March 4th, 2017


The Lark, E Nesbit

Silly me, when I first saw this title, knowing nothing about the book, I thought of birds: The Lark on the Wing, that sort of thing. ‘Lark’ is actually being used in its old fashioned sense of fun. ’Coo, what a lark!’ as young people might have said in 1919, when the book is set. It’s also a Pollyanna-ish way of looking on the bright side of everything.

Jane and Lucilla, young women with expectations, are summoned from boarding school by their guardian/trustee and whisked away to an unknown destination. There they learn that the trustee has absconded after losing their small fortunes, leaving them with a cottage and £500.00 in the bank. Are they downhearted? Of course not, because Jane declares that every difficulty will be ‘a lark’. They begin by almost accidentally selling flowers from their garden. When they are given the use of a large garden nearby, they expand the business into a market garden and employ a gardener. Things do just happen to these girls! The big house also falls into their laps and they decide they must have Pigs, or paying guests to pay for it. Things go wrong but never mind, it’s all a lark!

None of these things would be possible without the (sometimes unwelcome) help of an obliging young man called Mr Rochester, nephew of the owner of the big house. Why did Nesbit choose those particular names for her main love interest in the novel? The two could not be less like Charlotte Brontë’s characters, and a good thing, too. Perhaps it was a deliberate joke. The book is full of descriptions of things: flowers, old china, old silver, clothes, dainty tablecloths. In her introduction, Charlotte Moore suggests that Nesbit did this remembering more prosperous times, when she herself delighted in acquiring lovely things for her home. Here is an example.

‘They were occupied in covering two easy-chairs with bright chintz. I am sorry to say that they had cut up a pair of curtains twelve feet long by six feet wide so as to avoid the extravagance of buying new cretonne to brighten the sitting room which they were arranging for their new guests. The curtains were beautiful, with purple birds and pink peonies and pagodas of just the right shade of yellow to be worthy to associate with the pinks and the purples. The curtains were lined and bordered with faded rose-coloured Chinese silk, and pounds could not have bought their like. Shillings, on the other hand, and not so very many of them either, could have bought the cretonne. Pity, but do not despise these inexperienced housekeepers. They did not know – how should they?’

In that passage you see the authorial tone of the book: wonderfully descriptive and wryly commenting on events as they unfold. This book is a lovely piece of froth, sparkling with Nesbit’s wit and just a touch of magic. The kind of book you might write to cheer yourself up. I am so glad that it’s been reissued as a Furrowed Middlebrow book and many thanks to Dean Street Press for giving me a preview. Highly recommended.