A Socially Critical Marriage: The Red House

As I started rereading the children’s books of Edith Nesbit, it occurred to me that I had never read any of the books she wrote for adults–even though many (not all) of these works were greatly admired in her day, and some (not all) are now easily available for free online.

Alas, those easily available for free online do not include her first three novels—which, probably not coincidentally, are also very difficult to track down in print. (My local library, responsible for most of these posts, is trying but failing here.) I don’t know what we all did to deserve a world where all of Marie Corelli’s novels are freely available, and these aren’t, but I suppose these sorts of injustices are bound to happen.

Which leads us to The Red House, the first of Edith Nesbit’s adult novels that is readily available online in multiple locations, and which, as a bonus, features a cameo appearance by the Bastables. Naturally, since I found it on the web, it’s also easily available in print through interlibrary loan. Anyway!

By 1902, as an established popular children’s writer and, equally importantly, as a long time student of and lecturer on economics, Nesbit was ready, in The Red House, to present her picture of domestic happiness. As it opens, Chloe and Len, married only a few months, are having a seemingly meaningless quarrel over where he should be shaving. Seemingly meaningless, because beneath this fight is a very real concern: the two are nearly broke, despite putting in lengthy hours as an illustrator and writer respectively, which is why they live in a tiny house with limited areas for convenient shaving. Before the quarrel can linger, the husband gets a piece of news: he has just inherited a large house and some income.

Oh, and–just maybe–a ghost.

After a few mild arguments, Chloe and Len move into the house, even though it is more than they can afford or manage, with the help of their considerably more practical friend Yolande. (Neither Chloe nor Len are the most practical sorts of people.) They have problems furnishing the house and finding servants; they unthinkingly rent to a problem tenant; they throw a party; they meet the Bastables; they watch their friend Yolande manage their lives and fall in love with one of their tenants; they find that a ghost is finishing their stories and illustrations. Much of this–particularly the party, and the couple’s first encounter with the “ghost,”–drips with charm and light amusement; a scene with a rabbit is touching.

But that is about it as far as plot goes. Even their marriage hardly seems to change throughout the novel. Chloe and Len begin as a happily married couple, and end as a happily married couple. The fight over whether or not they can move to the Red House is their only serious disagreement; once they move, they barely even quarrel. Chloe becomes somewhat jealous of Yolande when Len mildly jokes about kissing their friend, and both Chloe and Len are terrified when it comes time for Chloe to give birth, something that killed many young mothers at the time. And…that’s about it for the marital changes; even the discoveries the two make about each other are blatantly obvious midway through the novel, as is the identity of the “ghost.”

But beneath this placid surface, the novel teems with radical ideas indeed. For one, her two upper middle class characters, very much of the genteel class, find that they quite enjoy housework and being their own servants. They are only persuaded to hire a servant when they realize that the housework is interfering with their more respectable, and better paid work. For a society that often regarded housework with horror (for the upper middle, professional and upper classes), and could not even conceive of life without servants, this is close to shocking.

But even more shocking for the period is Len’s casual comment:

“Theoretically I know how right and proper it is that she should be earning money as well as I.”

The Red House was written in 1902, when this statement was not at all universally accepted, even in theory. Certainly, most women did work both inside and outside the home (the frequent claim that women only entered the workplace in vast numbers in the 1960s and 1970s is not supported by actual data). Equally certainly, by the time Nesbit wrote The Red House, she had been the chief earner for her family (including her husband’s mistress and the two children of that mistress) for some years. But the ideal household, most agreed, consisted of a single, male breadwinner and a mother focused on child rearing.

Here, Nesbit makes the direct opposite argument: the ideal household happens when the wife is able to do both professional and household work. Chloe’s work turns her and Len into an ideal couple, utterly happy in their home and beloved and envied by everyone except that one problem tenant). She does, perhaps as a sop to potentially outraged readers, suggest that Chloe prefers traditional domestic duties to her illustration work–Chloe finds herself playing more and more with the needed tasks about the house. But as the novel eventually reveals, Chloe is not very good at any of these tasks–the servant firmly takes over so that housework can be done competently–and that her real problem is that she is dissatisfied with much of her illustration work, and prefers to write and corroborate with her husband in both illustration and writing.

Moreover, as Nesbit makes clear in a financial statement included in the book, without Chloe’s professional contributions to the household, Chloe and Len would be bankrupt. Even with her work, they are making it financially only thanks to Len’s inheritance; without that, they would be–well, possibly not starving. They do seem to have well-to-do if disapproving relatives meandering around. But finances would be tight indeed, and they could not keep their house.

Admittedly, they would also not be able to keep this large house without Len’s inheritance–but even before this, Chloe works from necessity, not choice, just to keep their tiny house solvent. And also admittedly, certain parts of the novel suggest that Nesbit herself was none too familiar with many domestic tasks–the book is narrated by Len for a reason. (Contemporaries made similar observations of Nesbit, and it must be noted that Nesbit hired her husband’s lover to work as a combined secretary/housekeeper, delegating several domestic tasks to her.)

If the barbed wit of her children’s novels is significantly toned down here, Nesbit adds other moments of sharp social commentary: a visit from the local vicar’s wife, a snob from low social origins she’s anxious to conceal, stunned to discover that the (temporarily) slovenly Chloe has excellent social connections; the resulting interest of the neighbors; the difficulty with the various tenants. As Chloe notes sharply, social status, supposedly dependent on birth and demeanor, is entirely dependent on money. And by working, Chloe is able to have both the proper social connections and the money to support her related social status.

The appearance of the Bastables, late in the novel, is a sly indication that Nesbit knew quite well that adults were reading and enjoying her children’s novels–although their belated appearance also ensured that the Bastables’ more childish fans would not seek out this novel. (Although Nesbit carefully couches Chloe’s pregnancy in innocuous language, overprotective Edwardian parents would still have considered this section inappropriate for children.)

But otherwise, I’m not entirely sure their appearance works here. Seeing the Bastables from a different point of view is slightly disconcerting, especially when Nesbit uses her adult narrator to assure us that Oswald Bastable’s high opinion of himself is completely deserved. This might have been more convincing had I not just read three books saying otherwise. As it stands it’s a rather awkward scene – and Oswald’s description of the encounter in The New Adventure Seekers (upcoming post!) is equally awkward.

But apart from this cameo appearance, this is an enjoyable novel indeed – not least for reminding us that the task of balancing career and home was equally important when women were not encouraged to have careers at all. I’m only sorry that the ghost turned out to be not at all real, but I suppose that might have detracted from Nesbit’s other, all too real point.


Inspired by this book, Mari Ness has been attempting to summon a ghost to do her household duties, but regretfully notes that so far, these efforts have failed. She lives in central Florida.

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