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NA333612 - NESBIT, E.: Wouldbegoods (The) (Abridged)

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit, ‘the first modern writer for children’, was a fascinating character whose popular books sprang partly from her own experience. This is particularly true of The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequel The Wouldbegoods, recorded here. Both recount the adventures of the Bastable family, and capture beautifully the innocence of children, their boundless energy, and their capacity for getting into trouble without even trying.

Born in 1858, Edith Nesbit was the youngest in her family. She had two brothers, a sister and a half-sister, and during her earliest years they all lived in an agricultural college in London which had been started by Edith’s grandfather. Edith described this time of her life as an ‘Eden’: she felt happy and secure.

When Edith was still a little girl, her father died. From then on, the stability of her life changed: the family moved around a lot. She went to various boarding schools, including one at which punishments came thick and fast for all kinds of tiny misdemeanours. It would be unimaginable today! Her mother told her she would get used to it, even though Edith cried herself to sleep.

But she hadn’t been at that school long when it was all change: they were off to the South of France where her mother had found a house. Edith was to be left behind, but she begged to be taken with her mother and sisters. Her brothers, Alfred and Henry, remained at another school in England. To begin with, Edith was placed with a family so that she could learn French. She and the daughter were the same age, and they got on immediately. She had a wonderful time. When her mother moved again to a different area of France, she was sorry to leave her French family.

This almost nomadic lifestyle was to continue, though a highlight was a summer spent in a house suitable for all the family, brothers included, in the south of France. Her first impressions of this environment unmistakably echo the surroundings of The Moat House in The Wouldbegoods:

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.

There were more schools and homes following this, before a happy three years spent at Halstead Hall in Kent, a house rented by her mother for the family:

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.

Here, Alfred and Henry built a raft for the pond, and the children discovered a secret hiding place accessible only by a trap-door in the ceiling of Edith’s bedroom – exactly as Oswald does in The Wouldbegoods!

The children could also run through a field at the back of the house to a railway line – and there is the seed, planted in Nesbit’s memory, that later grew into her popular story The Railway Children.

From the age of fourteen to seventeen, Nesbit began to concentrate on writing poetry and even had some of it published in several magazines. She was to write a lot more poetry over the years, as well as her novels.

The young poet grew into a bright and striking woman, and married a charismatic bank clerk called Hubert Bland. The two moved in intellectual circles and were both socialists. They formed a debating group, which, as it gained more members, became the Fabian Society.

During the 1880s Nesbit was a lecturer and writer on socialism, but as she became a successful children’s writer these activities diminished. Her most famous novels include The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Railway Children and The Enchanted Castle.

The Wouldbegoods is a sequel to The Story of the Treasure Seekers. ‘Children are like jam,’ it begins, ‘all very well in the proper place, but you can’t stand them all over the shop – eh, what?’ These are the characteristically strident yet harmless words of the Indian uncle, with whom the Bastables now live.

In The Treasure Seekers the children got themselves into all kinds of trouble, but for the noble cause of trying ‘to restore the fallen fortunes of the House of Bastable’. Half a crown here and there, found buried in the garden or located under the floorboards with a diving-rod, was not ultimately enough. But the Indian uncle saved the day, and the children and their father went to live with him in his beautiful big house.

In The Wouldbegoods, the summer holidays come round and the children are sent to Albert’s uncle’s house in the country – along with two other children, Denny and Daisy (‘little frightened things, like white mice’).

The group has been punished for an over-enthusiastic attempt at making a jungle – which involved using the Indian uncle’s precious stuffed animals and soaking them with a make-shift waterfall – and now the conscience-stricken girls invent a ‘Society for being good in’. This is modified to the ‘Wouldbegoods’, as it is generally recognised that they cannot guarantee their good behaviour, however hard they try. And they are right!

Of course, after many adventures, and a few grown-up lectures along the way, things turn out very happily – for the children and for Albert’s uncle.

Notes by Genevieve Helsby

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