Beatrice Groves: Easter Eggs on J.K. Rowling’s New Website – Part 2

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post follow up looking at the one of J. K. Rowling’s favourite authors – E. Nesbit. Join me after the break for the a more in-depth look at the writer highlighted as an Easter Egg in the J. K. Rowling’s Stories website …

The children’s writer with whom I most identify:’ E. Nesbit and Harry Potter

As discussed in yesterday’s post Rowling’s new website has once again underlined E. Nesbit as one of her favourite writers. Today I’d like to consider the possible influence of one of Nesbit’s works – The Wonderful Garden (1911) – on Harry Potter. The story involves three children who are sent to stay with their mysterious and academic Great Uncle Charles and it plays with the borderline between magic and a more sceptical reality.

As always with Nesbit’s work, The Wonderful Garden is thick with literary allusions. I particularly enjoyed the parodic riff on one of Julius Caesar’s most famous lines -‘there is a time in the affairs of men that they call the Nick’ – and the off-hand reference to Ben Jonson’s prefatory poem for Shakespeare’s First Folio ‘there was something written under someone’s portrait in history about painting his mind’. Nesbit’s startlingly well-educated children are also au fait with Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590/96) – a poem which, of course (and to my delight), Rowling has been referencing to the hilt recently. And the story of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ even gets a mention too – the hero whose legend is the source of Cormoran’s name (Cormoran is the giant he kills).

The intense allusivity and bookishness of The Wonderful Garden extends to a charming mise-en-abyme moment when the children find out that someone they meet has read Dickens’s David Copperfield:

‘Oh,’ said Charlotte joyously, ‘then you’ve read David. I say!’

They were all delighted. There is no bond like the bond of having read and liked the same books. A tide of friendliness swept over the party, and when they found that he had also read Alice in Wonderland, Wild Animals I Have Known, and Hereward the

Wake, as well as E. Nesbit’s stories for children in the Strand Magazine, they all felt that they had been friends for years.

This story is itself, of course, one of E. Nesbit’s stories for children published in the Strand Magazine.

The ‘magic’ of The Wonderful Garden is created by the (genuinely extraordinary) powers of plants. Two of the most important sources for Harry Potter’s plant lore – Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (a connection I’ve written about here.) and the Language of Flowers (which I’ve written up here.) – play crucial roles in The Wonderful Garden. Caroline is given The Language of Flowers at the beginning of the book, and the children continually ‘speak’ through this language, presenting all and sundry with meaningful bouquets: canterbury bells for gratitude, convolvulus for dead hope and ivy for friendship. Likewise, the children find Culpeper’s Herbal hidden on their uncle’s bookshelves (inside the covers of Pope’s translation of The Iliad) and attempt to make ‘efficacious’ potions from it (as Harry does). One of them – a ‘cheering charm’ – sounds as though it may have been directly remembered by Rowling: ‘I can’t believe I missed Cheering Charms! And I bet they come up in our exams. Professor Flitwick hinted they might!’ (Azkaban, Chap 15). The children’s magical ‘textbooks’ are certainly just as confident as Harry Potter about the magical nature of the number seven: ‘on the seventh day of the seventh month, and at the seventh hour, let the seed be sown. Seven seeds.’

The Wonderful Garden treads a line between the realism of much of Nesbit’s oeuvre (such as The Railway Children and The Story of the Treasure Seekers) and the full-blown fantasy of her ‘magic’ books: some of the children believe that in the magical effects of their potions and charms, but there is always a realistic explanation available for the sceptical. The most magical aspect of Nesbit’s story is also the one which comes closest to Harry Potter: a portrait that (potentially) comes alive. Shira Wolosky has argued that the portraits of Harry Potter ‘act as windows between the worlds of death and life… above all, as works of art they show the power of the imagination to create and shape reality.’ 4 This is true likewise of the portrait in Nesbit’s tale – which is treated as a quasi-living object through the creativity of the children’s imaginations. The companionship which even a portrait of Nigellus Black offers Harry and Hermione in their lonely journey in Deathly Hallows, for example, finds a pre-echo in The Wonderful Garden when the children pull up an extra chair to the table to pretend that a portrait has joined them for dinner: ‘They were spending many evenings in near silence, and Hermione took to bringing out Phineas Nigellus’s portrait and propping it up in a chair, as though he might fill part of the gaping hole left by Ron’s departure’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 16). The climax of The Wonderful Garden – and its most dramatic and climatic piece of ‘magic’ – involves making a portrait move and (apparently) come to life.

But this portrait also ‘speaks’ via a book. It is a portrait of Dame Eleanour and she has been painted with a magical book, which she has chosen to have memorialised with her. Eleanour was fascinated by arcane knowledge and Great Uncle Charles wants to find the book of magic painted in her portrait, as he too is researching the history of magic. The book, however, has long been lost – and the way in which the children find it forms one final, tempting, link with Rowling. For they find it when they decided to colour-code their Uncle’s bookshelves.

The librarians and bibliophiles of Twitter let out howls of outrage in April 2020, when Rowling posted a playful video of her colour-coded bookshelves.

As I have noted elsewhere, there is a Spenserian clue in this video, as well as a pleasing in- joke, for when the reader enters Anna and Kim’s home at the end of Troubled Blood and discovers that there too: ‘the books had been arranged by colour’ (Troubled Blood, 911). But, still, it is an odd thing to do for someone in the business of championing books as portals of transformation rather than items of interior décor. But, just perhaps, Rowling was inspired by the magical discovery in Nesbit’s story.

This scene of rearranging the bookshelves in The Wonderful Garden was an early idea which Nesbit had for the book – before she’d written it, she sent a letter to the illustrator telling them that the children ‘set to work to arrange the books on the shelved according to colour which seems to them a better arrangement than according to size or subject. They get all the books on to the floor. (This might make a picture).’ 5 The children decide one morning ‘suppose we arranged all the books in the dining-room bookcase, in colours, – all the reds together and all the greens’ and when they have finished ‘one shelf was gay with red books and half a shelf demure in green.’ Due this rearrangement, however, they find the magic book – the book in Dame Eleanour’s portrait for which their Uncle has been searching. This magic book had been lost because it had been hidden inside the cover of another book, which might – incidentally – remind us of someone else who hides a magical book by switching covers:

[Harry] pulled the old copy of Advanced Potion-Making out of his bag and tapped the cover with his wand, muttering, ‘Diffindo!’ The cover fell off. He did the same thing with the brand new book (Hermione looked scandalised). He then swapped
the covers, tapped each and said, ‘Reparo!’

There sat the Prince’s copy, disguised as a new book, and there sat the fresh copy
from Flourish and Blotts, looking thoroughly second-hand. (Half-Blood Prince, Chap 11)

The book purists of Twitter (like the scandalised Hermione in this scene) denounced Rowling for her colour-coded bookshelves: literally judging a book by its cover. But it would be pleasing (and given her passion for Nesbit, seems quite possible) if Rowling’s action was in fact an act of literary homage.

Links to all of Beatrice Groves’ posts and podcasts about Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike mysteries can be found at her Pillar Post page at HogwartsProfessor.

4 Shira Wolosky, The Riddles of Harry Potter: Secret Passages and Interpretative Quests. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 21.

5 Briggs, Edith Nesbit, 365.


  1. Steve Morrison says

    I once made an etext of this book. If anyone is interested, I could post it on a file-sharing site.

  2. Nick Jeffery says

    Hello Steve, thank you so much for your kind offer. As this book is long out of copyright there are several free copies already on line, including this one complete with Millar’s wonderful illustrations:

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