members of her audience with “more realistic reading about children than they could find in most books addressed to adults”; he also plucked his famous wardrobe from Nesbit’s story “The Aunt and Amabel.” J. K. Rowling helped herself to entire rooms of the Nesbit estate, down to her flourish for creature names—the Mouldiwarp, the Psammead, et al. “I identify with E. Nesbit more than any other writer,” Rowling has said.