March 20, 2012

Guest Post: Nesbit and the Colonization of Fairyland, By S.L. Vitale

The current state of international affairs is less than ideal, but I think it’s safe to say that we’ve come far since E. Nesbit’s time, an era during which the British Empire stretched its tentacles around the globe.

In addition to being a children’s writer—often touted as the “the first modern writer for children”—Nesbit was also a member of the socialist Fabian Society. She was a staunch advocate of social activism (think, orphanages and labor unions) as much as she was an opponent of British Colonialism.  Indeed much of this opposition is visible through her writing.

In her short-story “Melisande,” Nesbit critiques the capitalist model upon which the international British economy was based.  In the story a princess—indeed, the title’s namesake—is cursed with infinitely
growing hair.  Though derivative of the Rapunzel trope, Nesbit includes an element alien to the original fairytale: the king capitalizes on his daughter’s curse by making “the princess’s hair…the
staple export of the country.” Not only does Nesbit reference a demanding global market—“the orders came pouring in”—she also duplicates Britain’s precise system of exchange: commercial products traded for raw materials. The king does not merely market his daughter’s hair but “stuffed pillows with it…made ropes for sailors to use…and made little shirts of Princess hair cloth.”

Initially, this seems to endorse the British economic model. However, latter parts of the story more accurately convey Nesbit’s true opinions of colonialism; that it was overly aggressive and needed to be injected with a hearty dose of passivity.  For example, by the middle of the story, Melisande’s curse has progressed. Her rapidly growing hair is replaced by a rapidly growing body and she quickly becomes a giantess. Instead of responding with violence when foreign ships attack—certainly, “Melisande could easily have sunk them all
with one kick”—she exposes her compassion: “she did not like to do this because it might have drowned the sailors.”

Nesbit endorses similar ideals of passivity in “Fortunatus Rex and Co.” Like “Melisande,” the story is also a fantasy, one in which seven princesses are kidnapped by a magician visiting their boarding school. The heroes in this story—seven corresponding Princes—are not of the archetypal variety. Unlike the adventurous “Prince Charming” these princes “had not been brought up in the exploring trade.” Thus, Nesbit’s heroes are deficient in that singular quality—a propensity to explore—crucial to the formation of a successful imperialist.  She
uses a metaphor to intensify this idea: as punishment for his abduction of the princesses, the magician is trapped inside a classroom globe.  His pleas for release are overt allusions to Empire: “Open up Africa…or cut through the Isthmus of Panama…or cut up China!” he demands.  By attaching these imperial commands to her villain, Nesbit implies that their counterparts in reality (e.g. colonizing South Africa) stem from people of similar character.

Unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries, E. Nesbit was never directly involved in the British Empire. However, her literary allusions suggest its latent presence in the culture; her opposition to it emphasizes her willingness to contest that culture.

Source: Auerbach, Nina, and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Forbidden Journeys.
Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

S.L. Vitale is currently navigating the purgatory between college and graduate school.  She spends most of her time writing, illustrating macabre picture books, and entertaining her orange cat, Schrodinger. She also has a blog ( )

Illustrator of image unknown.


  1. Great post ,have you readThe Childrens Book by A.S.Byatt.

  2. Interesting links between Nesbit's stories and Colonialism. How did contemporary critics react? It would be difficult not to notice the anti-Colonial message in "Fortunatus Rex and Co."

  3. Angela, I have not read it, but I checked it out on Amazon and it looks like something that I'll have to add to the queue. Thanks!

    Jeff, there seems to be a consensus around Nesbit's work regarding "Reverse Colonialization"(also seen in Stoker's Dracula)--a topic I explored more deeply in a paper written on this subject. It is especially evident in her novel, The Amulet.

  4. Very interesting essay! I've only read "Five Children and It" by E. Nesbit, but one of my favorite series, the magic books by Edward Eager, owe a lot to Nesbit's influence so it's fascinating to know a bit more about her. Thanks!