Conventionally our life story ended in a shower of rice at the church door, amid the scent of white flowers, with a flutter of white favours all about us...and a high heeled white satin slipper struck the back of the brougham as we drove off. It was like a parting slap on the shoulder from our old life -- the old life which we left so gayly, eager to fulfil the destiny set at the end of our wooing's fairy story and to 'live happy ever after'.
So, at the point where, as Nesbit slyly points out, most novels end, begins The Red House, which was published in 1902 and which, despite its irresistible wit and charm, has some important things to say about love and marriage, and about gender roles, and about the rapidly changing society of its day. Not long ago I read and hugely enjoyed my first of Edith Nesbit's novels for adults, The Lark. I'd managed to buy her complete works on Kindle for silly money and always meant to read another of them, and now I have. Well, all the praise I heaped on that one in my review deserves to be repeated here. Nesbit, despite her huge popularity as a writer for children, really needs to be treated as a forgotten author who is ridiculously overdue for a revival.
The two young people whose wedding is described in that first paragraph are Chloe and Len. Six months have gone by since that wedding day, and they are as much in love as ever, but life is hard for them, because they have no income apart from what they can earn by their own efforts, Chloe as an illustrator and Len as a writer of short articles and stories. They are falling over each other in the tiny house they call the Bandbox, and the maids they take on never stay. A quarrel is just starting as the novel begins, but it's interrupted by the arrival of the post, with a letter that changes everything. Len's uncle has died and left them a hundred a year and a house. Obviously the sensible thing will be to rent out the house and thereby have a much more comfortable income. But when they go to look at it, Chloe falls instantly in love, and they decide to move in despite the fact that they can't afford the upkeep (and that it's said to be haunted by a ghost). Predictably, many things go wrong, despite the help they get from their much more practical friend Yolande, who pays long visits in between teaching and lecture tours (she's a Girton girl). They make many mistakes, like letting one of their cottages to a family of ne'er-do-wells, often end up doing all the housework themselves because the maids won't stay, but slowly their lives get sorted out. And through it all, despite worries and anxieties and little disagreements, their joy in each other remains constant.
You might think that doesn't sound like much of a plot, but it is narrated so vividly and joyfully, and Chloe and Len are such immensely loveable people, that the sheer verve of it all carries you through, if you're like me, loving every minute. Not only that, but the novel is interesting in so many ways for the way it looks at changing roles in society. By 1902 it was not unheard of for a woman to work (as of course Nesbit did herself, supporting her husband, their children, his mistress and her children), but the accepted standard was that of the man as breadwinner and the wife taking care of the house, and here Chloe's work is what's keeping them from bankruptcy. Also, in fact we find that Len probably likes housework more than Chloe does -- she sometimes takes a run at a big job like cleaning out the kitchen cupboards, but it's quite likely, in times of need, that you'll find Len on his hands and knees scrubbing the front doorstep. And before you wonder if they really need a maid at all -- well yes they do, because when they are cleaning the house they can't spend the usual ten hours a day needed to write and draw.
There's also the interesting question of how these two unconventional innocents are viewed by the neighbours. At one point they have a visit from the vicar's wife, who is extremely condescending and snobbish until she is shocked to find that Chloe's family is of a considerably higher social status than her own. Then there's Yolande, a thinker and an organiser, who swears she will never marry, never clean a house or mend anyone's socks -- until she meets the charming tenant who moves into one of the cottages...
Towards the end of the novel, something very predictable happens, only alluded to rather obliquely. Almost the first we know of it is when a group of children come to visit (they are actually the Bastables, known to readers of The Treasure Seekers) and find an item in the cellar which they think would make a perfect rabbit hutch but which turns out to be a cradle. Although Chloe's condition is never spoken of in our hearing, there's a very moving moment when the young couple address what, at this period, must have been a very real issue for any woman expecting to give birth, which many did not survive..
'We've been so happy. It makes me feel frightened. And now its so peaceful; I feel as if things were gathering together for some awful thing to happen. You don't know!'
I was silent. Did I not know?
'Yes you do,' she went on, holding me more closely. 'You do, you do, but you pretend you aren't afraid of anything, because you think it makes me cheerful, but it doesn't. I hate to think we're pretending to each other -- now. So I tell you plainly, Len, I'm very, very frightened, and you know it, and so are you, and I know that, and if you'd only let me look straight at it, Perhaps I shouldn't be so frightened. Oh, there are so many things I want to say to you.'
Altogether as I hope I managed to convince you, this is a really lovely novel. Nesbit, whose own marriage was certainly challenging, has imagined a way for a couple to relate to one another through gentleness and honesty, and to overcome obstacles with cheerfulness and belief in each other. Brilliant.