Ok – so she’s not actually from Greenwich – but she lived in Blackheath and then Eltham for 23 years; a mildly scandalous woman for whom I have a lot of time, and of whom virtually nothing remains at her old home…
A few months ago I went for a cup of tea at Well Hall Pleasaunce where I fell in with one of Life’s characters, whom I will call Alf. Alf was determined that I shouldn’t just see the Pleasaunce as a pretty park, but as the ex-home of Edith Nesbit, one of our greatest children’s writers. He virtually frog-marched me round the grounds, pointing out the wiggly wall, heavily buttressed to support its ancient bricks,
…and the fabulous barn itself, but of the actual 18th Century mansion Nesbit lived in between 1899 and 1922, absolutely nothing remains. There’s a picture of it here, which shows it as pretty impressive, but I’m still not entirely sure why it was pulled down in 1931 – the closest I can find out is that it was to make way for the current park. I’m guessing local ‘politics’ – perhaps even a desire by 1930s social climbers to expunge a mildly scandlalous figure from Eltham’s genteel history? Who can tell…
There’s been loads written about Nesbit’s ‘unconventional’ life – her sort-of open marriage to the Fabian Hubert Bland, who apparently ‘could not by any effort of nature leave women alone’ and her bringing up of his various children fathered on herself and, ahem, the assistant secretary of the Society, who also moved in. Gregarious and kind, she threw parties at Eltham for political big-hitters of the day – George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx. She was also the epitome of early 20th Century Bohemian Woman – tall and striking, dressed in trailing gowns of peacock blue satin, dripping with pearls and Indian bangles – and chain-smoking cigarettes from a long holder. And when Hubert died, she married, if memory serves, an engineer on the Woolwich Ferry, one Tommy Tucker, whose name sounds like it’s straight out of one of her books.
Doesn’t that put a different slant on The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Railway Children? And don’t you just love her more for it?
But I’m not writing a biography here – there’s plenty about her knocking around. I’m not even writing about the place – I know virtually nothing about Eltham. What I’m writing about today, it being the day before Hallowe’en and all, is the little-known fact that Edith Nesbit was also a horror writer.
I only found this out when I was in New York a few days ago, in Strand Bookshop, looking for something to read on the way home. I was initially drawn to the display because I thought someone had spilled something sticky on it – the imprint of obscure ghost and supernatural writers has a skull marked out in shiny on a matt background. But there, among the Aylmer Vances and the Gertrude Athertons, was The Power of Darkness – Tales of Terror, by Edith Nesbit.
It’s of its time. The golden age, some might argue, of of ghost and horror writing – the Victorian/ Edwardian eras. The stories are at once cosy and really rather disturbing, and not all of them follow classic ‘story’ pattern. Many are more like incidents – statements, even, rather than plots with beginnings, middles and ends. And they are much crueller than I have found other writers to be. The endings are often harsh and dark, though they include the odd practical joke. There’s no let-off for her characters – they make one mistake and are doomed for life. Apparently she was taken to visit the mummified corpses of St Michel in Bordeaux as a small child, and she had a relative who was accidentally put in their coffin ready for burying whilst still alive, something that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Both of these incidents clearly influence her work, as does, I’d guess, Poe.
With the best will in the world, I’d say the collection was patchy. When she’s good, she’s utterly terrifying, but other stories left me a bit bewildered. The most famous, Man-Size In Marble is creepy and atmospheric, something at which she’s very good, and yet it, like all the stories, carries an Edwardian patina of snugness that belies the somewhat sudden and pretty grim ending. The Five Senses is bloomin’ scary and From the Dead is singularly callous, but other stories, like Uncle Abraham’s Romance and the mightily puzzling Power of Darkness left me wondering what to make of them.
Hand on heart, she’s no M. R. James. But if you want a shiver for Hallowe’en you could do a lot worse than checking out Edith Nesbit’s non-kiddie stories. In the meanwhile one thing at least remains of her at Eltham. The suitably satanic-looking bell hanging from the east end wall of the Tudor Barn comes from her house.