The Lark by E. Nesbit

The Lark
Sherpa posing (/sleeping) next to The Lark.

Well, two days in to 2016 and I’ve finished a novel that I’m pretty sure will be on my Top Books 2016, unless a lot of truly spectacular things come along; it’s already on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit is an absolute joy – charming, witty, dry, affectionate, and wry all in one go. May I offer a hearty thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow who first alerted me (and anybody who reads his excellent blog) to its existence, and a second hearty thanks to whichever person donated it to a charity shop in Yeovil, of all unlikely places. And, while I’m at it, a third hearty thanks to Lily P. Bond, who apparently bought this book at Ilminster Fair in 1925, and a fourth to Edith, who gave it to her mother with love at some unspecified date. (Copies can be found in ebook version for very little money.)

The novel starts off with a trio of children (Jane, Emmeline, and Lucilla) which is one of Nesbit’s few mistakes in this book, I think, because it will either disappoint those who like books about children or deter those who don’t: there is only a scene before they’re adults. The difference between their childlike naivety and their adult independence is, truth be told, only four years – but it might as well be a lifetime, so far as The Lark is concerned. As ‘children’, adventurous Jane decides to cast a spell which will show her the man she will marry (to the consternation of Emmie and Lucy): she wanders off to a wood to do so, and – lo and behold! – who should be passing but John Rochester. She sees him, he slips off, and the story is allowed to rush forwards to present day.

Now, if you’re thinking ‘Jane and Mr Rochester, how subtle, gosh I wonder what will happen to them’ then (a) you’re rushing ahead of yourself, and (b) Nesbit is consistently so knowing and self-knowing as a narrator that one can never get the upper hand. When he turns up again, and is ignored by the adult Jane, Nesbit coyly dismisses him as being ‘definitely out of the picture, which concerns itself only with the desperate efforts of two inexperienced girls to establish, on the spur of the moment, a going concern that shall be at once agreeable and remunerative’. It’s impossible to feel outraged at coincidences or unlikely behaviour if the narrator points them out too.

Jane and Lucie, you see, as destitute because their guardian has made bad investments with their inheritances (they are both orphans). ‘Destitute’ in this case means ownership of a beautiful cottage and £500, which this calculator tells me is the equivalent of over £20,000 today; this sort of destitute makes my full-time employment look rather inadequate. The indomitable pair decide to treat their misfortune (for such we must accept it) as ‘a lark’, and I can’t help agreeing with Scott that this is an excellent excerpt to quote:

“I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”

“No, no! “said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

“Is it?” said Lucilla. “And that’s my last word.”

This sentiment recurs – when one is unhappy, or bad things happen, they force themselves to laugh it off. It’s endearing rather than sickeningly Pollyannaish because they don’t find it easy, and they constantly tease one another about it. Their sarcasm and quips are delightfully witty, even if they retain a slightly cumbersome Edwardian propriety. In this particular instance, they must find a way to generate an income from within the narrow straits of a gentlewoman’s education – and land upon selling flowers. There are enough in their small garden to last them a day, but rather more can be found at an old shut-up house in the neighbourhood.

They manage to charm the old man who owns it to let them sell flowers from the garden room and – would you believe it? – he turns out to be John Rochester’s uncle. But Jane is far from pleased to see him, and insists that they can only be friends. There is much to enjoy about Jane and Lucy setting up a flower shop (including an improbable encounter with their future gardener in Madame Tussaud’s) – I love any story about people setting up a shop, particularly slightly feisty women in the 1920s. As The Lark develops, they will also start taking in paying guests – rather far into the novel, actually; it could have appeared earlier – and find their lives increasingly entangled with Rochester. Other characters I haven’t even had time to mention are the sceptical cook, the flirtatious maid Gladys, and the arrival of Miss Antrobus, who is supposedly Rochester’s intended. And there is a hilarious section involving poor Lucy disguising herself as an invented aunt.

The Lark could really have been about anything; it is Nesbit’s style that carries the day. There are more than hints of it in her children’s novels, but here – the first of her adult novels that I have read – she can give full rein to her dry humour and ability to show light-hearted exchanges between amusing, intelligent characters whom you can’t help loving. The whole thing is an absolute pleasure, and would be perfect between Persephone covers. It’s pretty rare that I’m sad to see a book end, but I will confess to feeling a little distraught that my time spent in Jane and Lucy’s company is over – until I re-read it, of course.

 

34 thoughts on “The Lark by E. Nesbit

  • January 3, 2016 at 9:01 am
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    I so much love E Nesbit but haven’t read this — you’ve made me really really want to! And no doubt I will. Thanks.

    • January 3, 2016 at 9:54 am
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      Thanks Harriet! I feel sure you’ll enjoy this – and you can get it with 25 other Nesbit novels for £1.99 as an ebook, it seems!

  • January 3, 2016 at 9:43 am
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    A rare book that is very hard to find.Pity……

    • January 3, 2016 at 9:54 am
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      It is a pity – hopefully it will be reprinted. For now, people will just have to keep their eyes open like I did. Good things come to those who wait!

  • January 3, 2016 at 9:52 am
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    Is this one reprinted?or an ebook?

    Tina

    • January 3, 2016 at 9:53 am
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      You need to read the end of the first paragraph again!

      • January 3, 2016 at 10:39 am
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        I normally skim read –leaves me more time to read books.

  • January 3, 2016 at 10:00 am
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    High praise indeed Simon – and it definitely sounds lovely and also ideal for Peresephone – fingers crossed, because I really don’t like e-books!

    • January 3, 2016 at 12:21 pm
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      Ditto, of course (though I have recently given in to having one on the go on my Kindle app for emergencies) – so fingers crossed that it’s either reprinted or you have a lucky find!

  • January 3, 2016 at 10:13 am
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    I love E. Nesbit’s books for children (not the Railway Children so much as the Five Children and It series or the Wouldbegoods series), but have never ventured into her adult fiction. I love your enthusiasm about this book!

    • January 3, 2016 at 12:21 pm
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      It’s so nice to start the new year with an excellent read! I still have lots of her children’s books unread too.

  • January 3, 2016 at 11:57 am
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    Oh my! The Lark sounds lovely – hooray for ebook I say – while I heartily envy you your ancient copy – I shall have to go in search of an ebook version.

    • January 3, 2016 at 12:22 pm
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      You should be able to find some cheap or free, I think! I just downloaded another – the something Honeymoon – for my Kindle app, as I don’t hold out huge hopes of finding secondhand copies.

  • January 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm
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    I can’t get it on American Amazon Kindle yet but hope it will appear sooner or later. Thank you for the reference and review and a very Happy New Year to you.

    • January 3, 2016 at 4:57 pm
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      Erika I found it on American Anazon Kindle for $0.99. It’s part of “The Complete Novels of E. Nesbit (Delphi Classics) (Series Four Book 7)”.

      • January 3, 2016 at 4:58 pm
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        *Amazon

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:47 am
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      It’s in the Delphi pack Michelle mentions (thanks Michelle!) – not the easiest to find, but hopefully you can!

  • January 3, 2016 at 7:57 pm
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    Well, this sounds like fun, Simon. I enjoyed your tribute to the previous owner of the book. In my catalogue of my books (excel spreadsheet) I make notes about previous owners and givers, and occasionally even find them on the internet. Always a little frisson of excitement there.

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:48 am
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      I keep meaning to do that – I love those little touches. One book I bought even had a poem somebody had written to remind the recipient of a place they both loved.

  • January 3, 2016 at 8:18 pm
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    I see a single hardback on ABE Books for over $100 US (and a print-on-demand option for less). I’m not fond of ebooks either, but it looks like the only option for this one.

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:49 am
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      It does seem the only way. Unless anybody else has my luck (the sort of luck that comes with obsessive book-hunting!)

  • January 4, 2016 at 3:21 am
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    Oh dear. The “paper book” options are very limited. (I immediately searched when I read your post, as so many others obviously did as well!) This may be the tipping point to inspire purchase of an e-reader at long last. Have tried to read the occasional book from computer screen but just can’t do it; I hear from those who know that a proper reader is not so bad, and it *would* open up some possibilities… Well, starting the year off with a bookish quest of is always a good omen. Thank you. :-)

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:53 am
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      I don’t know how I feel about having inspired that choice, given my usual stance on them! I’ve started reading a book on the Kindle app on my phone, which seems ok, so I suspect it’s a slippery slope… it IS so much cheaper to get these obscure books that way, sadly, though nothing compares to the original where possible.

  • January 4, 2016 at 2:00 pm
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    That sounds wonderful. I’ve just bought the Delphi Classics edition for Kindle so hope it’s living snugly in there …

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:55 am
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      It certainly is – along with lots of other treats!

  • January 4, 2016 at 6:30 pm
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    You’ve sold me on this one. I just hope I can find a copy.

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:55 am
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      Fingers crossed, Kay!

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:56 am
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      After GYD I never feel ENTIRELY confident about saying you’ll love stuff now, but I am otherwise certain you will ;)

  • January 6, 2016 at 12:58 am
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    Wait, but then, what happens to Emmeline? Does she just vanish when they’re adults? Or is she independently wealthy?

    • January 6, 2016 at 10:57 am
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      Such a good point! Poor old Emmeline is forgotten immediately after they leave school on about p.15. She was probably sat nearby being all “I’ll LEND you some dollar, gals, now quit with the flowers.”

  • January 6, 2016 at 8:33 pm
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    Thanks for your reading tip, you really made me want to read this book – I instantly bought a kindle edition including ‘The Lark’. I have never read a book by E. Nesbit
    (as an excuse I can say that I am not English) and I am looking forward to this one.

  • February 19, 2016 at 10:42 am
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    I completely share your enthusiasm for this book, Simon! Another blogger had recently suggested I might enjoy your site–I do–and I downloaded an ebook version of The Lark on basis of your review and listing in your top books. Delightful! Exactly as you say: a book that reminds one of the all the pleasures of reading.

  • March 10, 2017 at 8:49 pm
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    I have saved this review for OVER A YEAR so I could read it when I’d read the book. And I’ve read the Furrowed Middlebrow reprint – lucky me!

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