The Lark by Edith Nesbit

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Reviewed by Harriet

Last year there was a bit of a flutter in the blogging world when Edith Nesbit’s complete works popped up on Amazon for a very low price. The one that caught everyone’s attention was her final novel, The Lark. Several people, including me, felt that this was a prime candidate for Persephone Books, but they didn’t rise to the bait. Now thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, everyone can buy an attractive new paperback and plunge in.

I’ve been a huge fan of Edith Nesbit ever since I first learned to read. But though I’ve read and re-read all her childrens’ books, I’d never read any of her novels for adults. If this one’s anything to go by, I’ve been missing an enormous amount of pleasure.

Wondering about the title? The Lark has nothing to do with the little bird of that name. Here’s what Jane, one of the pair of central characters says:

Life is a lark — all the parts of it, I mean, that are generally treated seriously: money, and worries about money, and not being sure what’s going to happen. Looked at rightly, all that’s an adventure, a lark. As long as you have enough to eat and to wear and a roof to sleep under, the whole thing’s a lark. Life is a lark for us, and we must treat it as such.

 Jane and her cousin Lucilla are nineteen, and after a comfortable upbringing financed by their guardian have suddenly been thrust out into the world to more or less fend for themselves, said guardian having absconded with most of their money. He has left them a little cottage on the outskirts of London and £500 in the bank, but though this was a considerable sum in those days, the girls are well aware that it won’t last unless they find some way of making a living. These are two cheerful and resourceful girls, though naturally a bit naive. Jane’s admirer, whose name is Rochester (nice joke), calls them perfectly fearless, perfectly unforgettable. They are as brave and as innocent as angels, and it’s hard to fault that. Having found, almost by chance, that they can sell the flowers from their tiny garden, and having then, by an even bigger chance, been given the use of the huge garden and a couple of rooms of a large mansion (which happens to belong to Rochester’s uncle), they set themselves up as florists and do quite well at it. In this they are greatly aided by Mr Dix, an impoverished ex-soldier (this is 1922, by the way) who they meet at Madame Tussauds in a hilarious scene where they are certain his sad, drooping figure is that of a waxwork, but who turns out to be a superb gardener and becomes a good friend. 

It soon turns out that selling flowers is all very well but not bringing in as much as they need. So the next move (they having by now been granted the use of the whole house) is to take in paying guests (or Pigs, as they can’t help calling them). The results of this are decidedly mixed — the first three rather grotesque women turn out to be crooks, who leave after two rent-free weeks, and the next three, the Thorntons, a charming trio of two brothers and the wife of one of them, turn out… But I’m not going to tell you any more as you are going to have to read this for yourself.

You may think this sounds as if it’s all too good to be true, and in a sense it is — certainly there are a great many happy coincidences and the girls have a huge amount of luck — but there are also some serious setbacks which put their determination to see life as a lark to enormous tests. But through it all, their will to succeed, and not to be brought down by the problems that often face them, carry them through to what is a happy and hopeful (though I felt rather sudden) ending. 

This is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read for a long time. It made me laugh, it made me think. It was joyously upbeat, and it was amazing to realise that it was written by a woman in her sixties who was to die only a year later — there was an incredible sense of youthful high spirits here. There’s all the wit and charm of Nesbit’s best children’s books (the new introduction describes it as ‘a novel for grown-up children’) but with some themes directly relevant to an adult audience. The characters are wonderfully delineated, and so is their relationship with each other and with their friends and admirers. In fact the only criticism I had of it was that it ended too soon. I’d give anything for a sequel, as we are left with some big changes afoot for Jane and Lucilla, and I longed to know how they would deal with them.

I was very glad to be able to return to the novel this year, not least because it has a most interesting and informative introduction by Charlotte Moore. I’m not sure who she is, though I think she may be a writer of books for children. It’s well worth reading this, as it has a very good analysis of the novel and relates many of the incidents to episodes in Nesbit’s own life. Altogether highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Edith Nesbit, The Lark (Dean Street Press, 2017). 978-1911579458, 251pp., paperback.

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