On 30 November 1871, Edith Nesbit’s older sister Mary lost her battle with TB, the disease that had blighted her life. She was staying with friends in Normandy at the time. Sarah Nesbit, Edith’s mother, decided to return to England and settle in the picturesque village of Halstead, near Sevenoaks, with her surviving children. In My School Days, Nesbit described her “Kentish home” as “dearer to me than all”. She wrote:
After many wanderings, my mother took a house at Halstead, ‘The Hall’ it was called but the house itself did not lend itself to the pretensions of its name. A long, low, red-brick house, that might have been common-place but for the roses and ivy which clung to the front of it, and the rich, heavy jasmine which covered the side. There was a smooth lawn with chest- nut-trees round it and a big garden, where flowers and fruit and vegetables grew together, as they should, without jealousy or class-distinction. There never were such peonies as grew among our currant-bushes, nor such apricots as hung among the leaves on the sunny south wall. From a laburnum-tree in a corner of the lawn we children slung an improvised hammock, and there I used to read and dream, and watch the swaying green gold of leaf and blossom.
When falling sugar prices stimulated the jam industry, fruit farms had proliferated in Halstead. Local woodland was grubbed up to make way for strawberries, and damson trees, known locally as ‘skegs’, lined the hedgerows. Smallholder’s huts, erected hurriedly, were soon replaced with stone cottages. Boisterous groups of itinerant pickers spent their wages in the village pubs, the Rose and Crown, and the Cock Inn. Both are still trading.
In My School Days, Nesbit described the glorious days she spent exploring the countryside around Halstead with her older brothers, Alfred and Harry:
Oh, those dewy mornings – the resurrection of light and life in the woods and fields! Would that it were possible for all children to live in the country where they may drink in, consciously or unconsciously, the dear delights of green meadow and dappled woodland! The delight in green things growing, in the tender beauty of the evening light on grey pastures, the glorious splendour of the noonday sun on meadows golden with buttercups, the browns and purples of winter woodlands.
Sarah Nesbit leased Halstead Hall, a substantial detached house located in the village and reputed to be haunted. Long before the Nesbits arrived, the local rector had carried out a ceremony of exorcism on the stairway and this may have informed Edith’s horror story ‘The Shadow’ (1905):
On the staircase, the feeling used to be so awful that I have had to bite my lips till they bled to keep myself from running upstairs at full speed.
It seems likely that this ghost was Septimus Man, youngest son of the family who owned the house. A tragic and eccentric figure, he would squat in Halstead Hall whenever it was empty of tenants. In My School Days, Edith wrote:
The only really exciting thing was the presence, within a stone’s throw of our house, of our landlady’s son, who lived all alone in a little cottage standing in the fields. He was reported mad by the world, eccentric by his friends; but, as we found him, perfectly harmless. His one delusion, as far as I know, was that he was the rightful owner, nay, more, the rightful tenant of our house, and about once in six months he used to terrify the whole household by appearing with a carpet bag at the front door and announcing that he had come to take possession. This used to alarm all of us very much, because if a gentleman is eccentric enough to wish to ‘take possession’ of another person’s house there is no knowing what he may be eccentric enough to do next. But he was always persuaded to go away peaceably, and I don’t think we need have been so frightened. Once while he was in the drawing-room being persuaded by my mother, I peeped into the carpet bag he had left in the hall: It contained three empty bottles that had held mixed pickles, a loaf of bread and a barrister’s wig and gown. Poor gentleman, I am afraid he was very eccentric indeed.
When Alfred Nesbit shot a fox, mistaking it for a rabbit, and hid the corpse in his bedroom, he scoffed at Edith’s suggestion that they give it a funeral. Instead, he persuaded her to help him stuff it. They bought a shilling book on taxidermy, and the chemicals they needed, skinned the poor creature, buried its innards, and nailed its pelt to the inside of a cupboard door. Next day they rose early, before the maids had stirred, and reunited the pelt with its contents, abandoning their taxidermy project. Decades later, Edith included this event, in almost identical detail, in The Wouldbegoods. When the Bastable children shoot a fox in error, they give it the elaborate funeral Edith desired. She even composed a eulogy for it.
While she lived in Halstead, Edith would run down Cadlocks Hill to the railway track at its base and walk the railway line with her brothers. The fictional railway line in The Railway Children, her most celebrated novel for children, is a pastiche of several but appears to draw on memories of Halstead since it runs along the field at the end of the children’s garden.
Nesbit included this roof space in several of her books including The Wouldbegoods (1901) and The Phoenix and The Carpet (1903). In The Wouldbegoods, Oswald Bastable, equipped with ‘a book and a few apples’, enters ‘a square trapdoor in the ceiling of the linen room’ to reach ‘the wonderful, mysterious place between the ceiling and the roof of the house’:
The roof is beams and tiles. Slits of light show through the tiles here and there. The ceiling, on its other and top side, is made of rough plaster and beams. If you walk on the beams it is all right – if you walk on the plaster you go through with your feet... it was splendid... He walked along a dark, narrow passage. Every now and then cross-beams barred his way, and he had to creep under them. At last a small door loomed before him with cracks of light under and over. He drew back the rusty bolts and opened it. It opened straight on to the leads, a flat place between two steep red roofs, with a parapet two feet high back and front, so that no one could see you. It was a place no one could have invented better than, if they had tried, for hiding in.
The window of Nesbit’s own bright little bedroom facing westward over a garden filled with roses, shrubs and fruit trees. In her short story ‘The Brute’ (The Literary Sense, 1903) a large-eyed, dark-haired girl, with a passion for poetry, leans out of her window:
The pearl of dawn was not yet dissolved in the gold cup of the sunshine, but in the northwest the dripping opal waves were ebbing fast to the horizon, and the sun was already half risen from his couch of dull crimson. She leaned out of her window. By fortunate chance it was a jasmine-muffled lattice window, as a girl’s window should be, and looked down on the dewy stillness of the garden. The cloudy shadows that had clung in the earliest dawn about the lilac bushes and rhododendrons had faded like grey ghosts, and slowly on lawn and bed and path new black shadows were deepening and intensifying.
This young girl is ‘full of the anxious, trembling longing that is youth’s unnecessary joy.’
Underneath her bedroom window stood an old mahogany bookcase with a deep top drawer that let down to form a writing table. There, she would scribble away at her poetry, locking it away if her brothers were about. In ‘When I was a Girl’, an article she wrote for John O’London’s Weekly, she described the adolescent style of her early poems, which she signed ‘D. Nesbit’, D for Daisy:
I don’t know whether it was the influence of the poetry I read or merely a tendency natural to my age, but from fourteen to seventeen all my poems were about love and the grave. I had no sweetheart in real life, but in my poems I buried dozens of them and wept on their graves quite broken-heartedly.
Sarah sent several of these early poems to Alexander Hay Japp, literary adviser to publishers Alexander Strahan, and a member of the editing team on Good Words and the Sunday Magazine. He agreed to publish them. Edith described her joy at seeing her work in print:
The first poem I ever had published was a non-committal set of verses about dawn, with a moral tag. It was printed in the Sunday Magazine. When I got the proof I ran round the garden shouting ‘Hooray!’ at the top of my voice, to the scandal of the village and the vexation of my family.
Sarah Nesbit gave up the lease on Halstead Hall in the autumn of 1875. In My School Days, Nesbit wrote:
My book of memories lies open always at the page where are the pictures of Kentish cherry orchards, field and farm and gold-dim woodlands starred with primroses, light copses where the blue-bells and wild-flowers grow.
Early in their relationship, Nesbit brought Hubert Bland, her husband-to-be, to her beloved Halstead. They wandered through the woods and had lunch in a ‘funny, old-fashioned Inn’. She recaptures that idyllic day in her short story ‘A Holiday’ (The Literary Sense, 1903). A fictional couple, strangers to each, other spend sublime hours strolling through lush green parkland in Halstead ‘where tall red sorrel and white daisies grew high among the grass that was up for hay’. They ‘talked of all things under the sun’. While they are there, ‘[the] gold sun shone, the blue sky arched over a world of green and glory’. ‘It seemed,’ Nesbit wrote, ‘that the green country was enchanted land, and they under a spell that could never break.’
You can listen to the story of the The Shadow here