Idealism and Reality: Daphne in Fitzroy Street

The playwright George Bernard Shaw, who by some accounts never slept with his wife, slept with a number of other women, married and unmarried. One of these may have been his close friend Edith Nesbit, who left an account of their friendship and courtship—probably highly fictionalized—in her 1909 novel, Daphne in Fitzroy Street. Nearly forgotten now, the novel shows how Nesbit could take the disappointments of her life, blending together reality with strands of fairy tale, in a surprisingly bitter, yet enthralling study of the realities of adult romance.

Not that much of this is even hinted at in the first chapters, which introduce Daphne, a popular girl at a French school about to be summoned back to England with her considerably younger sister, Doris. In a meeting full of fairy tale, Daphne meets a young man, Stephen St. Hillary, just before she has to leave for England. He has a small income of his own, a sense of humor and whimsy, and kisses her—something quite full of meaning in this pre World War I novel—before she finds herself amongst some horrific relatives indeed. It’s the perfect setup for a perfect fairy tale romance, until Nesbit assiduously turns the plot completely upside down.

To begin with, Daphne, rather than waiting for the princely figure, or instructions from a magical outside source, decides to rescue herself and her sister. The portrait of the horrific relatives—who intend to take half of Daphne’s already limited income, and who physically abuse Doris — rings very true to life, and Daphne’s sudden decision to take control of her life and her sister echoes Nesbit’s own early flight from home. But Nesbit fled to a male lover who eventually became her husband. Daphne and Doris pawn a necklace and use the money to find rooms in Fitzroy Street and choose to live alone. They are helped by the second of the many male characters who gets a crush on Daphne, but Nesbit makes it clear that this happened through Daphne’s determination. Unfortunately, life in a Paris school has left Daphne knowing very little about real life indeed, a problem when she meets the third man of her life, Henry, an artist.

If most of the men in this book, with the exception of a passionate Russian, tend to be rather bland, Henry makes up for it: rude, bad tempered, insulting, passionate, cynical, egotistical, self-centered. He prides himself on saying exactly what he thinks—a Shaw characteristic—and is not above a spot of blackmail—another Shaw characteristic—blackmailing, to give him credit, friends, foes and servants alike. And he is, ultimately, an idealist:

“I mean that if one deliberately does bad work for money, one does sell one soul’s, whether one’s P.R.A. or an old charwoman. There must be something that you can do well, and not despise yourself for doing. What you’ve got to do is figure out what, and then do it. And don’t let anything else in the world interfere with you doing it. You put that stuff in the fire, and never touch a pencil again except to do your accounts. What’s the good of getting a little money if you can’t look yourself in the face afterward?”

“I don’t think I like you,” said Doris suddenly.

“You’re not the only one, princess,” said Henry, turning dark eyes on the child.

The slight problem with this fine speech: “that stuff” refers to Daphne’s not very good drawings that at this point are her only hope of earning money for food. Crushed by this speech (and the somewhat gentler criticisms of another friend) Daphne takes on considerably less lucrative and respectable work as an artist’s model. (It’s also, as Nesbit notes gently, a physically demanding job, something Daphne is not used to.) It’s not merely that Daphne has no idea what she might be good at doing; it’s that Daphne does not have the luxury of exploring her options.

And if Nesbit, in an earlier adult novel, The Red House, could envision a woman taking up a professional career and earning a professional wage equal to that of her husband, here she takes a considerably harder look at the limited earning power of women, and the various ways that society and the workforce takes advantage of them. Daphne’s new friend Green Eyes, for instance, earns less than men do for her skilled artwork, and must watch hopelessly as she is viciously cheated by clients. A cousin Jane, lacking an independent income, has been kept a virtual and miserable prisoner under the control of uncaring relatives who use her to do housework and other unpaid labor. (She does eventually escape.) Even Daphne’s wealthy school friends find themselves caught in economic and social constraints.

Which makes Henry’s speech, and other elements, pure George Bernard Shaw: on the one hand, deeply insightful and idealistic, and on the other hand, missing some of the issues right in front of him. The Henry of this novel does not get women. He uses them, certainly, and has deeply dysfunctional relationships with them, but he does not understand them, or their constraints, for all of his idealism.

Nonetheless, Daphne reluctantly finds herself falling for him, even with two perfectly decent, more considerate and better looking men hanging around. Their romance plays out over a series of seemingly ordinary events – a dinner party, the illness of a certain Russian (based on some of Nesbit’s Socialist acquaintances), a picnic, an evening at one of the (real) George Bernard Shaw’s plays (Daphne in the text points out the many issues with Man and Superman.) And, above all, in the picture that Henry is painting of Daphne, one of his greatest works, but one they are both reluctant to allow others to see.

Daphne is meant, in a way, to be Nesbit, and I suppose that she’s an early example of a Mary-Sue, especially since most of the men in the book fall head over heels in love with her, but she’s not precisely a Mary-Sue, either. For one, she lacks the ambition, drive and energy everyone associated with Nesbit (and evident from her ongoing output of a couple novels per year plus short stories, reviews and articles); for two, she is considerably fonder of children than Nesbit was; for three, quite a few characters—mostly women—do not like her much; and for four, I have a hard time believing that Nesbit, who encountered multiple family financial and other misfortunes, and who was pregnant for seven months before finally marrying her first husband, was ever as naïve as Daphne is in this novel. Naïve, yes; this naïve, no.

But then again, perhaps Nesbit just wanted to twist the knife in a little further, showing how Shaw could and did take advantage of the naivety of young women to get them into bed. (To be fair, Shaw did this with experienced women as well.) Her comments about Shaw’s plays, in a book she knew he would probably read, were almost certainly meant to get under his skin. (I’m not sure if he would have noticed the bitter description of his egotism.) And her sometimes wrenching portrayal of Henry and Daphne’s troubled romance suggests a certain—how can I put this—ambivalence, even irritation towards Shaw.

Part of this irritation may very well have been a literary one. Nesbit by now had enjoyed great success with children’s literature, but her adult novels had never been as well received. (As evidenced by the fact that even now, in the Gutenberg ebook age, all but two of her children’s novels as easily and readily available for free online, and even one of those two exists as an audio book, but the same cannot be said for her adult novels, several of which cannot be found at all, and one of which was only available for the low, low prince of $350. Not that I’m bitter about this or anything.) And, as a writer of fairy tales, Nesbit was set apart from the growing realist literary movement, one that embraced Shaw. Nesbit in another novel wrote somewhat bitterly of realist novels, and in Wet Magic (coming up soon!) she was to firmly state her belief that the old romances by those such as Sir Walter Scott were among the best books; didactic or realistic novels without a hint of whimsy among the worst. But only here does she suggest that this literary movement could kill the passion of women—a suggestion that foresaw, all too well, the way 20th century male critics would dismiss other popular women writers.

Daphne in Fitzroy Street has little of the humor of Nesbit’s other works, and none of the magic: this is a fairy tale gone wrong, a tale of what happens when the princess cannot love the prince, and turns to another man. It takes some time to get going, and its bittersweet, cynical ending may not satisfy anyone. But if you want to see another side of Nesbit, this might be a book to try.

Mari Ness wants you to know that accidentally running an unsafe search for Google images of this book’s title may change your opinions of Scooby-Doo forever. She lives in central Florida.


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