The Marble Child

One last winter tale before Christmas… .

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) is best known as a children’s author. The Railway Children is perhaps her most famous children’s novel; my favorite is Five Children and It, the first of the Psammead trilogy. She also wrote novels and short stories for adults, and a few horror stories, too, the most famous being “Man-size in Marble.”


Gore Vidal calls her “the best of the children’s fabulists” after Lewis Carroll, and though she’s now relatively little known in the United States, you can see her influence in the writing of many modern writers of children’s and young adult fiction. Reading her children’s fiction has always reminded me of Neil Gaiman (I know I should say it the other way around, but I found Gaiman first). As Vidal says, part of her charm is that she doesn’t talk down to children (in fact, he claims that she doesn’t write for them, merely about them), nor does she belittle a child’s imaginative world.

This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.

The Marble Child was first published in the November 1910 issue of The Atlantic Monthly; it was also published in the 1910 Christmas number of The Graphic magazine. It’s not a very well known story; it was collected in the 1918 anthology Atlantic Narratives, but after that — nothing that I could find. The story definitely fits into her stream of children’s literature; I like it better than “Man-size in Marble,” or most of her adult horror, for that matter. The beginning is a bit slow; still, I thought the child Ernest’s fascination with the marble child got a bit unsettling, though perhaps the effect was unintentional.

Enjoy. And Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it; Happy Holidays to all of you who don’t.

  • You can read my previous commentary on Nesbit as a children’s author (and my commentary on other children’s literature, as well) here.
  • Gore Vidal’s 1964 essay on Nesbit for the New York Review of Books is here.
  • The image above is a detail from a photograph of the baptismal font in Vor Frelser Kirke (Church of Our Saviour), Copenhagen, Denmark. The photo was taken by Ib Rasmussen, and was sourced from Wikimedia.

4 thoughts on “The Marble Child

  1. Your essay brought to mind a couple of children’s books I used in therapy — with adults. One was the Judith Viorst book “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” which may be helpful to anyone who has lost a pet. The other was “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

    1. Oh, The Velveteen Rabbit! I hadn’t read that in a long time; I had to stop and read it again. I’ve not read the other book.

      It’s good to know that those books can still have value to adults. People underestimate good children’s books, I think. Or maybe they underestimate what children are capable of appreciating.

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