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The Ghost Stories of E Nesbit

Victorian Gothic.

Ghost Stories of E Nesbit
BBC Radio 4 Extra

Proving that there is little on the radio this time of year more consoling than a ghost story (as a country keener than most on the past, ghosts are the ne plus ultras in continuity) five ghost stories by E Nesbit are currently being endlessly repeated on Radio 4 Extra. First published in magazines in the 1880s, the stories are not so much frightening as full of an overwhelming longing for domestic normality and they also drip with autobiographical barbs.

In one, read with tremendous speed and brilliance by Anton Lesser, a man inherits a fortune and sits by the fire thinking unenthusiastically of his lover – far less attractive to him now that he is rich – whom he “intends to marry one day”. Lesser made clear with an almost imperceptible modulation that this meant never. Nesbit’s first husband – a scurrilous bank clerk by the name of Bland – impregnated various women including one of Edith’s best friends, only feet-draggingly marrying Edith when she herself was about to give birth.

Having spent most of her miserable young life on the move with a poor single mother and sick sister (living in over 25 different places before the age of 16), Nesbit’s desire to stay put and nest rang out in every line of a story about a young married couple who take a house on the Romney marshes in Kent and go about furnishing it over the summer. The story mentions cold steak and coffee for breakfast as though this was the cobbled together postcoital feast of the writer’s dreams. Nesbit describes things that never crossed the greatest English ghost-story writer M R James’s mind – of people clasping and kissing each other and indulging in pet names. Yet if Nesbit’s stories did occasionally sound like some of the best of the genre – improbable but also strangely credible and matter-of-fact – only now and again did a line of Nesbit’s approach something of James’s horrible wonder.

Figures on a tomb in a church were described as being “drawn out man-sized in marble” which sounds quite James. But where one James story can leave you awake all night (see “An Episode of Cathedral History”) Nesbit’s just made me a bit gloomy – for her. “I saw the dead lie low,” she once wrote in a poem. “Who had worked and suffered and found life sad/ So many sad years ago.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC