The Reviews Are Coming In…


  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons’ painstaking research gives us a new insight into the bizarre Bohemian life of the ground-breaking children’s author E. Nesbit. It’s a fantastic read.”
    Jacqueline Wilson
  • “Absolutely superb!”
    Hilary McKay (children’s author of The Skylarks War, shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards)
  • “What a stirring and unexpected story Eleanor Fitzsimons tells and what a subject she has found. I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t owe something to Edith Nesbit’s glorious books for children. The extraordinary woman who wrote them proves to be every bit as brave, funny and imaginative as her own intrepid characters.”
    Miranda Seymour
  • “Nesbit was the mother of modern children’s fiction and this  intelligent, sensitive and minutely researched biography gives the truest picture yet of the woman herself, and the influences that shaped her brilliant imagination.”
    Kate Saunders, Costa Children’s Book Award winner for Five Children on the Western Front
  • “In this long-overdue new biography, Eleanor Fitzsimons gives us a nuanced yet compelling portrait of E. Nesbit’s many-faceted personality, life and works, as well as of the politically and culturally vibrant milieu in which she lived.”
    Fiona Sampson
  • “I’ve always loved the work of E. Nesbit—The Railway Children and Five Children and It are my favorites—but I knew nothing about the extraordinary, surprising life of this great figure in children’s literature. Eleanor Fitzsimons’s account is so gripping that I read this biography in two days. “
    Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author
  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons paints a detailed picture of the radical politics and unconventional personal life of the author of The Railway Children, and makes a strong case for how these elements informed E. Nesbit’s most famous works – a fascinating biography.”
    Emily Midorika, author of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf
  • “E Nesbit was one of the greatest writers from the golden age of children’s literature. She was also a brilliant, complicated woman, who lived a life filled with emotional entanglements and intellectual dispute. It is a life told with panache and elegance by Eleanor Fitzsimons. A must-read not just for those interested in the early years of feminism, or in children’s literature, but for anyone who cares about the complexities of the human soul.” 
    Anthony McGowan, winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize
  • “A fascinating insight into late 19th century/ early 20th century bohemian literary life, and a rare glimpse into the world of an unconventional, enigmatic and staunchly socialist children’s author. I loved it.” 
    Cathy Cassidy, winner of the Queen of Teen Award

Here’s the verdict from Publishers Weekly – “Fitzsimons delivers a sprightly and highly readable life of a writer who deserves even wider recognition.”

Kirkus Reviews in their review described it as: “A fascinating, thoughtfully organized, thoroughly researched, often surprising biography of the enigmatic author of The Railway Children.”

In a starred review, Booklist decides that I make “a compelling case for her [Nesbit’s] stature as an important writer,” adding: “This biography is long overdue.”

Finally, for now, the amazing Kate Atkinson told the Daily Mail that she is reading it at the moment and described it as “very well-researched,” while on Twitter the absolutely marvellous Marian Keyes (@MarianKeyes) included The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit in a photo of the books she is “REALLY DYING to read.”



Filed under Book Review, Essay

Latest Reviews for Wilde’s Women


Review Highlights for Wilde’s Women:

  • “A lively debut biography…sharply drawn portraits of a colourful cast of characters…A brisk, sympathetic look at an understudied aspect of Wilde’s eventful life.”
  • “Fitzsimons has produced a thought-provoking and illuminating read that is sure to offer new lines of thought for even the most knowledgeable Wilde fan. Thoroughly readable and accessible, this is a must for students of Wilde of those who just have an appreciation of the man and his work. “
    We Love This Book
  • “I adored this book. It’s a fascinating, readable account and is stunningly well written. “
    Irish Examiner
  • “illuminating study of Oscar Wilde’s life… Fitzsimons does a fascinating job of reminding us that it wasn’t just the men in Wilde’s life that raised him up and brought him down, but that this troupe of exceptional women played their part too.   “
  • “A well-written, deeply researched, and detailed biographical portrait of the many women in Wilde’s life, from his mother and wife to actresses and socialites.”
    Library Journal
  • “Lively new study.”
    Irish Times
  • “Even if you think you know all about Wilde, this highly entertaining book, packed with fascinating detail and anecdotes, will still surprise you.”
    The Lady
  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him [Wilde]: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life.”
  • “Highly enjoyable and generally reliable.”
    Washington Post
  • “I’m hugely grateful to Eleanor for sharing this book with me, it’s been a joy to read and is meticulously researched. You can feel her passion for the subject leaping from the pages, and it’s contagious! “
    Sheroes of history
  • “A remarkable book… the breadth and depth of research is astonishing.”
    Emma Thompson
  • “lively and comprehensive”
    The Women’s History Association of Ireland
  • ” a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.”
    Times Literary Supplement
  • “Worthy and useful addition …provides fresh insights and entertaining asides…brings some interesting figures from Oscar’s world into rewarding new focus .”
    Literary Review
  • “Charting Oscar’s life, Fitzsimons paints a series of vivid portraits of some of Oscar’s female friends and acquaintances, as well as providing sketches of a society in which women were beginning to emerge as influential cultural figures in the form of patrons, writers, performers and more…one of the strengths of Fitzsimons’ work is that she also revives some talented women who have quite simply been forgotten…Wilde’s Women, as much as it is intended to reveal Oscar in the light of his female contemporaries, also illuminates a moment crackling with a sense of possibility for women…what is genuinely revelatory is the extent to which those women outside his immediate circle were also affected by his downfall…Wilde’s Women captures powerful female voices and portrays a group of bold and fearless women who stood by their beliefs and by Oscar when many others would not.”
    Franny Moyle, The Wildean
  • “This is the work of a lifetime and a labour of love from Fitzsimons who has tracked down and ascertained the reciprocal influence between Wilde and the major (and many minor) women in his life.”
    The Heythrop Journal

The latest reviews for Wilde’s Women have appeared in the Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Woman’s History Association.

The TLS review is behind a paywall but highlights include:

‘The originality of this latest Wilde biography lies in its in-depth discussion of influential yet subsequently forgotten women of the fin de siecle.’
‘It is a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.’
I love this review in American magazine High Voltage!

I’m also absolutely thrilled that Wilde’s Women has been reviewed in The Guardian newspaper by the wonderful Simon Callow, acclaimed actor and a distinguished biographer in his own right.

Also thrilling is the lovely, positive review Wilde’s Women received in iconic magazine The Lady (THE place to advertise for a governess or housekeeper should you require one).


Wilde’s Women - cover

Additional reviews can be found below:

The Irish Times asked renowned and respected Wilde scholar Dr. Eibhear Walshe to review Wilde’s Women. There’s a link to the review here.

Wilde’s Women has also been reviewed positively by The Independent here and here, by Kirkus and by We Love This Book (book of the week) among others. There is a round-up of review highlights on my author page on my agent’s website:


Filed under Book Review

E.M. Forster & E. Nesbit

British novelist, essayist, and social and literary critic Edward Morgan (E.M.) Forster died on 7 June 1970, which seems incredibly recent given that he was born in the Victorian era, in 1879.

BBC Hulton Picture Library

In 1909, Edith Nesbit read A Room with a View, Forster’s third novel, which had been published the year before. She loved it so much that she invited him to lunch at her flat to discuss his work. While he was there, Forster, who was two decades her junior and a shy and awkward man, knocked over a towering pile of plates while closing a window at her request. Nesbit responded kindly, assuring him that she had purchased these plates for practically nothing from a bric-a-brac stall at the Caledonian Market in Islington.

Image result for e nesbit well hall

E. Nesbit’s home at Well Hall

They became friends and Forster visited Nesbit at her home at Well Hall in Eltham. On one occasion, in 1911, she played the pianola for him and they strolled through her lovely orchard, discussing their shared passion for books. At sunset, Forster joined family and fellow guests in the garden to watch Nesbit burn a cardboard model depicting rows of factories and terraced housing. She detested the creeping urbanisation that was encroaching on her once-secluded home.


For more on Nesbit and her circle, look out for my new biography, which will be published by Duckworth/Prelude in October 2019.



Filed under Book Excerpt, Essay

“I should never have married at all if I had not been dead at the time.” GBS


Charlotte and Bernard Shaw (centre) with Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb     Library of the LSE

On 1 June 1898, Irish playwright and thinker George Bernard Shaw married Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irishwoman, fellow Fabian and champion of women’s rights. Shaw wrote of his new wife:

She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion… or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humour, philandering shamelessly and outrageously.

As was his wont, he considered himself captured prey, pounced upon when at his most vulnerable. “I should never have married at all,” he told his friend Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “if I had not been dead at the time.” The nature of this perceived entrapment was that he had fallen off his bicycle and agreed to recuperate in her home. In truth, they got on terribly well. According to fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb they were “constant companions, pedalling round the country all day, sitting up late at night talking.”

When it came to sex, they reached a mutually satisfactory understanding:

As man and wife we found a new relation in which sex had no part. It ended the old gallantries, flirtations, and philanderings for both of us. Even of those it was the ones that were never consummated that left the longest and kindliest memories.

They stayed together until Charlotte’s death in 1948. In 1950, when Shaw died, their ashes were mixed, then scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.

This is an extract from my new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which will be published on 17 October 2019. Further details here.


Michael Holroyd. Bernard Shaw: the search for love 1856-1898.Chatto & Windus, 1988

G.B. Shaw. Sixteen Self-SketchesDodd, Mead, 1949

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. My Diaries 1900-1914: The Coalition Against Germany. A.A. Knopf, 1923

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Filed under Book Excerpt, Essay, History

The Life And Loves Of Edith Nesbit

My new biography, The Life And Loves Of Edith Nesbit, will be published on 17 October 2019 and I love the cover my UK publisher (Duckworth/Prelude) has designed.


Edith Nesbit was a strikingly beautiful and unconventional woman. In May 1888, one-hundred-and-thirty-one years ago, a description of her bohemian household appeared in the Star under the heading ‘Gossip – Mostly About People’

Nesbit, the gifted poetess of Longman’s Magazineand the Weekly Dispatch, is known among her friends, literary and otherwise, as Mrs Edith Bland, wife of Hubert Bland. She is a tall woman of somewhat over 30, with dark hair and eyes. Although her features are not precisely regular, their expression is full of charm when they are lit up by a smile or animated by any absorbing topic. Mrs Bland has a soft, melodious voice, and her manner may best be described by the French term enlinerie [sic]. She dresses in Liberty’s fabrics. Mr Hubert Bland is a tall, broad, portly man, with a large head. He is dark, wears a moustache and imperial, and is a little under 40. The Blands used to live at Blackheath, but now reside at Lee, in Kent. They have two children [sic], a boy and girl, the former of whom now bears the familiar name of Fabian Bland.

Edith and Hubert had an older son, Paul, but he never seemed to make much of an impression. I’m going to be posting more regularly from now on about Nesbit’s extraordinary life (she knew EVERYONE). I do hope you enjoy learning more about the women who is arguably the most influential children’s author that ever lived. C.S. Lewis borrowed his wardrobe from a short story of hers and J.K. Rowling often acknowledges her debt to this most magical of storytellers.

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Dean Jonathan Swift

An anecdote concerning Jonathan Swift as he approaches the end of his life appears in many early biographies. The first instance I have come across is in Volume 3 of A supplement to Dr. Swift’s works, being the fourteenth in the collection: containing miscellanies in prose and verse by the Dean; Dr. Delany, Dr. Sheridan, Mrs. Johnson, and others, his intimate friends.This volume, one of a twenty-seven-volume set, was published in London in 1779by John Nichols, adistinguished printer, antiquarian and editor who was familiar with Swift’s writing.

The anecdote in question appears on page 326 under the heading ‘Epigram’ and goes as follows:

The Dean in his lunacy had some intervals of sense; at which his guardians, or physicians took him out for the air. On one of these days, when they came to the [Phoenix] Park, Swiftremarked a new building, which he had never seen, and asked what it was designed for. To which Dr. Kingsburyanswered, “That, Mr. Dean, is the magazine for arms and powder, for the security of the city.”  “Oh! Oh!” says the Dean, pulling out his pocket-book, “let me take an itemof that. This is worth remarking: – my tablets, as Hamlet says, my tablets – memory, put down that!” Which produced these lines, said to be the last he ever wrote:

Behold! A proof of Irishsense!

Here Irish wit is seen!

When nothing’s left, that’s worth defence,

We build a magazine.

This anecdote is repeated in volume 8 of The Works of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. Arranged, revised, and corrected, with notes, By Thomas Sheridan, a.m. (1784). It also appears in various volumes of The Works, arranged by Sheridan and corrected and revised by John Nichols F.S.A, all published between 1801 and 1808. There are dozens of further examples. Notable for my purposes is its reproduction on page 376 of Volume 14 of The Works of Jonathan Swift D.D. with a Life of the Author, which was compiled bySir Walter Scott and brought out by Archibald Constable & Co. in Edinburgh in 1814.

Swift’s anecdote became topical after flooding in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin led to the exhumation of Swift’s skull in 1835, ninety years after his death. This event gave doctors and phrenologists an opportunity to assess the Dean’s state of health. In 1847, May and August issues of the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science featured a lengthy essay by Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, titled ‘Some Particulars Respecting Swift and Stella, with Engravings of their Crania; together with some notice of St. Patrick’s Hospital’. Wilde used his considerable medical expertise to interrogate a suggestion, put forward by Dr. William Mackenzie of Glasgow, that the Dean had ended his life ‘furiously insane and ultimately fatuous’.[1]

Wilde countered:

That the poor Dean had not even then lost his powers either of sarcasm or rhyming may be gathered from the following quotation, which we extract from Scott’s edition of his works. The precise date of the circumstance has not been recorded, but it was certainly subsequent to the appointment of guardians to his person.[2]

He then reproduced the Phoenix Park anecdote and beneath it made the statement: ‘How far this proves the insanity or imbecility of its author the reader is to judge’. Dr. Wilde, to quote his own words, regarded this anecdote as evidence that ‘Swift was not, at any period of his life, not even in his last illness, what is usually termed and understood as mad’.[3]

When Hodges and Smith published Wilde’s essay in book form under the amended title: The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with remarks on Stella, and on some of his writings hitherto unnoticed, Wilde included what he described as ‘many curious and hitherto unnoticed facts’. His intention, he insisted, was to assist future biographers. He also wrote ‘in the hope of rescuing his [Swift’s] character from some of the aspersions which have been cast upon it’. [4]

On 1 July 1849, an analytical review of Wilde’s book was published in The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathologyunder the title ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’. The reviewers declared that Wilde’s conclusion was ‘altogether an erroneous inference,’ since, in their view, ‘incoherence’ was ‘no more a constant symptom of insanity than shouting and violence’. Wilde’s citing of the Phoenix Park anecdote was refuted in the strongest terms as ‘very sorry evidence of sanity’. [5] The suggestion was made that Wilde had championed Swift out of a sense of compatriotism. This may have been the case. Perhaps too he felt a connection with Swift through his enrollment, aged seventeen, as a student in Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, where Swift was once a Governor. By coincidence, Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, the physician mentioned in the anecdote he had cited, was great-grandfather to Jane Elgee, the woman he would marry in November 1851.

As Robert Harborough Sherard, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends and an early biographer, puts it:

Her [Lady Jane Wilde’s] mother was a Miss Kingsbury who was the grand-daughter of Dr Kingsbury, who in his day was president of the Irish College of Physicians, and the intimate friend of Dean Swift. [6]

Jane’s mother was Sarah Kingsbury, and Sarah’s father was Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare and Commissioner of Bankruptcy. His entry in Alumni Dublinenses confirms that he was the ‘s[on] and h[eir] of Thomas, of Dublin, Doctor of Physic’. [7]

This same Dr. Thomas Kingsbury is includedin Gilbert’s History of Dublin(1861) as:

Thomas Kingsbury, M.D., President of the Irish College of Physicians in 1744, resided in Anglesey-Street. Dr. Kingsbury was one of the medical attendants of Dean Swift, who, while in his company in the Phoenix Park, produced impromptu his last well-known lines on the erection of the Powder Magazine in that locality. [8]

In fact, Kingsbury was twice elected president of what was then known as the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland:in 1736 and again in 1744. Records held in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) show that he was admitted as a candidate on 6 November 1721, and elected as a fellow on 29 April 1734. [9]

Genealogical studies of the Kingsbury family tell us that Dr. Kingsbury was ‘son of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. descended from County Dorset’. [10]The Arms Entry of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, Fellow of the College of Physicians of Ireland, Aug. 7, 1742, which is held in the National Library of Ireland, confirms this and describes him as ‘Son of ThoKingsbury of an Antient family of Dorsetshire In Great Britain’. [11]

Records in the RCPI archive, along with a family tree set out in Volume Nine of the Swanzy Notebooks, held in the Library of the Representative Church Body in Dublin, suggest that Dr. Kingsbury was born in 1688 ‘near Armagh’. He appears on page 266 of the Entrance Book for Trinity College Dublin as Thomas ‘KINGSBERRY,’ and is recorded as entering the university, aged twenty, on 1 June 1708. [12]

Previously, he had attended school in Armagh in the North of Ireland where his tutor was listed as ‘Mr. Martin;’ this may have been Richard Martin, Schoolmaster of the Free School of Armagh. As to his time in Trinity College Dublin, Alumni Dublinensesinforms us that Kingsbury was granted a scholarship in 1711, attained a B.A. in 1712, an M.B. in 1719, and an M.D. in 1721. [13]

On 21 October 1725, Kingsbury married Esther Punter in St. Andrew’s Church. They had four children: Mary (b.1726), Thomas (b.1730), Elizabeth (b.1733) and Hester (b.1736).[14]The Kingsbury’s were a well-to-do family. Dr. Kingsbury appears in the Dublin Directory of 1738 as ‘Physician, Censor living on Anglesey Street’. Under the terms of his will, his widow assigned‘4 houses in College Green 70ft frontage, great house in Anglesey St backing it as payment of £1,300’ on Edward Croaker, apothecary and ‘Chemist to the University of Dublin’. This property represented the ‘personal fortune’ of his daughter Mary Kingsbury. [15]

In A New Anatomy of Ireland, Toby Barnard records that:

Kingsbury, practising in George II’s Dublin, typified the style and habits of a prosperous practitioner. He assembled a library, ran a spanking new equipage, and adopted the latest in dress, wigs, books and furnishings.

Barnard also confirms that Kingsbury ‘kept a coach and a carriage and was a discerning judge of what was modish in architecture and interior design’. [16] All this was possible because he charged well for his ministering; Barnard tells us he received ‘a fee of £120 and all his expenses for attending Lord Charlemont at Kilkenny over twelve days in 1743’. [17] Reverend Edward Murphy mentions Kingsbury in a letter to Charlemont, dated 4 April 1747. [18] He also attended the Edgeworth family in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, where, many decades later, Isola Wilde, Oscar’s sister, lost her life.

Dr. Kingsbury supplemented his income by acting as an agent for overseas property owners, one of whom wasFrank Price, afriend who lived in Wales but had property interests in Ireland. Letters to Price, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland, demonstrate that the Kingsbury family acted as if, as Barnard puts it, ‘they thought they conferred a favour rather than gained an employment by supervising the Prices’ Irish properties’. [19] Kingsbury’s letters to Price provide fascinating insights into Swift’s Dublin. [20]

On 1 March 1739, he writes:

There is great sickness and death among man and beast, wars or rather rumours of wars and invasions engross all conversation. We do not know what to think or expect but it is agreed on all sides that the Spaniard is at war with us and we at peace with them’.

On 31 May 1740:

Everything is scarce and dear the mobs have risen and broken open the bakers and meal shops, and disposed of what they found; the army was obliged to quell them. Several were killed and the city is not yet settled.

He offered medical advice too. On 29 April 1736, he writes: ‘Your spitting of blood gives me great concern’.

On 14 April 1747, Dublin newspaper Pue’s Occurrencesreported the death of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury:

Friday last [10 April 1747] died of the gout in his stomach Thomas KINGSBURY Esq. a very eminent physician whose great compassion for the poor makes his death justly lamented. [21]

Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, published by Swift’s printer George Faulkner, reported:

Yesterday morning died Dr. Kingsbury a very eminent Physician, a gentleman, as eminent for his many great virtues and good qualities as this city hath seen herewith. [22]

Kingsbury had been ill for some time. In February 1741, he informed Price that he had suffered with gout for a fortnight. In November 1743, he admitted to having suffered ‘a severe fit of the gout’. [23] Ironically, it was reported that he refused to take the advice of his own doctors, which was understandable really considering that on one occasion, he was ‘blistered from head to foot’ in an attempt to save his life. [24] After his death, Kingsbury’s impressive library was sold in Dick’s Coffeehouse in Skinner’s-row’ to‘pay pressing expenses’. [25] Shortly afterwards, Esther, his widow, was hit by the Dublin bank failures of the mid-1750s. This made her less forgiving in her financial dealings with the Price family, whose portfolio of business she inherited on her husband’s death. [26]

Biographers of Oscar Wilde and his family have long asserted that Kingsbury was both physician and friend to Swift. Richard Ellmann included this information in the first chapter of his biography,Oscar Wilde; in Mother of Oscar, Joy Melville described Dr. Kingsbury as ‘an intimate friend of Dean Swift;’ while Emer O’Sullivan, in her recently published biography The Fall of the House of Wilde, describes him as ‘a friend of writer Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin for over thirty years’. [27] There are many further examples. So, what evidence is there of this? In his anthology of Swift’s Work, Scott, when introducing Swift’s essay ‘The Present Miserable State of Ireland’, explained:

The following Tract is taken from a little miscellaneous 12mo volume of pamphlets, communicated by Mr Hartstonge, relating chiefly to Irish affairs, the property at one time of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. son of Dr Kingsbury, who attended Swift in his last illness. [28]

Aside from this, it is difficult to find specific mention of Kingsbury attending Swift. Yet, it is certain that he knew the coterie of doctors who were well known to Swift. Dr. Richard Helsham (1683-1738), who was appointed personal physician to Swift in 1714, was President of the RCPI for nine years from 1716 to 1725. Prominent Dublin obstetricianJohn Van Lewen, who was elected President of the RCPI in 1734,was father of Laetitia Pilkington, a close friend of Swift’s.Henry Cope, twice President of the RCPI (1728 and 1740), State Physician, and Governor and Physician of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, was well known to both Kingsbury and Swift.

Swift described Dr. James Grattan as ‘a doctor who kills or cures half the city;’ he named Grattan’s brothers, Robert and John, among his executors. [29]He even mentioned James in his will, since he left Robert Grattan his strong box, on condition of his giving the sole use of the said box to his brother Dr. James Grattan, during the life of the said doctor, who hath more occasion for it’. [30]

Grattan too was a Fellow of the RCPI alongside Kingsbury. Dr. William Stephens, who was a Governor of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital andMercer’s Hospital, as was Swift, was President of the RCPI in 1733, 1742 and 1759. In 1734, he was one of four men who presented a plan for the establishment of a hospital in recognition that ‘the city had no public provision to care for lunatics’. He also worked with Kingsbury’s son-in-law-to-be, apothecary Edward Croker, at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital and at the chemical laboratory at Trinity College Dublin. TobyBarnard reports that Kingsbury studied medicine under Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) at his pioneering teaching hospital in Leiden; it is known that Stephens, Cope, Grattan and Van Lewendid likewise. [31]

Another friend common to Swift and Kingsbury was Dr. Claudius Gilbert, Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1716 to 1735. In Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800, Gilbert is listed as a member of Swift’s intellectual circle. [32] He was also Kingsbury’s tutor at Trinity College Dublin. In 1742, Kingsbury was appointed executor on Gilbert’s estate. Under the terms of his will, he left a bequest for the purchase of busts of men ‘eminent for learning to adorn the library’ of Trinity College; one of these is of Swift. [33]

Kingsbury and Swift were also connected through their charitable works. Kingsbury, who was not indifferent to the plight of the poor of Dublin, was active in several voluntary associations. One was the Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland, responsible for the establishment of Charter Schools. Swift was a Charter member of that organisation at the same time. [34]Swift was also on the board of Governors of the Dublin Workhouse and Foundling Society, a cause the Kingsbury family supported. In 1816, Dr. Kingsbury’s son and his grandson, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Archdeacon of Killala in County Mayo, were listed as governors of the Foundling Hospital.

Although her nationalist politics put her at odds with her unionist family, Jane Wilde appears to have been proud of her Kingsbury connection; she named her first son William Charles Kingsbury Wilde. Given her great grandfather’s connection to Swift, it is perhaps significant that she alsotook a deep interest in Swift’s life. In her essay ‘Stella and Vanessa’, she included him among ‘the men of all time, destined to hold permanent rank in the grand federation of human intellect’. Naturally, she was quick to point out that most of these men were Irish. Lady Wilde wrote that she admired the way in which Swift ‘hurled his terrible pamphlets like thunderbolts upon his scared and startled opponents, crushing them as much by the bitterness of his sarcasm as by the remorseless logic of truth, fact and sound sense’. [35]

Lady Wilde too wrote of Swift’s final years:

His health declined, his intellect became clouded, the power of writing went from him, but the bitterest pang of all was his own consciousness that madness was approaching, and that all the fine chords of his brain were jangled and out of tune. For three years he never spoke though he still seemed conscious of passing events, even down to the time of his death, which took place in 1745, just fifteen years after Stella had been laid in her grave. [36]

One wonders if she obtained this information from family lore. Certainly, she must have spoken of it to some extent, since Sherard can only have obtained his information on the connection between Kingsbury and Swift from Oscar or his mother. By coincidence, Oscar died on 30 November 1900, the date of Swift’s birth in 1667.

Jane Wilde was known to place great emphasis on illustrious family connections, no matter how tenuous the evidence. In one of her wilder flights of fancy, she claimed that Elgee, her maiden name, was a corruption of the sixteenth century Italian surname Algiati. By insisting that Algiati was a version of Alighieri, she argued an unconvincing connection to Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. In her correspondence with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, translator of Dante’s works, she signed herself ‘Francesca Speranza Wilde’, possibly to sustain this illusion of exotic, Italianate origins. [37]

Although she rarely spoke of her childhood, and never of her father, who left for India when she was an infant, Lady Wilde was well informed about her family history and keen to exploit any potentially useful connections. Several of her Elgee relatives were worthy of note. In her book Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, Lady Wilde recounted the tale of how rebels spared her Elgee grandfather, Archdeacon John Elgee, who was much admired and later elected Mayor of Wexford, during the rising of 1798.[38] She also asserted a tenuous and ultimately unsuccessful claim to a share in the estate of her first cousin on the Elgee side, Sir Robert John le Mesurier McClure, who discovered the Northwest Passage.

On the Kingsbury side, Lady Wilde made much of the fact that her aunt Henrietta Kingsbury was married to cleric, playwright and gothic novelist Charles Maturin. Although she can scarcely have known him, since she was a tiny child when he died in 1824, Jane admired Maturin enormously and displayed a bust of him in her home at 1 Merrion Square. She passed her admiration on to Oscar and traces of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer are evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar also adopted the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth towards the end of his life. It seems likely that she would have enjoyed and celebrated her connection, however tenuous, with Dean Swift, a man she admired greatly.

One final quirky fact about the epigram Dr. Kingston’s conversation with Swift is said to have prompted is that it is parodied by another celebrated Irish writer. In his challenging, unorthodox novel Finnegans Wake, James Joyce writes:

Behove this sound of Irish sense. Really?

Here English might be seen. Royally?

One sovereign punned to petery pence. Regally?

The silence speaks the scene. Fake! [39]


[1] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with an appendix, containing several of his poems hitherto unpublished, and some remarks on Stella. Dublin: Hodges & Smith, 1849, p.5

[2] Since guardians were appointed to Dean Swift in 1742, and the magazine fort was completed in 1736, this incident must have taken place between 1742 and 1745, when Swift died.

[3] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, p.8

[4] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, introduction (page not numbered)

[5] Analytical Reviews (Anonymous). ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’ in The Journal of Psychological Medicine & Mental Pathology,Volume 2, July 1, 1849, 366

[6] Sherard, Robert Harborough. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London:T. Werner Laurie, 1911, p.38

[7] Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[8]Gilbert, Sir John. History of Dublin.Dublin: Joseph Dollard, 1903, pp.266-7

[9]Belcher, T. W.Records of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland: including a memoir of Sir P. Dunn, Dr. Stearne and other documents. Dublin: Hodges Smith & Co., 1866, p.116 & p.108

[10]Kingsbury,Frederick John. The genealogy of the descendants of Henry Kingsbury of Ipswich and Haverhill, Massby, Hartford Press, 1905, p.21

[11]Dublin: National Library of Ireland, Genealogical Office: Ms.103, p.50

[12]Admissions Records, 1637-1725, Entrance books, digitized http://digitalcollections.tcd.ieAccessed on 15 June 2017

[13]Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[14]There is some evidence that Dr. Kingsbury contracted an earlier marriage, in 1719, to a Mary Graffan. Although this marriage is recorded in the Ireland Diocesan and Prerogative Marriage Licence Bonds Indexes 1623-1866, and there appears to be no other Thomas Kingsbury this could relate to, no further trace of Mary can be found.

[15]Wills relating to Dr. Thomas Kingsbury (listed as ‘Kingsbarry’ – 1747), Esther Kingsbury (1763) and Thomas Kingsbury, their son (1805) recorded in Vickers’ Index to the Prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810.  Dublin: Edward Ponsonby, 1897, p.270   Swift’s will is listed on p.446.

[16]Barnard, Toby Christopher. A New Anatomy of Ireland: The Irish Protestants, 1649-1770. Yale University Press, 2004, p.133

[17]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.133

[18]The Manuscripts and Correspondence of James, First Earl of Charlemont: Lord Charlemont’s memoirs of his political life, 1755-1783. Correspondence, 1745-1783. H.M. Stationery Office, 1891, p.180

[19]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.210

[20]The National Library of Ireland holds a microfilm copy of Kingsbury’s letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[21]From Nick Reddan’s Newspaper Extracts — part 32 (various Irish newspapers from 1720 to 1865) at on 15 June 2017

[22]Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, 11 April 1747, available via19th Century British Library Newspapers Database at the British Library.

[23]The National Library of Ireland microfilm of Kingsbury letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[24]Detail from letters to Price: Pearde to Price, 16 March 1740, 12 July, 30 August 1747 (NLW, Puleston papers, MS 3579 ff 27, 119, 121) reported in Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970. Cox & Luddy (Eds),AIAA; 2010, p.23 & p.26

[25]Irish Builder & Engineer. Volume 38. Howard MacGarvey & Sons, 1896 p.70

[26]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.235

[27]Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.6; Melville, Joy. Mother of Oscar. London: Allison & Busby Ltd., p.16; O’Sullivan, Emer. The Fall of the House of Wilde. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, p.6

[28]Swift, Jonathan and Sir Walter Scott.The Drapier’s letters (cont.) Miscellaneous tracts upon Irish affairs: Sermons. Archibald Constable and Company, 1824, p.192 (Matthew Weld Hartstonge (1772-1825) was a well-connected Irish antiquarian who helped to gather materials for Scott’s 19-volume edition of Swift’s Works).

[29]Pilkington, Laetitia. Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, Volume 1. University of Georgia Press, 1997, p.698

[30]Scott, Sir Walter. Life of Jonathan Swift. London: Wells and Lilly, 1829, p. 356

[31]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.136

[32] Máire Kennedy (1999) ‘Readership in French: the Irish Experience’ in G. Gargett and G. Sheridan (Eds) Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800. Basingstoke, Hampshire [England]: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 12

[33]Maxwell, Constantia. A history of Trinity college, Dublin, 1591-1892. Dublin: The University press, Trinity college, 1946, p.92

[34] on 15 June 2017

[35]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.86

[36]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.111

[37]Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Ignatius Press, 2000, p.22

[38]Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland: Contributions to Irish Lore (London, Ward & Downey, 1890) pp.228-9n

[39]Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2012, p.12-13

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An Update On My New Biography of E. Nesbit

On this the anniversary of the death of pioneering author Edith Nesbit here’s an early look at the cover of my new biography of her, which will be available from 20 September 2018:

It can be pre-ordered here from Amazon.

This is the blurb from my publisher:

Edith Nesbit is considered the first modern writer for children and the inventor of the children’s adventure story publishing over 40 books, influencing writers including C.S. Lewis, P. L. Travers, J.K. Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson.

Playful, contradictory and creative, Nesbit hosted legendary parties and was described by George Bernard Shaw – one of her several lovers – as ‘audaciously unconventional’. She was a founding member of the Fabian Society, and through Nesbit’s letters and deep archival research Fitzsimons reveals her to have been a prolific lecturer and writer on socialism. Nesbit railed against inequity, social injustice and state-sponsored oppression and incorporated her avant-garde ideas into her writing, influencing a generation of children – an aspect of her literary legacy examined here for the first time. Fitzsimons’ eye-opening biography brings new light to the life and works of this famed literary icon, in whom pragmatism and idealism, tradition and modernity worked side-byside to create a remarkable writer and woman.


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Oscar Wilde and the Mystery of the Scarab Ring

Here’s a guest post on Wilde’s beloved scarab ring, which I wrote for a fascinating website,

Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture is a collection of three statues in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland, commemorating Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne

Twitter is much maligned, often quite justifiably. Yet, it can be a wonderful tool for the gathering and dissemination of research. From time to time, it may even throw up something truly fascinating, a real gem in this case. During a recent Twitter exchange, I was fortunate enough to encounter a couple of Egyptologists with an interest in the ownership and display of Egyptian artifacts in the Victorian era. A conversation concerning one intriguing item of jewellery, a scarab ring that belonged to Irish poet, storyteller and playwright Oscar Wilde, prompted me to compile a list of contemporaneous references to that ring. A fellow Wildean provided details of an obscure letter that sheds some light on the possible whereabouts of this remarkable object decades after it went missing in Paris towards the end of Wilde’s life.

The first time I encountered Wilde’s ring was when I read Ada Leverson’s firsthand account of her friend’s arrival at the first night of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1895, weeks before he was arrested and charged with gross indecency:

That evening he was dressed with elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety. His coat had a black velvet collar. He held white gloves in his small pointed hands. On one finger he wore a large scarab ring. A green carnation – echo in colour of the ring – bloomed savagely in his buttonhole, and a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch chain hung from his white waistcoat. (1)

This ring is remarked upon again and again by people who knew Wilde well. Symbolist poet Henri de Regnier recalled how he would ‘idly tap the ash from his gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes with a ringed finger. The setting of this ancient ring held the rounded back of a pharaoh’s scarab’ (2).  This is not the only instance of de Regnier mentioning the ring. In The Life of Oscar Wilde, Robert Harborough Sherard, Wilde’s great friend and biographer, quotes him twice: ‘the scaraboeus of his ring threw off its green lights’ on page 260, and ‘ornamented with a ring in which a beetle of green stone was set’ on page 303. (3)

In A Reminiscence of 1898, Wilfred Hugh Chesson recalls Wilde wearing ‘a scarab as big as sixpence’ (4). In Confessions of a Journalist, Chris Healy mentions that, when being interviewed by him, Wilde ‘gazed reflectively at the beautiful scarab ring on his finger’ (5). In Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900, Rothenstein writes disparagingly of Wilde: ‘His hands were fat and useless looking, and the more conspicuous from a large scarab ring he wore’ (6). Based on this wide-ranging selection of quotes, It would seem Wilde was rarely seen without his distinctive Egyptian ring.

As to the origins of this ring and how it came to be in his possession, I am certain I have read somewhere that it was given to him by his mother, Jane Wilde. Certainly, in The Real Oscar Wilde, Robert Sherard quoted Wilde when he wrote ‘on his fingers were noticeable rings, including a green scarab, the loss of which, in Paris, in those early days, “was the great grief of my life”’ (7). My memory is that Wilde confided in a friend that the reason he was so upset at losing the ring was because his mother had given it to him and she was dead by the time it went missing. It is possible that the ring was given to Jane Wilde by her husband, Wilde’s father, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and written about the history of the region. Reports suggest that the Wilde home, 1 Merrion Square, Dublin, was filled with artifacts he had collected.

As to the fate of Wilde’s ring, an intriguing theory is put forward by Kevin O’Brien in his article ‘Lily Wilde and Oscar’s Fur Coat’. O’Brien suggests that the ring may have been in the possession of Wilde’s sister-in-law Lily Wilde, second wife of his brother Willie. It seems she wrote a letter to Wilde’s friend More Adey in which she referred to an item she was sending him. Referencing this letter (“LW to MA, [21 May 1897], Clark, Finzi, 2411), O’Brien writes in the notes section of his article:

The mysterious enclosure could have been Wilde’s scarab ring that he loved so much and which he thought had been lost with so much else. A letter from Reggie Turner to Robert Sherard, 1 October 1934, Reading, MS 1047/1/1, suggests this possibility. (8)

The final mention I can find of Wilde’s lost ring, which was brought to my attention by Michael Seeney of the Oscar Wilde Society, and was uncovered by John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website, is included in a newspaper article in the Bolton Evening News on 5 April 1938:

Hugh Walpole possessed a rich collection of objets d’art: oils, etchings, expensive rugs and tapestries, Spanish chests, Epstein busts, T’ang horses, even a scarab ring which, he claimed, Oscar Wilde wore in the courtroom while on trial for sodomy. (9)

It seems Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE, celebrated novelist and art collector, had written to A. J. A. Symons on July 14, 1938, to inform him ‘I’d like to buy Oscar’s scarab if it isn’t too costly’ (10). At the time, Symons, a writer and bibliographer, was working on a biography of Wilde, which he left unfinished. Recently, his notes have been compiled in book form for publication by Callum James. There the trail goes cold. To the best of my knowledge the location of Wilde’s scarab ring is unknown. If anyone out there has something to add I’d be delighted to continue the Twitter conversation.


An update: John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website has sent me confirmation that Walpole did indeed buy Oscar’s ring, and it was in his possession in 1940. He also found a reference to a scarab ring in Walpole’s novel The Killer and the Slainpublished posthumously in 1942. John is of the opinion that the ring was in Walpole’s possession when he died and that it may have been given to a friend or relative. Unless it was lost or destroyed, someone out there must have a scarab ring in their possession that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, and they may have no idea of its significance. Perhaps we can find them!


[1] Ada Leverson in Letters to the Sphinx (Duckworth, 1930), reproduced in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections Vol II edited by E.H. Mikhail. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979, p.270

[2] Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II p.464

[3] Robert Sherard. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London, T.W. Laurie, 1906

[4] Reproduced in Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II, p.376

[5] Chris Healy. Confessions of a Journalist. London, Chatto & Windus, 1904, p.134

[6] William Rothenstein. Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900. New York, Coward-McCann, 1931, p.86

[7] Robert Sherard. The Real Oscar Wilde, London, T. W. Laurie, 1916, p.223

[8] Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society Thirtieth Anniversary Commemoration Special No. 21, 1994

[9] “Proteus” [Frank Singleton], “Remembering Hugh Walpole,” Bolton Evening News, Apr. 5, 1952.

[10] Original letter in Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.

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Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit!


Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit, born on 15 August 1858! Four decades later, she described her fortieth birthday party in a letter to her mother:

I had a very nice birthday. Fabian [her son] made a bonfire in the evening and decorated the garden with Chinese lanterns. I had some pretty presents – a moss agate brooch, a gold ring (fifteenth century), gloves, table centres, a silver watch chain, a book, a pair of little old flint-lock pistols and some beautiful flowers.

A youthful, vivacious woman, she included a comment on this milestone birthday:

I am forty, as you say: but I never feel forty. When I am ill I feel ninety – and when I am happy I feel nineteen!

Although she had been writing stories and verse for years by then, motivated by the necessity of earning money, the first of her classic books for children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers*, would not be published in book form until the following year, when it was brought out by T. Unwin Fisher.



Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: the life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924. London, The Penguin Group, 1987. p.196

For far more on E. Nesbit look out for my new biography!

* Stories featuring the Bastable children had appeared in magazines as early as 1894 but it was not until 1898 that they were serialised, primarily in The Pall Mall Gazette, in recognisable form.


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The Princess And The Cat By E. Nesbit


In honour of International Cat Day (8 August 2017) here’s a fairytale from E. Nesbit’s story collection Oswald Bastable and Others (1905). Although conventional in many ways, it contains her trademark humorous asides, her counselling that kindness brings rewards, and her egalitarian belief that people have ultimate power over their rulers and a workhouse boy can become a king, but only if he is deserving.

Image result for e nesbit the princess and the cat

The day when everything began to happen to the Princess began just like all her ordinary days. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the Princess jumped out of bed and ran into the nursery to let the mice out of the traps in the nursery cupboard. The traps were set every night with a little bit of cheese in each, and every morning nurse found that not a single trap had caught a single mouse. This was because the Princess always let them go. No one knew this except the Princess and, of course, the mice themselves. And the mice never forgot it.

Then came bath and breakfast, and then the Princess ran to the open window and threw out the crumbs to the birds that flew down fluttering and chirping into the marble terrace. Before lessons began she had an hour for playing in the garden. But she never began to play till she had been round to see if any rabbits or moles were caught in the traps the palace gardeners set. The gardeners were lazy, and seldom got to work before half-past eight, so she always had plenty of time for this.

Then came lessons with dear old Professor Ouatidontnoisuntwuthnoing, and then more play, and dinner, and needlework, and play again.

And now it was teatime.

‘Eat up your bread-and-butter, your Highness,’ said nurse, ‘and then you shall have some nice plummy cake.’

‘I don’t feel plum-cakey at all to-day, somehow,’ said the Princess. ‘I feel just exactly as if something was going to happen.’

‘Something’s always happening,’ said nurse.

‘Ah! but I mean something horrid,’ said the Princess. ‘I expect uncle’s going to make some nasty new law about me. Last time it was: “The Princess is only to wear a white frock on the first Sunday in the month.” He said it was economy, but I know it was only spite.’

‘You mustn’t say that, dear,’ said nurse. ‘You know your rosy and bluey frocks are just as pretty as the white;’ but in her heart she agreed with the Princess Everilda.

The Princess’s father and mother had died when she was quite little, and her uncle was Regent. Now, you will have noticed that there is something about uncles which makes it impossible for them to be good in fairy stories. So of course this uncle was bad, as bad as he could be, and everyone hated him.

In fact, though it was now, as I have said, everybody’s teatime, nobody was making any tea: instead they were making a revolution. And just as the Princess was looking at the half-moon-shaped hole left by her first bite into her first piece of bread-and-butter, the good Professor burst into the nursery with his great gray wig all on one side, crying out in a very loud and very choky voice:

‘The revolution! It’s come at last. I knew the people would never stand that last tax on soap.’

‘The Princess!’ said nurse, turning very pale.

‘Yes, I know,’ said the Professor. ‘There’s a boat on the canal, blue sails with gold letters “P.P.”—Pupil of the Professor. It’s waiting. You go down there at once. I’ll take the Princess out down the back stairs.’

He caught the Princess by her pink bread-and-buttery hand, and dragged her away.

‘Hurry, my dear,’ he panted; ‘it’s as much as your life is worth to delay a minute.’

But he himself delayed quite three minutes, and that was one minute too long. He had just run into the palace library for the manuscript of his life’s work, ‘Everything Easily Explained,’ when the revolutionary crowd burst in, shouting ‘Liberty and Soap!’ and caught him. They did not see the Princess Everilda, because he had just time, when he heard them coming, to throw a red and green crochet antimacassar over her, and to hide her behind an armchair.

‘When they’ve taken me away, go down the back stairs, and try to find the boat,’ he whispered, just before they came and took him away.

And then Everilda was left alone. When everything was quiet, she said to herself: ‘Now, you mustn’t cry; you must do as you’re told.’ And she went down the palace back-stairs, and out through the palace kitchen into the street.

She had never set foot in the streets before, but she had been driven through them in a coach with four white horses, and she knew the way to the canal.

The canal boat with the blue sails was waiting, and she would have got to it safely enough, but she heard a rattling sound, and when she looked she saw two boys tying an old rusty kettle to a cat’s tail.

‘You horrid boys!’ she said; ‘let poor pussy alone.’

‘Not us,’ said the boys.

Everilda instantly slapped them both, and they were so surprised that they let the cat go. It scuttled and scurried off, and so did the Princess. The boys threw stones after her and also after the cat, but fortunately they were both very bad shots and nobody was hit.

Even then the Princess would have got safely away, but she saw a boy sitting on a doorstep crying. So she stopped to ask what was the matter.

‘I’m hungry,’ said the boy, ‘and father and mother are dead, and my uncle beat me, so I’m running away——’

‘Oh,’ said the Princess, ‘so am I. What fun! And I’ve got a horrid uncle, too. You come with me, and we’ll find my nurse. She’s running away, too. Make haste, or it’ll be too late.’

But when they got to the corner, it was too late.

The revolutionary crowd caught them; they shouted ‘Liberty and Soap!’ and they sent the boy to the workhouse, and they put the Princess in prison; and a good many of them wanted to cut off her pretty little head then and there, because they thought she would be sure to grow up horrid like her uncle the Regent.

But all the people who had ever been inside the palace said what a nice little girl the Princess really was, and wouldn’t hear of cutting off her darling head. So at last it was decided to get rid of her by enchantment, and the Head Magician to the Provisional Revolutionary Government was sent for.

‘Certainly, citizens,’ he said, ‘I’ll put her in a tower on the Forlorn Island, in the middle of the Perilous Sea—a nice strong tower, with only one way out.’

‘That’s one too many. There’s not to be any way out,’ said the people.

‘Well, there’s a way out of everything, you know,’ said the Magician timidly—he was trembling for his own head—’but it’s fifty thousand millions to one against her ever finding it.’

So they had to be content with that, and they fetched Everilda out of her prison; and the Magician took her hand and called his carriage, which was an invention of his own—half dragon, and half motor-car, and half flying-machine—so that it was a carriage and a half, and came when it was called, tame as any pet dog.

He lifted Everilda in, and said ‘Gee up!’ to his patent carriage, and the intelligent creature geed up right into the air and flew away. The Princess shut her eyes tight, and tried not to scream. She succeeded.

When the Magician’s carriage got to the place where it knew it ought to stop, it did stop, and tumbled Everilda out on to a hard floor, and went back to its master, who patted it, and gave it a good feed of oil, and fire, and water, and petroleum spirit.

The Princess opened her eyes as the sound of the rattling dragon wings died away. She was alone—quite alone. ‘I won’t stay here,’ said Everilda; ‘I’ll run away again.’

She ran to the edge of the tower and looked down. The tower was in the middle of a garden, and the garden was in the middle of a wood, and the wood was in the middle of a field, and after the field there was nothing more at all except steep cliffs and the great rolling, raging waves of the Perilous Sea.

‘There’s no way to run away by,’ she said; and then she remembered that even if she ran away, there was now nowhere to run to, because the people had taken her palace away from her, and the palace was the only home she had ever had—and where her nurse was goodness only knew.

‘So I suppose I’ve got to live here till someone fetches me,’ she said, and stopped crying, like a brave King’s daughter as she was.

‘I’ll explore,’ said Everilda all alone; ‘that will be fun.’ She said it bravely, and really it was more fun than she expected. The tower had only one room on each floor. The top floor was Everilda’s bedroom; she knew that by her gold-backed brushes and things with ‘E. P.’ on them that lay on the toilet-table. The next floor was a sitting-room, and the next a dining-room, and the last of all was a kitchen, with rows of bright pots and pans, and everything that a cook can possibly want.

‘Now I can play at cooking,’ said the Princess. ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. If only there was something to cook!’

She looked in the cupboards, and there were lots of canisters and jars, with rice, and flour, and beans, and peas, and lentils, and macaroni, and currants, and raisins, and candied peel, and sugar, and sago, and cinnamon. She ate a whole lump of candied citron, and enjoyed it very much.

‘I shan’t starve, anyway,’ she said. ‘But oh! of course, I shall soon eat up all these things, and then——’

In her agitation she dropped the jar; it did not break, but all the candied peel rolled away into corners and under tables. Yet when she picked the jar up it was as full as ever.

‘Oh, hooray!’ cried Everilda, who had once heard a sentry use that low expression; ‘of course it’s a magic tower, and everything is magic in it. The jars will always be full.’

The fire was laid, so she lighted it and boiled some rice, but it stuck to the pot and got burned. You know how nasty burned rice is? and the macaroni she tried to cook would not get soft. So she went out into the garden, and had a very much nicer dinner than she could ever have cooked. Instead of meat she had apples, and instead of vegetables she had plums, and she had peaches instead of pudding.

There were rows and rows of beautiful books in the sitting-room, and she read a little, and wrote a long letter to nurse, in case anyone ever came who knew nurse’s address and would post it for her. And then she had a nectarine-and-mulberry tea.

By this time the sun was sinking all red and splendid beyond the dark waters of the Perilous Sea, and Everilda sat down on the window seat to watch it.

I shall not tell you whether she cried at all then. Perhaps you would have cried just a little if you had been in her place.

‘Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear!’ she said, sniffing slightly. (Perhaps she had a cold.) ‘There’s nobody to tuck me up in bed—nobody at all.’

And just as she said it something fat and furry flew between her and the sunset. It hovered clumsily a moment, and then swooped in at the window.

‘Oh!’ cried the Princess, very much frightened indeed.

‘Don’t you know me?’ said the stout furry creature, folding its wings. ‘I’m the cat you saved from the indignity of a rusty kettle in connection with my honourable tail.’

‘But that cat hadn’t got wings,’ said Everilda, ‘and you’re much bigger than it, and it couldn’t talk.’

‘How do you know it couldn’t talk,’ said the Cat; ‘did you ask it?’

‘No,’ said the Princess.

‘Well, then!’ said the Cat ‘And as for wings, I needn’t wear them if you’d rather I didn’t.’

The Cat took off her wings, rolled them neatly up, like your father rolls his umbrella, tied them round with a piece of string, and put them in the left-hand corner drawer in the bureau.

‘That’s better,’ said Everilda.

‘And as for size,’ said the Cat, ‘if I stayed ordinary cat-size I shouldn’t be any use to you. And I’ve come to be cook, companion, housemaid, nurse, professor, and everything else, so——’

‘Oh, don’t,’ said the Princess—’don’t get any bigger.’

For while she was speaking the Cat had been growing steadily, and she was now about the size of a large leopard.

‘Certainly not,’ said the Cat obligingly; ‘I’ll stop at once.’

‘I suppose,’ said the Princess timidly, ‘that you’re magic?’

‘Of course,’ said the Cat; ‘everything is, here. Don’t you be afraid of me, now! Come along, my pet, time for bed.’

Everilda jumped, for the voice was the voice of her nurse; but it was also the voice of the Cat.

‘Oh!’ cried the Princess, throwing her arms round the cat’s large furry neck, ‘I’m not afraid of any thing when you speak like that.’

So, after all, she had someone to tuck her up in bed. The Cat did it with large, soft, furry, clever paws, and in two minutes Everilda was fast asleep.

And now began the long, lonely, but all the same quite happy time which the Princess and the Cat spent together on the Forlorn Island.

Everilda had lessons with the Cat—and then it was the Professor’s voice that the Cat spoke with; and the two did the neat little housework of the tower together—and then the Cat’s voice was like the voices of the palace housemaids. And they did the cooking and then the Cat’s voice was the cook’s voice. And they played games together—and then the voice of the Cat was like the voices of all sorts of merry children. It was impossible to be dull with a companion who changed so often.

‘But who are you really?’ the Princess used to ask.

And the Cat always answered:

‘I give it up! Ask another!’ as if the Princess had been playing at riddles.

‘How is it our garden is always so tidy and full of nice fruit and vegetables?’ the Princess asked once, when they had been on the island about a year.

‘Oh,’ said the Cat, ‘didn’t you know? The moles you used to let out of the traps do the digging, and the birds you used to feed bring the seeds in their little beaks, and the mice you used to save from the palace mouse-traps do the weeding and raking with their sharp little teeth, and their fine, neat, needly claws.’

‘But how did they get here?’ asked the Princess.

‘The usual way—swimming and flying,’ said the Cat.

‘But aren’t the mice afraid of you?’

‘Of me?’ The great Cat drew herself up to her full height. ‘Anyone would think, to hear you, that I was a common cat.’ And she was really cross for nearly an hour.

That was the only approach to a quarrel that the two ever had.

Sometimes, at first, the Princess used to say:

‘How long am I to stay here, pussy-nurse?’

And the Cat always said in nurse’s voice:

‘Till you’re grown up, my dear.’

And the years went by, and each year found the Princess more good, and clever, and beautiful. And at last she was quite grown up.

‘Now,’ said the Cat briskly, ‘we must get to work. There’s a Prince in a kingdom a long way off, and he’s the only person who can get you off this island.’

‘Does he know?’ asked Everilda.

‘He knows about you, but he doesn’t know that he’s the person to find you, and he doesn’t know where you are. So now every night I must fly away and whisper about you in his ear. He’ll think it’s dreams, but he believes in dreams; and he’ll come in a grand ship with masts of gold and sails of silk, and carry my Pretty away and make a Queen of her.’

‘Shall I like that, pussy-nurse, do you think?’ asked the Princess.

And the Cat replied:

‘Yes, very much indeed. But you wouldn’t like it if it were any other King than this one, so it’s just as well that it’s quite impossible for it to be any other.’

‘How will he come?’ asked the Princess.

‘Don’t I tell you? In a ship, of course,’ said the Cat.

‘Aren’t the rocks dangerous?’ asked the Princess.

‘Oh, very,’ the Cat answered.

‘Oh,’ said the Princess, and grew silent and thoughtful.

That night the Cat got out its rolled-up wings, and unrolled them, and brushed them, and fitted them on; then she lighted a large lamp and set it in the window that looked out on the Perilous Sea.

‘That’s the beacon to guide the King to you,’ she said.

‘Won’t it guide other ships here?’ asked the Princess, ‘with perhaps the wrong Kings on board—the ones I shouldn’t like being Queen with?’

‘Very likely,’ said the Cat; ‘but it doesn’t matter: they’d only be wrecked. Serve them right, coming after Princesses that don’t want them.’

‘Oh,’ said Everilda.

The Cat spread her wings, and after one or two trial flights round the tower, she spread them very wide indeed, and flew away across the black Perilous Sea, towards a little half moon that was standing on its head to show sailors that there would be foul weather.

The Princess leaned her elbows on the window-sill and looked out over the sea. Down below in the garden she could hear the kind moles digging industriously, and the good little mice weeding and raking with their sharp teeth and their fine needly claws. And far away against the low-hanging moon she saw the sails and masts of a ship.

‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘I can’t! It’s sure not to be his ship. It mustn’t be wrecked.’

And she turned the lamp out. And then she cried a little, because perhaps after all it might be his ship, and he would pass by and never know.

Next night the Cat went out on another flying excursion, leaving the lamp lighted. And again the Princess could not bear to go to bed leaving a lamp burning that might lure honest Kings and brave mariners to shipwreck, so she put out the lamp and cried a little. And this happened for many, many, many nights.

When the Cat swept the room of a morning she used to wonder where all the pearls came from that she found lying all about the floor. But it was a magic place, and one soon ceased to wonder much about anything. She never guessed that the pearls were the tears the Princess shed when she had put out the lamp, and seen ship after ship that perhaps carried her own King go sailing safely and ignorantly by, no one on board guessing that on that rock was a pretty, dear Princess waiting to be rescued—the Princess, the only Princess that that King would be happy and glad to have for his Queen.

And the years went on and on. Every night the Cat lighted the lamp and flew away to whisper dreams into the ears of the only King who could rescue the Princess, and every night the Princess put out the lamp and cried in the dark. And every morning the Cat swept up a dustpan full of pearls that were Everilda’s tears. And again and again the King would fit out a vessel and sail the seas, and look in vain for the bright light that he had dreamed should guide him to his Princess.

The Cat was a good deal vexed; she could not understand how any King could be so stupid. She always stayed out all night. She used to go and see her friends after she had done whispering dreams to the King, and only got home in time to light the fire for breakfast, so she never knew how the Princess put out the lamp every night, and cried in the dark.

The years went by and went by, and the Princess grew old and gray, for she had never had the heart to leave the lamp alight, for fear that some poor mariners who were not her King should be drawn by the lamp to those cruel rocks and wrecked on them, for of course it wouldn’t and couldn’t be the poor mariners’ fault that they didn’t happen to be the one and only King who could land safely on the Forlorn Island.

And when the Princess was quite old, and the tear pearls that had been swept up by the Cat filled seven big chests in the back-kitchen, the Princess fell ill.

‘I think I am going to die,’ she said to the Cat, ‘and I am not really at all sorry except for you. I think you’ll miss me. Tell me now—it’s almost all over—who are you, really?’

‘I give it up,’ said the Cat as usual. ‘Ask another.’

But the Princess asked nothing more. She lay on her bed in her white gown and waited for death, for she was very tired of being alive. Only she said:

‘Put out that lamp in the window; it hurts my eyes.’

For even then she thought of the poor men whose ships might be wrecked just because they didn’t happen to be the one and only King with whom she could be happy.

So the Cat took the lamp away, but she did not put it out; she set it in the window of the parlour, and its light shone out over the black waters of the Perilous Sea.

And that very night the one and only King—who in all these years had never ceased to follow the leading of the dreams the Cat whispered in his ear—came in the black darkness sailing over the Perilous Sea. And in the black darkness he saw at last the bright white light that his dreams had promised, and he knew that where the light was his Princess was, and his heart leaped up, and he bade the helmsmen steer for the light.

And for the light they steered. And because he was the only possible King to mate that Princess, the helmsman found the only possible passage among the rocks, and the ship anchored safely in a little quiet creek, and the King landed and went up to the door of the tower and knocked.

‘Who’s there?’ said the Cat.

‘Me,’ said the King, just as you or I might have done.

‘You’re late,’ said the Cat. ‘I’m afraid you’ve lost your chance.’

‘I took the first chance I got,’ said the King. ‘Let me in, and let me see her.’

He had been so busy all these years trying to find the bright white light of his dreams that he had not noticed that his hair had gone gray long ago.

So the Cat let him in, and led him up the winding stair to the room where the Princess, very quiet, lay on her white bed waiting for death to come, for she was very tired.

The old King stumbled across the bar of moonlight on the floor, flung down a clanking wallet, and knelt by the bed in the deep shadow, saying:

‘Oh, my dear own Princess, I have come at last.’

‘Is it really you?’ she said, and gave him her hands in the shadow. I hoped it was Death’s foot-step I heard coming up the winding stair.’

‘Oh, did you hope for death,’ he cried, ‘while I was coming to you?’

‘You were long in coming,’ said she, ‘and I was very tired.’

‘My beautiful dear Princess,’ he said, ‘you shall rest in my arms till you are not tired any more.’

‘My beautiful King,’ she said, ‘I am not tired any more now.’

And then the Cat came in with the lamp, and they looked in each other’s eyes.

Instead of the beautiful Princess of his dreams the King saw a white, withered woman whose piteous eyes met his in a look of longing love. The Princess saw a bent, white-haired man, but love was in his eyes.

I don’t mind.’

I don’t mind.’

They both spoke together. And both thought they spoke the truth. But the truth was that both were horribly disappointed.

‘Yet, all the same,’ said the King to himself, ‘old and withered as she is, she is more to me than the youngest and loveliest of all other Princesses.’

‘I don’t care if he is gray,’ said the Princess to herself; ‘whatever he is, he’s the only possible one.’

‘Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!’ said the Cat. ‘Why on earth didn’t you come before?’

‘I came as soon as I could,’ said the King.

The Cat, walking about the room in an agitated way, kicked against the wallet the King had dropped.

‘What’s this,’ she said crossly, rubbing her toes, for the wallet was hard, and she had hurt herself more than a little.

‘Oh, that,’ said the King—’that’s just the steel bolts and hammers and things that my resolves to find the Princess turned into when I failed and never did find her. I never could bear to throw them away; I had a sort of feeling that they might be good for something, since they hurt me so much when they came to me. I thought perhaps I could batter down the doors of the Princess’s tower with them.’

‘They’re good for something better than that,’ said the Cat joyously.

She went away, and the two heard her hammering away below. Presently she staggered in with a great basket of white powder, and emptied it on the floor; then she went away for more.

The King helped her with the next basketful, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, for there were seven of them, and the heap of white powder stood up in the room as high as the King’s middle.

‘That’s powder of pearls,’ said the Cat proudly. ‘Now, tell me, have you been a good King?’

‘I have tried to be,’ said the white-haired King ‘I was a workhouse boy, and then I was apprenticed to a magician, who taught me how to make people happy. There was a revolution just at the time when I was put into the workhouse, and they had a Republic. And I worked my way up till they made me President.’

‘What became of the King in that revolution?’

‘There wasn’t a King, only a Regent. They had him taught a trade, and he worked for his living. It was the worst punishment they could invent for him. There was a Princess, too, but she was hidden by a magician. I saw her once when she was trying to run away. She asked me to run too—to her nurse——’

Here his eyes met the Princess’s.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that was you, was it?’

‘Oh,’ said he, ‘then that was you!’

And they looked long and lovingly in each other’s faded eyes.

‘Hurry up,’ said the Cat impatiently; ‘you were made President. And then——’

‘Oh, why, then,’ said the King, ‘they thought it wouldn’t be any more dangerous or expensive to have a King than a President, and prettier at State shows—ermine, crown, and sceptre, and all that—prettier than frock-coat and spats. So I agreed.’

‘And do your people love you?’ the Cat asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said the King simply; ‘I love them——’

As he spoke there came a flutter and flicker of many thousand wings at the closed casement. The Cat threw the window wide, and in swarmed a countless crowd of white pigeons.

‘These are the blessings of your people,’ said the Cat.

The wings fluttered and flickered and fanned the heap of pearl dust on the floor till it burst into flame, and the flame rose up high and white and clear.

‘Quick!’ cried the Cat, ‘walk through it. Lead her through.’

The old King gave his hand to his poor faded love, and raised her from her couch, and together they passed through the clear fire made of her patience and self-sacrifice, his high resolve, and the blessings of his people. And they came out of that fire on the other side.

‘Oh, love, how beautiful you are!’ cried the King.

‘Oh, my King, your face is the face of all my dreams!’ cried the Princess.

And they put their arms round each other and cried for joy, because now they were both young and beautiful again.

The Cat cried for sympathy.

‘And now we shall live happy ever after,’ said the Princess, putting her other arm round the Cat. ‘Dear pussy-nurse, do tell me, now it’s all over, who you really are.’

‘I give it up. Ask another,’ said the Cat.

But as she spoke she went herself through the fire, and on the other side came out—not one person, but eleven. She was, in fact, the Professor, the nurse, the palace butler, footman, housemaid, parlourmaid, between-maid, boots, scullion, boy in buttons, as well as the rescued cat—all rolled into one!

‘But we only used one part of ourselves at a time,’ they all said with one voice, ‘and I hope we were useful.’

‘You were a darling,’ said the Princess—’darlings, I mean. But who turned you all into exactly the pussy-nurse I wanted?’

‘Oh, that was the Magician,’ said all the voices in unison; ‘he was your fairy-godfather, you know.’

‘What has become of him?’ asked the Princess, clinging to her lover’s arm.

‘He’s been asleep all this time. It was the condition, the only way he got leave to work the good magic for all of us,’ said the many voices that were one.

‘Let’s go and wake him,’ said the King.

So they all went. And when they woke the Magician, who was sleeping quietly in his own private room in the palace where the Princess had once lived, he sneezed seven times for pure joy, and then called for Welsh rabbit and baked Spanish onions for supper.

‘For after all these years of starvation,’ he said, ‘I do really think I may for once take a liberty with my digestion.’

So he had the supper he wanted; but the King and the Princess had roses and lilies and wedding-cake, because they were married that very evening.

And when you have passed through exactly the sort of fire those two had passed through, you can never be old, or ugly, or unhappy again, so those two are happy, and beautiful, and young to this very hour.


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“On the Medway Life is Real” – E. Nesbit

I’ve been neglecting my blog recently as I transition from Wilde to Nesbit but I’m keen to keep posting when I can. We’re planning our holidays in England this year and our odyssey will take us from Keswick in the Lake District (where the husband is running a race), then diagonally down through England to Canterbury (I’m speaking at a conference) via Cambridge. We’ll stay a night in Whitstable, as featured in Sarah Water’s brilliant novel Tipping the Velvet, before heading on to Salisbury (where we’ll see Stonehenge), then to Cornwall to stay with friends and reacquaint ourselves with the lovely seaside town of St. Ives. We travel home via Stratford-Upon-Avon.

I cannot wait. I love England (I lived there for years and my eldest son was born there) but lately it’s just been Brexit Brexit Brexit and I need to fall back in love with that magnificent, historic country. As part of my research for my new biography I’ve been reading E. Nesbit’s beautiful descriptions of her beloved Kent countryside, in particular the River Medway, where she loved to go boating. She recognised an authenticity in river life. In The Incredible Honeymoon, she wrote:

On the Medway life is real, life is earnest. You mostly pull a hundred yards, anchor and fish; or if you do go farther from harbor you open your own locks, with your own crowbar.


River Medway, Kent

Here’s a lovely piece of descriptive writing from her novel Salome and the Head:

The Medway just above The Anchor (at Yalding, Kent) is a river of dreams. The grey and green of willows and alders mirror themselves in the still water in images hardly less solid-seeming than their living realities. There is pink loosestrife there, and meadow-sweet creamy and fragrant, forget-me-nots wet and blue, and a tangle of green weeds and leaves and stems that only botanists know the names of.

Particularly calming is this tranquil, languid excerpt from The Incredible Honeymoon:

The quiet river, wandering by wood and meadow, bordered by its fringe of blossoms and flowering grasses, the smooth backwaters where leaning trees touched hands across the glassy mirror, and water-lilies gleamed white and starry, the dappled shadows, the arch of blue sky, the gay sunshine, and the peace of the summer noon all wrought in one fine spell to banish from their thoughts all fear and dismay, all doubts and hesitations.

We won’t be boating on the Medway this time round but Edith Nesbit has inspired me to make plans for the future. I hope we’ll always have the opportunity to visit the beautiful home of our British neighbours, just as I hope they/you will continue to visit us.

For more on holidays in Kent visit:

If you’re looking for a holiday read try Wilde’s Women


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