“I never thought of building magic cities till the Indian soldiers came”

E. Nesbit: “They were very fine soldiers with turbans and swords and eyes that gleamed in quite a lifelike way, riding on horses of a violently active appearance: they came to my little son when he was getting well after measles or some such sorrow, and he wanted a fort built for them.” (Chapter IV: The Magic City, Wings and the Child )

Edith Nesbit in Wings and the Child or the Building of Magic Cities, 1913 wrote about her childhood in France and England. The family moved around for the sake of her older sister’s ailing health.

The Magic City – probably the one built by Edith Nesbit at the Olympia exhibition (note the rope barrier holders) late 1912/ early 1913

Chapter IV The Magic City in Wings and the Child, 1913

During her childhood, E. Nesbit ended up living in France with her family:

“In the courtyard of our house in France there was an out-house with a sloping roof and a flat parapet about four feet high. We used to build little clay huts along this, and roof them with slates, leaving a hole for a chimney. The huts had holes for windows and doors, and we used to collect bits of candle and put them in our huts after dark and enjoy the lovely spectacle of our illuminated buildings till some one remembered us and caught us, and sent us to bed.

That was the curse of our hut-building—the very splendour of the result attracted the attention one most wished to avoid. But clay was our only building material, and after the big bricks were lost I never had any more bricks till I had children of my own who had bricks of their own. And then I played with them and theirs.

And even then I never thought of building magic cities till the Indian soldiers came.”

Colonial Troops and Indian Cavalry Page from James Opie, Britain’s Toy Soldiers 1893 – 1932

Britain’s appear to have introduced their Indian troops and Cavalry from 1895/6 onwards, according to James Opie.

E. Nesbit and H. G. Wells and their respective sons would no doubt be delighted that such shiny toy soldiers are still available, painted or unpainted metal, or more recently plastic.

Andrew Stevenson’s beautifully painted recasts from Replica


Not forgetting the rich castings and repair pieces at Dorset Toy Soldiers:


Looking at these beautifully painted shiny Indian Army figures, old and new, you can see why Edith’s son was so taken with these “very fine soldiers”:

E. Nesbit: “They were very fine soldiers with turbans and swords and eyes that gleamed in quite a lifelike way, riding on horses of a violently active appearance: they came to my little son when he was getting well after measles or some such sorrow, and he wanted a fort built for them.” (Chapter IV: The Magic City)

“So we rattled all the bricks out of their boxes on to the long cutting-out table in the work-room and began to build.

But do what we would our fort would not look like a fort—at any rate not like an Eastern fort. We pulled it down and tried again, and then again, but no: regardless of our patient energy our fort quietly but persistently refused to look like anything but a factory—a building wholly unworthy of those military heroes with the prancing steeds and the coloured turbans, and the eyes with so much white in them.” (Chapter IV The Magic City, in Wings and the Child)

Edith Nesbit’s 1913 book Wings and the Child with its concern for wooden blocks and creative toys proves an interesting comparison with H.G. Wells’ Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913).

The Square Tower – drawn by GB George Barraud for Wings and the Child

E. Nesbit: “So then I wondered what was needed to give a hint of the gorgeous East to the fort, and I perceived that what was wanted was a dome — domes.

So I fetched some brass finger-bowls and lustre basins off the dresser in the dining-room and inverted one on the chief tower of our fort, and behold! the East began to sparkle and beckon. Domes called for minarets, and chessmen on pillars supplied the need.

One thing led to another, and before the day was over the Indian horsemen were in full charge across a sanded plain where palm trees grew—a sanded plain bounded only by the edges of the table, along three sides of which were buildings that never rose beside the banks of Thames, but seemed quite suitable piles to reflect their fair proportions in the Ganges or the Sutlej, especially when viewed by eyes which had not had the privilege of gazing on those fair and distant streams.” (Chapter IV: The Magic City, in Wings and the Child)

A Chinese Temple

E. Nesbit: “I learned a great deal in that my first day of what I may term romantic building, but what I learned was the merest shadow-sketch of the possibilities of my discovery. My little son, for his part, learned that a bowl one way up is a bowl, a thing for a little boy to eat bread and milk out of; the other way up it is a dome for a king’s palace …”

The Tomb in the Desert

E. Nesbit: “You will be amazed at the results you can achieve with quite dull-looking materials, and still more will you be surprised at the increasing interest and skill of the grown-ups.

When it is time to dress for dinner you will feel a pang of positive despair at the thought that your beautiful city, the child of your dreams and skill, must be taken down. It is like the end of the magic of Cinderella when her coach became a pumpkin, her horses mice and her coachman a fat rat.

Now your domes are once more mere basins, your fountain basins are ash-trays, your fountains are but silver pen-cases and their gleaming waters only strips of the tin-foil that comes off chocolate or cigarettes.

The walls of your palaces go back into the book-cases, and their façades return to the dull obscurity of the brick-boxes. The door and the animals who stood on guard at the door-ways and terraces, on plinths or pillars, share in the dark rattling seclusion where many a wooden tail has been broken, many a painted ear lost for ever, but the tidying up has to be done: unless your hostess is one of those rare and delightful people who see what their guests like and lets them do it.

In that case she may say “Oh! what a pity to disturb the pretty thing! Why not let your city stay for a day or two, so that the children can build some more to it to-morrow. No, of course it won’t be in the way—and wouldn’t it be pretty if we lighted it up with fairy lights after dark?” (Chapter IV: The Magic City, Wings and The Child)

Here are some of the beautiful exotic palaces and houses that E. Nesbit made, pictured in “Wings and The Child”

The Silver Towers
The Hall of Pearl and Red

You can see E.Nesbit with part of her Magic City in this webpage photograph:

Nesbit and her Magic City http://www.transpositions.co.uk/e-nesbit-as-fantasy-god-mother/

Who was this young son delighted by the arrival of the Indian cavalry?

Many of Nesbit’s books were dedicated to her and husband Hubert Bland’s children. By the time Wings and the Child or The Building of Magic Cities was published in 1913, which has no such dedication, her children and those of her husband were mostly grown up teenagers or twenty somethings. She is harking back to time spent with them years before and most recently with John her youngest adopted son building Magic Cities.

Edith Nesbit’s children by her husband Hubert Bland were

Paul Cyril Bland (1880–1940), to whom The Railway Children was dedicated;

Mary Iris Bland (1881–1965)

Fabian Bland (1885–1900).

She also adopted Bland’s two children from an affair with her friend Alice Hoatson,

Rosamund Edith Nesbit Hamilton, later Bland (1886–1950) to whom The Book of Dragons was dedicated;

John Oliver Wentworth Bland (1899–1946) to whom The House of Arden and Five Children and It were dedicated.

At present I cannot work out if she built Magic Cities with all of her three sons or who was the son entranced by the Indian Cavalry.

As we mentioned in our blog post about The City in The Library short story about toy soldiers, the two characters are called Rosamund and Fabian in this story from Nesbit’s 1901 book Nine Unlikely Tales. Sadly Nesbit’s son Fabian died in 1900 aged 15 after a tonsil operation; Nesbit dedicated several books to him such as The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequels as well as many others.

Like Chesterton and Wells, for those interested in her life and works, there is an Edith Nesbit Society


Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 29 / 30 January 2021

9 thoughts on ““I never thought of building magic cities till the Indian soldiers came””

  1. Thanks Mark for another great post. I really enjoyed the photos and text. I noticed the mountains behind the Silver Towers which I assume were made with sheets, most visually effective. It work well as a backdrop no doubt with boxes , vases etc underneath to form the peaks.
    The Indian army uniforms are so wonderful one can imagine their fascination for the wee chap as he recovers. Over the last few days I have been working on 28mm Afghans ( albeit non uniformed) but have enjoyed painting these differently attired figures and can get a small fragmented sense of his joy at the figures he was given.
    One of the favourite tv programmes of my daughters as they grew up was the bbc adaptation of Five Children and It. It was one of those Sunday teatime programmes I think. I recall there was an Indian element to the children’s adventures in that too.
    My eldest was rather frightened by the psammead puppet but I thought him rather wonderful. We still talk of the programme to this day. Finally I must look at my copy later today of Floor Ganes and see if HGW used bowls for domes in his creations.


    1. These wonderful mountains (at least at the Olympia Child Welfare Exhibition 1912/13) are made by sheets over chair backs or legs. The background wall was painted light blue. As you say, boxes would work equally well.
      The Indian Army continues to be a fascination to collectors – good to see some red coated lancers in Peter Dennis’ Little Wars PaperBoys series. I hope you manage to get a little flash of ceremonial colour and some of the attractive wildness in figures and horses into your Indian Army or colourful Afghans.
      I am tempted to add more Nesbit books into my reading list this year as I remember the Psammead type Sunday teatime TV. India and the Empire lurk in the background of The Secret Garden, The Little Princess etc (Vanity Fair etc) Glad to see it well remembered in your house.

      Part of me doesn’t want to revisit the 70s BBC series in case the “Magic” (or Nesbit’s idea of “creative Imagination”) is not quite the same, the special effects etc look very clunky and of their time. The Psammead or Phoenix characters had the right side of creepy or difficult, a bit like Professor Yaffle the woodpecker in Bagpuss or the badly taxidermied Hare in Pipkins.
      I find it interesting how the word ‘Romance’ was widely applied in Edwardian pre WW1 times to children’s literature or Wellsian sci-fi (‘scientific romance’), such as BP Scouting for Boys based on literature like Kipling Puck of Pook’s Hill as ‘Romance in Wide Games’ …


  2. I am very fond of the Mira Nair Vanity Fair film which plays up the Indian styling beautifully and is really well worth a watch. Another household favourite by her is Monsoon Wedding, a beautiful film that takes one through all the emotions . Has terrific music in it.


    1. Thanks – not sure if this counts as decolonising or correctly recolonising the original – Wellington in India etc, but watching the Mira Nair Vanity Fair sound / trailer Script rewritten / sound turned down, this could almost be a trailer for a Bronte ImagiNations film set in in Gondal, Glass Town or Angria https://youtu.be/BW9WVhTGT6Y


  3. There you have it in a nutshell: “a bowl one way up is a bowl … the other way up it is a dome for a king’s palace”. They key ingredient is imagination! Maybe this is what links writers (Wells, Nesbit) with early wargaming…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you say, that is it in a nutshell – it’s why I love the early Featherstone books and photographs for their ‘make do and mend’ nature. You would never see this level of improvisation in many of the published glossy colour wargames rules books today. Thankfully many people preserve this tradition of “things to hand” in their blog photos. Good old painted pine cones on a blob of plasticine etc. for trees

      Hence my love of the Featherstone 1962 War Games back of a postcard appendix rules for Close Wars, “indoor Garden gaming” piled table of branches and stones … which mashed with Little Wars vintage or scale figures gives me Close Little Wars (or Floor Wars?)
      Featherstone’s ideas were heavily based in his younger days on Little Wars and claims he went off to WW2 as the only British soldier with a copy in his kit bag!

      Liked by 2 people

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