The secret life and scary stories of a children’s author

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HORROR stories and a ménage à trois are probably not what you would immediately associate with E Nesbit, author of the wholesome children’s classic The Railway Children, but a new play which opens at Harrogate Theatre next month sheds light on some of the lesser known aspects of the Edwardian writer’s life and work.

Edith in the Dark by Philip Meeks, the first original play commissioned by Harrogate Theatre for twenty years, imagines a scenario which incorporates five of Nesbit’s dark short stories, written early in her career as an author. “As I was writing, I found out so much about Edith’s life, and her story started to form the characters in the play,” says Meeks. “It also provided a good framework. I found the stories really visceral – they have something very dark in them.”

The action of the play takes place in Nesbit’s home where she is hosting a Christmas Eve party – a young man gatecrashes the gathering and helps her to take a guest who is unwell upstairs to the attic. It transpires that the stranger is a fan of Nesbit’s work.

“At first she tries to seduce him,” says Meeks. “But he just wants her to read to him.” And so the storytelling begins. “There are three in the cast – Edith, her young male admirer and her loyal housekeeper – but they all play lots of roles. And in the spirit of the season there is some cross-dressing. ‘Edith’ plays everything from parlour maids to vengeful spurned lovers.” In addition to writing over sixty children’s novels including Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle, Nesbit penned several adult novels and four collections of horror stories. She was also a political activist who with her first husband, Hubert Bland, was a founding member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation later connected with the Labour Party. As a young married couple they were very poor and Nesbit wrote to try and support them. She had little success in getting published – until she started writing horror stories.

“Her own life story was quite tragic,” says Meeks. “One of her sons died horrifically as a teenager on the operating table while he was having his tonsils out and I imagine that turned her towards the dark. In many ways she was a very modern woman, she lived in a ménage – her friend Alice moved in as her housekeeper and her husband ended up having two children with her who Edith adopted. Edith had affairs too and she had quite a successful second marriage to a younger man.”

Vampire plants, a zombie bridegroom and spectral dancers feature among the stories in the play but as the three characters breathe life into Nesbit’s writing, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems and one of the storytellers is concealing a terrible secret. “I love crime, horror stories and ghost stories,” says Meeks. “It’s a really interesting way to explore human behaviour – to put people in an extreme situation and see how they react.” The play seeks to create a genuinely creepy, edge-of-your-seat experience for the audience while at the same time offering a fresh perspective on one of our best-loved children’s authors.

“Hopefully the audience will learn a lot about E Nesbit and discover this side to her work they don’t know,” says Meeks. “There are the ghost stories, but something else is going on in the room...”

Harrogate Theatre, December 10 to January 5. Tickets 01423 502116.