The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Psammead Stories (1902-1905) 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Psammead Stories were written by E. Nesbit and first appeared in the serial “The Psammead, or The Gifts” (The Strand, May 1902-Jan 1903). The Psammead went on to appear in twenty-four stories and three story collections, Five Children and It (1902), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Story of the Amulet (1906). Nesbit (1858-1924) is considered to be the first writer of modern children’s fiction; she was extremely influential on later writers of children’s fiction.

Five English children, Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and “the Baby,” are vacationing with their mother near Camden Town. Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane go digging in a tunnel in the hopes of reaching Australia. They unearth a Psammead, a “sand-fairy.” The Psammead is a grumpy sort and is annoyed that the children do not know who and what it is. After the children flatter and cajole the Psammead it relaxes into a good humor and begins to reminisce about its life several thousand years ago and its ability to grant wishes. Like others of its race the Psammead is bound to grant one wish a day to those who dig it up, regardless of how ill-advised or hasty the wish is. At first the children are enthralled by this notion and visit the Psammead every day to make wishes. But their wishes never turn out exactly the way the children want them to; if they ask to be “as beautiful as the day,” or for a pit of gold coins, or to be large enough to thrash a local bully, or for wings, or for their home to be made into a castle, they find, after the Psammead grants their wishes, that the wishes only bring them difficulties. (The wishes only last until sunset, so no permanent harm is ever done). The Psammead always grants the children’s wishes, but is irritated by having to inflate itself so often (that's how it grants the wishes), and it continually grumbles at having to do so. The Psammead also refuses to give the children advice, merely pointing out the foolishness of the wishes, both before and after they are granted. The children eventually come to like the Psammead, despite its crabby nature, and at the end of Five Children and It they grant the Psammead its freedom (not without some mixed feelings on their part) so that it can hibernate in comfortable darkness, away from the water it dreads. In The Story of the Amulet the children free the Psammead from imprisonment, and it accompanies them on a trip through time to find the missing half of an Egyptian amulet.

Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet are seen as classics of children’s literature. “In her fantasy novels, Nesbit departs from the principle of heroic fantasy to locate the fantastical in everyday life; and, in this, she is considered the founder of modern fantasy for children.”1 Modern adult readers will certainly find the two books entertaining. Nesbit does not talk down to her younger readers, and the novels display a certain amount of erudition, with references to Shakespeare, Haggard, and Thomas Guthrie’s Brass Bottle. The novels’ dialogue is not dated and the plots move at a properly brisk pace. Nesbit’s approach to domestic fantasy is gentle and good-humored; when people are hurt, it is not seriously and never permanently. There are even occasional flashes of wit, which make the stories that much more palatable for adult readers. In all, the two novels are agreeable reading.

More than that, critics have traditionally not been willing to say, although the critical conversation around Nesbit and the Psammead stories and novels is changing:

Nesbit has been somewhat maligned in critical circles as too didactic, an “energetic hack,” and a “Victorian in disguise.” While there are indeed aspects of conservatism inherent in the trilogy, in this article we consider something quite different: the way in which transportative magic allows the child protagonists to escape the physical bounds of England and transgress the limits of time and space in timeslip fantasies. From what some would regard as the “safety” of these fantasised locations of displacement and distance, Nesbit’s Psammead novels examine changing Edwardian conceptions of gender and nation. Her rewriting of familiar adventure story plots with female protagonists allows for substantial critique of imperialism and contemporary industrialised cities. Significantly, Nesbit reconfigures the category of the heroic to situate maternal relations within it, promoting a unique vision of feminine heroism rather than mimicry of male actions coded as heroic.2

Too, Nesbit injected her political beliefs–she was an ardent Socialist–into at least one of the Psammead novels.

A close look at The Story of the Amulet, another time travel story published in 1906, will show a Socialist influence as strong and as pervasive as that in Harding's Luck. Some of its Socialist features, indeed, are obvious enough to have been seen and pointed out years ago. Stephen Prickett has noted how frequently E. Nesbit introduces social criticism into her picture of present-day London, and how tellingly this London is contrasted with the far happier London of the future. But a look beneath the surface action and discussion shows more. On its surface The Amulet is the story of a quest through past and future of four children for the missing half of an Amulet which, if whole, can give them their heart's desire, the return of their parents from abroad--simply an exciting magical adventure with vivid glimpses of other times and places, with occasional digressive diatribes against the social conditions of the day. On a less explicit level, however, these digressions become an integral part of a theme that unifies this fantasy. At this level, The Story of the Amulet becomes a quest for a Socialist Utopia, with a solution both political and personal.3 

Recommended Edition

Print: E. Nesbit, Five Children and It. London: Macmillan UK, 2017.



1 O’Sullivan, Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature, 182.

2 Michelle Smith, “E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation, and Gender,” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 52, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 298.

3 Suzanne Rahn, “News from E. Nesbit: The Story of the Amulet and the Socialist Utopia,” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 28, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 124-125.