On fictional versions of ourselves

I have written before about how I sometimes find the authors of books just as fascinating as the books I am reading. I have just finished reading The Railway Children by E. Nesbit – which was truly delightful – and have been looking online at E. Nesbit’s life. What I find really interesting is when you read about an author, and you see how their life has influenced their writing.

E Nesbit travelled all across Europe when she was young, as her parents tried to find the best climate for her sick sister. Her family eventually settled in Kent, where Edith and her brothers would play by the railway. Obvious influence there. However, I find the similarity between Edith’s life as an adult and that of the mother in The Railway Children to be even more striking – Edith’s husband was ill, and ripped off by his business partner, which mean that Edith had to support the family through her writing. While in The Railway Children, the three children’s father is not ill, but absent for reasons they are not explained (and I wont explain it to you, just in case you haven’ read the book – I don’t want to spoilt it for you!) their mother also supports them by writing children’s stories.

I wonder, therefore, how much of the story, and the funny little adventures that the children get up to, are real. Did they really happen to Edith and her brothers, or to Edith’s three children? Or, perhaps, is that the sort of life that Edith wished upon her children – that even though they were poor, as she says (although they still have a housekeeper, so I don’t know how unfortunate you can say that they are), they have a lovely time, that they may friends, that they prove to be brave, and considerate, and thoughtful?

If you think of The Railway Children as a sort of day dream, a wish that E Nesbit created, it is interesting that the mother only writes stories to be published when she has to. Once some nice things happen near the end of the book, and Mother has enough money not to work if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t write, except to write funny little rhymes for the children. E Nesbit, however, wrote her entire life, and was very successful at it. She wrote over forty books, which were celebrated in her own lifetime – I’m sure she would have earnt enough money from her previous books to stop writing, if she wished. But she didn’t.         If we think of her as the Railway Children’s mother, does that mean that she wished she didn’t have to write so much as well? Or would the Railway Children’s mother, once the story was nicely tied up at the end, have missed her writing after the last page of The Railway Children was finished, and turned back to writing stories?

We will never really know what E Nesbit truly thought, as the only way we can access her now is through her stories. And stories, while they can be partly real, are never completely true.



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