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E. Nesbit: Reshaping Children's Fantasy

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In the following excerpts from Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature, Alison Lurie describes the innovations of the writer E. Nesbit:

Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: Adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. ...

In the final years of Victoria's reign, however, an author appeared who was to challenge this pattern so energetically and with such success that it is possible now to speak of juvenile literature as before and after E. Nesbit. ...

Nesbit was the first to write at length for children as intellectual equals and in their own language. Her books were startlingly innovative in other ways: They took place in contemporary England and recommended socialist solutions to its problems; they presented a modern view of childhood; and they used magic both as a comic device and as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination.

Every writer of children's fantasy since Nesbit's time is indebted to her--and so are some authors of adult fiction. ...

Not only is Nesbit's tone direct, humorous, and fast-moving; her children are modern and believable. They are not types seen by an adult, but individuals observed by their peers, each with his or her faults and virtues and passions. ...

Though her working-class heroes and heroines are full of life and enterprise, Nesbit often portrays the extremely well born as stupid and dreary. In The Treasure Seekers, Noel gets his wish and meets a real princess, but she turns out to be a dull, overdressed little girl who is afraid to play in the park. ...

Sometimes Nesbit's magical transformations are not so much imaginative projections of what might come to pass as metaphors for the actual state of things. Often they make literal the perception that many adults have no idea of what is going on with the children who are living with them, and possibly don't even care.

In The Enchanted Castle, for instance, Mabel finds a ring that makes her invisible; but it is clear that she was already more or less invisible to the aunt with whom she lives. Mabel's aunt feels not the slightest anxiety about her disappearance and readily swallows a made-up story about her having been adopted by a lady in a motorcar.

From Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature by Alison Lurie. Copyright 1990 by Alison Lurie. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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