Sunday, April 03, 2005

Raising character?

It's a hundred years since the children's classic The Railway Children was first serialised. The Age yesterday marked the occasion with a fascinating account of the author's life.

Edith Nesbit was not only an author of children's books, she was also a founding member, together with her husband, of the Fabian Society. The Fabians began as revolutionary socialists, but achieved considerably more influence as reformist left-liberals. Broadly speaking, they have been intellectual standard bearers for social democratic parties like the Australian Labor Party.

The earliest recorded goal of the Fabians was to form "an association whose ultimate aim shall be the reconstruction of Society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities" and that the object would be "the cultivation of a perfect character in each and all."

These are high sounding, if utopian, aims. Unfortunately, the Fabians were a long way from cultivating a perfect character, as the life story of Edith Nesbitt makes clear.

Her story goes like this: her future husband and fellow Fabian founder, Hubert Bland, first achieved fatherhood by impregnating a friend of his mother. He then impregnated Edith and married her two months before the birth of the child. However, even after marriage he continued to live with his mother for part of the week, while Edith fended for herself.

He then impregnated the secretary of the Fabians, one of Edith's friends, Alice Hoatson, who came to live with the family in a menage a trois. Edith herself had numerous affairs.

Eventually, Edith made a lot of money through her books, and the household moved to an imposing mansion of 30 rooms with a number of servants, in spite of their supposed Fabian commitment to achieving human equality in a classless society.

Edith did not get on well with her own children, despite achieving fame as a writer of children's books, and her son Paul, like many children of middle class bohemians, was to eventually take his own life.

Hardly a monument to the character raising effects of liberal politics. The men and women who founded Fabianism wanted to achieve human perfection, but seemingly lacked the moral values to act decently within their own private lives.

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