Edith Nesbit was just three when her father, a scientist and a teacher who ran his own boarding school, died suddenly at 43. The loss blighted her for ever.

For her there would never be that ‘Daddy, my Daddy’ reunion audiences so enjoy in The Railway Children. 

Her mother battled on alone, providing as happy a home as she could for Edith and her four siblings in a large, rambling house in Kennington, South London. It didn’t last.

When Edith’s older sister, Mary, showed signs of tuberculosis — the disease that had killed their father — her widowed mother sold the school and took the sick youngster to the South of France in search of warm weather and a cure.

Edith was left behind and from that point her young life was a turbulence of boarding schools (which she hated), various homes of relatives and friends and family reunions in a bewildering array of summer homes, from Brittany to Spain and the Pyrenees.  

This merry-go-round only stopped when her sick sister died and her mother returned to England, settling with the now 16-year-old Edith in a house in Islington. 

There Edith — already something of a wild child by Victorian standards — met a young bank clerk and promised to marry him, only to dump him on clapping eyes on one of his colleagues, Hubert Bland. In no time she was engaged to him instead. She had found the love — and the bane — of her life.

Bland was a seditious type who dabbled with opium and dressed like a dandy in silk hat, frock coat and monocle.

When he met Edith, he had a long-term lover, Maggie, who was pregnant with his child. The baby was put up for adoption and the girlfriend was cast aside — though never entirely, as Edith would discover in the coming years.

Besotted and deluded, she gave herself up to the dashing Hubert and by the summer of 1879, aged 20, she, too, was pregnant. 

Disdaining marriage as a bourgeois institution, he agreed to a last-minute register office wedding, only weeks before the baby, a boy, was born.

Bland was not only a bounder but a penniless one. A business he started quickly went bust, and so it fell to Edith to scrape a living for the two of them — by selling the verses she wrote to various magazine editors and to manufacturers of Christmas cards. 

Not only were they on the breadline but, after their second child was born, she opened a letter that arrived at home for Bland and discovered he was still seeing, and presumably sleeping with, Maggie.

Loving him as she did (and always would), she lumped it — and even used the experience as material for a love triangle story she sold to a magazine.

From then on, writing was her full-time job, which Bland took up too, and proved to be good at. Together, they churned out short stories, essays, political tracts, pieces of journalism, anything that would bring in money.

And, while her husband pursued his amours, she dallied, too, her roaming eye alighting on playwright George Bernard Shaw. Edith thought him ‘one of the most fascinating men I ever met’.   

Bland later had an affair and two children with a woman named Alice, who was one of Edith’s closest friends. Edith was convinced to raise their first child, Rosamund, and a son, John, as her own. 

Further tragedy struck when Edith’s teenage son Fabien died, driving her into a desperate state.

In her grief for her lost boy, Edith buried herself in her work, leaping on a commission from the Illustrated London News to write a series of children’s stories. The following year they were published in book form, as The Wouldbegoods.

More books followed, weaving magic, fantasy and adventure into the lives of ordinary children. The money began to roll in, with serial rights for her work not only in all the best literary magazines in London but around the world, too.

She and Bland were able to move to a large house on the edge of London that became a retreat for all sorts of writers, artists and bohemians, with Edith the queen of all she surveyed.

The continuing melodrama of their lives reached fever pitch when the sexually voracious H. G. Wells, 42, lured the 21-year-old Rosamund away from home on the grounds — not totally improbable — that Bland was trying to seduce her, his own daughter.

Edith stood by Bland in this sordid debacle, as she did in all others and would do so until a heart attack felled him in 1914.  

Widowed, Edith now fell on hard times. Her children’s books had gone out of fashion and there was little money coming in. She took to growing and selling flowers, fruit and vegetables on a smallholding and taking in paying guests to make a living.

The consolation in her declining years was that she at last found a love that was properly reciprocated — Tommy Tucker, ship’s engineer on the Woolwich Ferry. 

Edith died in 1924, aged 65, wasted away by lung disease, but her name and her work lived on. 

By Tony Rennell for the Daily Mail. Originally published in 2019


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