Early in 1922, Nesbit was confronted with the harsh reality that her income from writing was dwindling. Although she sought other sources of income, even selling vegetables, eggs and flowers to her neighbours, she was unable to generate enough revenue to keep her family and maintain Well Hall, her sprawling rented home in Eltham. She had grown disillusioned with the encroaching suburbs too. In Wings and the Child, her non-fiction manual for a happy childhood, she described how the wild and lovely spot she had moved to as the last century was ending had changed over time:
Once the road from Eltham to Woolwich was a grassy lane with hedges and big trees in the hedges, and wild pinks and Bethlehem stars, and ragged robin and campion. Now the trees are cut down and there are no more flowers. It is asphalt all the way, and here and there seats divided by iron rods so that tired tramps should not sleep on them. Accompanied by Tommy Tucker, her second husband, she moved to a quirky new home in Romney Marsh on the south-east coast.
Romney Marsh had a reputation for witchcraft and lawlessness. Visitors avoided it in ancient times, fearing its unwholesome air might carry plague. In Return to Yesterday, Ford Madox Ford, who lived on its fringes, called it “an infectious and holding neighbourhood,” wrote: ‘In the Middle Ages they used to say: “These be the four quarters of the World: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Romney Marsh.”’ He knew how captivating it could be too, and warned: ‘Once you go there you are apt there to stay.’
Nesbit settled on the hamlet of Jesson, which was likely named after Jesson Farm. Renamed St Mary’s Bay in 1935, it is situated in the borderland between Kent and East Sussex, close to St Mary in the Marsh, but even closer to the sea. At the end of a cul-de-sac behind Jesson Farm stood two decommissioned brick-built huts, once used by the British Air Force as a photographic laboratory and a storehouse for medical materials. The whole structure required a great deal of renovation to make it habitable, and the couple completed much of this themselves. The huts were connected by a passage they named ‘The Suez Canal’ and they christened them ‘The Longboat’ and ‘The Jollyboat’. From their windows, they could gaze out across the marshes towards the sea wall.
Edith brightened their walls with lithographs by Gerald Spencer Pryse, and with H.R. Miller’s brilliant depiction of the Queen of Babylon from The Story of the Amulet. Her writing room became ‘the magic room’. She dedicated her final novel, The Lark ‘To T.T. Tucker, With Love. Jesson St. Mary’s, Romney, Kent.’
Nesbit wrote ‘occasional joyful letters’ to her friend Mavis Carter, describing how the Long Boat was taking shape; it was ’full of shavings and carpenters’. Now she reassured Mavis:
I have everything to make me happy except health, kindest and most loving nursing and care… a four-post bed like a golden shrine and a view of about eight miles of marsh bounded by the little lovely hills of Kent.
English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer Noël Coward was a close neighbour and devoted fan. He had bicycled around the district looking for a home for his mother that he could use as a writing retreat at weekends. He took a cottage in Romney Marsh, which he described in Present Indicative as ‘nestling up against a public house [the Star Inn] in the village of St Mary in the Marsh’. It had four rooms and outside sanitation but he loved the ‘superb view from the upper windows of unlimited sheep’. When Coward called on Nesbit, he was relieved to find her ‘as firm, as nice, and as humorous as her books had led me to expect’. In a letter to his friend, children’s author Noel Streatfeild, he described her as “absolutely charming with greyish-white hair and a rather sharp sense of humour’. He included a description of Tommy too: “The skipper, her husband, was a grand old man, who loved her and guarded her devotedly through her last, rather sad years.’
Nesbit’s final years in Romney Marsh were happy ones, but her time there was blighted by ill health. Even though she was ill, and in great pain, she seemed tranquil, buoyant even, towards the end. ‘What things there are still to see and to do, and to think and to be and to grow into and to grow out of!’ wrote to her friend and protégée, the writer Berta Ruck, in March 1924. Towards the end, a great friend from Dymchurch, Agnes Thorndike, who was mother to the actress Sybil and writer Russell, presented her with a contraption that allowed her to sit up and admire ‘the marsh and the hills behind those superb sunsets that all us marsh people love so’, as Sybil put it. Edith wrote her a poem of thanks:
On bed of state long since a Queen
Would wake to morning’s starry beams
Silvering the arras blue and green
That hung her walls with cloth-of dreams;
And, where the fluted valance drooped
Above the curtains’ broidered posies,
The pretty caravan cupids trooped
Festooning all her bed with roses.
Mother of Stars! Enthroned I lie
On the high bed your kindness sent,
And see between the marsh and sky
The little lovely hills of Kent;
And, ’mid the memories old and new
That bless me as the curtain closes,
Come troops of pretty thoughts of you…
And mine, too, is a bed of roses.
Edith Nesbit died on 4 May 1924, at the age of sixty-five, officially of ‘bronchiectasis and cardiac dilatation,’ although lung cancer is now suspected. Her husband Tommy, live-in companion Olive Hill, daughter Iris, and son Paul kept vigil by her bedside, and she died in Iris’s arms. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in a plain oak coffin in the peaceful, country churchyard of St Mary in the Marsh, under the protective shade of a majestic elm that stood close to the road. At Tommy’s request, a short funeral service concluded with a reading of the final section from his wife’s novel Dormant (1911).
‘It seems such waste, such stupid senseless waste,’ said Bats. ‘His great thoughts, his fine body that loved life, all the friendship, the aspiration, the love… all thrown away, gone, wasted for ever.’ ‘Who says that it is wasted?’ said the Jew. ‘It is his body that has served its turn and is cast away. The great thoughts, the friendship, the aspiration, the love; can we say that these die? Nay, rather, these shall not die. These shall live in the Courts of the Lord, forever.’
The Nottingham Evening Post reported: ‘E. Nesbit (Mrs Hubert Bland), the famous writer of children’s and other stories, directed that a wooden tablet bearing her name should be the only memorial over her grave.’ In response, Tommy carved the simple wooden monument that marks her grave. Inscription reads “Resting, E. Nesbit, Mrs Bland-Tucker, Poet and Author died 4th May 1924 Aged 65” The muddy track leading to her home for the final two years of her life, the only home she ever owned, was renamed Nesbit Road.