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The Children's Book

In her best novel since “Possession,” A.S. Byatt spins a tale from details of the life of children’s book author Edith Nesbit.

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As a child, what bookworm didn’t dream of having a writer for a parent? Bedtime stories would be one-of-a-kind masterpieces. And maybe, if you were really lucky, they’d name a character after you, like A.A. Milne did with Christopher Robin.

Then you grow up and realize, at least when it comes to the founders of British children’s literature, even Oliver Twist would recoil in horror from such a fate.

Kenneth Grahame’s son committed suicide at boarding school. Peter Llewellyn-Davies, the inspiration for “Peter Pan” and one of J.M. Barrie’s adopted sons, also killed himself. “Secret Garden” author Frances Hodgson Burnett left her dying teenage son in Italy to be with her lover in England.

Edith Nesbit had a family epic in its emotional complications. She and her husband had an open marriage, and his mistress and two children lived with the family. There were serious gaps in parenting. One of Nesbit’s sons died having his tonsils out, for example, apparently because no one remembered to tell him not to eat the night before the operation.

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