Mari Ness (mariness) wrote,
Mari Ness

Another invisible bisexual: E. Nesbit

I've been on a bit of an Edith Nesbit kick lately. If you're unfamiliar with Nesbit, she was a late 19th/early 20th century poet and novelist now primarily known for her children's fantasy books (check out The Enchanted Castle, Five Children and It, and The Amulet if you haven't already). She, along with L. Frank Baum, helped to establish new forms of children's fiction and series.

She was also a devoted socialist in an open marriage on both sides, in the Victorian/Edwardian eras.

So I was delighted to find a biography focused on her life: Women of Passion: the Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924, by Julia Briggs. Written in 1987, the biography is eminently readable, providing all sorts of the fun gossipy stuff and speculation needed in biography like this: the scandal of her marriage to Hubert Bland, which happened when she was seven months pregnant and her husband was busily getting another woman (who was a close friend of his mother) pregnant; her role in creating the socialist Fabian Society; her affair or almost-affair with George Bernard Shaw (both destroyed correspondence that might have told us just how far things went, but she clearly fell for him, hard); Edith's multiple young lovers; the kinda icky story of how H.G. Wells chased after Edith's adopted daughter, Rosalind; her second mildly scandalous but delightfully happy marriage to a man of a most decidedly lower class; and most critically, her tangled relationship with close friend Alice Hoatson, who was also her secretary, housekeeper, and one of her husband's many lovers – but the only one who lived with them. Edith and Hubert adopted both of Alice and Hubert's children, Rosalind and John.

Part of the problem with the biography is not the biographer's fault – this is, after all, about people in the late Victorian era, who, however open minded, still Just Didn't Discuss Certain Things. (Many of Nesbit's friends firmly believed, against all documentary and actual evidence, that of course Nesbit had waited until marriage before actually sleeping with her husband, because, you know, women just didn't do those sorts of things.) This forces the biographer to guess and infer in many places, and she is not always convincing with all of her identifications of Nesbit's lovers. Some of these men may well have been just friends. Nesbit's own habit of lying and prevaricating and changing her mind on several issues, including sexual ones, does not help; she presents herself both as frigid and rabidly sexual, depending upon who she happened to be addressing at the time. It also seems clear that Nesbit's interest in sex was, unsurprisingly, highly dependent upon her moods and what happened to be going on at the time in her life.

A second, larger problem, however, is that this is yet another biography that ignores even the possibility of bisexuality, even with abundant evidence that Nesbit may have been actively bisexual, and at the very least had romantic feelings towards women. Although Briggs tells us that "Edith expressed the warmest affection for her girlfriends, particularly when she was very young. She wrote them love poems as if she were a man...", Briggs never once considers that these poems might have been expressing Edith's actual sexuality and feelings; instead, she tells us, Victorian culture allowed Edith to express these subjects to women since these sorts of things could not be said to men. (Edith said these sorts of things to George Bernard Shaw anyway, but he was not exactly an advocate for the Victorian moral code.) Thus, these are merely expressions of "Edith's passionate nature," not her actual feelings.

This is especially problematic when the biography turns to the subject of Alice Hoatson. Critically, Alice became Edith's friend before she became Hubert's mistress and mother of his children. They wrote each other passionate love poetry, and when Alice became pregnant, Edith did not kick her out of the house, despite her suspicions. It is not clear when Edith learned, for certain, that her husband had fathered Alice's children; what is clear is that Edith knew, for certain, that her husband had fathered Alice's first child when he fathered the second – thirteen years later. Alice was still living with them both, and friends frequently referred to her as Edith's companion and friend – not Hubert's.

But the biography never admits that Alice and Edith may also have had a sexual relationship – perhaps as a threesome with Hubert, perhaps separately. After all, Hubert had other lovers, both short and long term, that Edith did not welcome into her home, although in some cases she befriended them. (When they married, Hubert was involved in a long term relationship with his mother's companion, Maggie Simpson, a relationship that continued after his marriage. Edith and Maggie met and apparently became friends, but Maggie and her children were never brought into the marriage or the relationship.) He had other children with these lovers that she did not adopt, or apparently want to meet. And yet the biography wants us to accept Alice as just another one of the lovers that Edith had to put up with, one of the lovers that drove her into finding (male) lovers of her own.

The biographer constantly tells us – without textual evidence – that Nesbit was disappointed in her marriage, because of his philandering ways. She adds that Edith "must have had more than one inkling of the truth, but she probably rejected it from her conscious mind, dealing with it as most of us deal with intolerable knowledge, by hiding it from herself." But in fact, Briggs presents no evidence that Edith actually found the situation intolerable. Edith not only welcomed Alice into her home, adopting her children (to avoid scandal), but continued to support both of them financially, co-write articles and short stories with her husband, and turn to him for critical and editorial help.

Letters to family members (quoted in the text) show that his death left her devastated and lost – not the reaction of a woman relieved to be free of a philandering husband at last. (The lost feelings were in part what led her to her second, mildly scandalous marriage.) And if she admittedly left nothing to Alice's children in her will, that can easily be explained as Edith's attempt to restore fairness: her husband had left everything to Alice's children, and little to his own, and Edith felt, with some justification, that Alice's children were better equipped to make successes of themselves in the real world.

And even after Hubert died, Alice continued to live with Edith for more than three years – even nursing Edith's second husband through a bout of pneumonia before leaving for her own home and a belated but successful career in nursing. The biographer uses the phrase "Now that Alice had finally gone..." but again, presents no evidence that Edith saw the departure in that light. It's equally possible that Alice left because she disliked Edith's second husband, or vice versa, or that their friendship did trail off after a time, as friendships do.

We cannot, of course, prove that Edith and Alice had a sexual relationship, whatever their mutual love poetry might imply. But the same thing can be said about Edith's relationships with men that the biographer assumes were sexual. Certainly Edith's friends assumed many of them were, and the evidence does suggest that she slept with several younger men (and probably Shaw). But as the biographer herself states regarding one of these affairs, "What evidence there is concerning their love affair occurs in yet another novel, though not by either of the protagonists..." So, fiction written by someone else is proof of an affair, but passionate poetry written by both protagonists is not? This is even less conclusive than becoming someone's "It's Complicated" in Facebook.

I've written about this denial of bisexuality before, but it's still frustrating. It's a denial that forces a biographer into several possibly unwarranted conclusions, and robs the text of nuances. And in this case, it also heightens the image of woman as reactor instead of actor, by assuming that Edith Nesbit had affairs in reaction to Hubert Bland's affairs, instead of welcoming the prospect of an open marriage with a husband that tolerated and encouraged her own sexual needs; this may have been one reason why she married him. If you accept that Edith Nesbit might have been a bisexual, sexually healthy and adventurous woman, you can accept that an open marriage might well have been her choice as well. Certainly she seems to have enjoyed many aspects of it.
Tags: biographies, bisexuality, books, edith nesbit

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