Yesterday was the birthday of E. Nesbit, writer of children’s stories, born 1858.
For anyone who knows the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, there is a story by E. Nesbit in her collection The Magic World that immediately stands out. It is called “The Aunt and Amabel”; it tells of a girl who damages a special flower-bed without meaning to. Her aunt punishes her by confining her to a “bedroom, the one with the wardrobe with a looking-glass in it” (228). The only furnishings described are a bed and a wardrobe. Then Amabel finds a railway timetable that lists a peculiar destination: “the extraordinary name ‘Whereyouwantogoto’.” Its nearest “station was ‘Bigwardrobeinspareroom'” (224). Intrigued, she opens the wardrobe door and steps inside, like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And like Lucy, Amabel discovers something in it besides coats, in her case a crystal cave. Lucy finds snowy woods, not a cave, but the faun Lucy meets immediately takes her to a cave. In Nesbit, Amabel finds a sumptuous place where she is lovingly welcomed by “The People Who Understand” (231). With their help she and her aunt are reconciled, exchanging forgiveness in a manner characteristic of Nesbit. The motif of human reconciliation is crucial. But the obvious point is that the motifs found in “The Aunt and Amabel” are also found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis was deeply indebted to E. Nesbit, not only in matters of plot, character and image, but even in small details of phrasing. When he set out to write his Chronicles of Narnia, he though of them as being Nesbit books: as belonging to a type or genre practised by E. Nesbit. In many respects the Narnia books begin where the Nesbit books leave off: The Magician’s Nephew, the first of the series, begins with an allusion to Nesbit.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com