Exasperating Classics

Patricia Craig

  • Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter
    Allen and Unwin, 235 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 04 809022 0
  • Reading and Righting by Robert Leeson
    Collins, 256 pp, £6.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 184413 X
  • Pipers at the Gates of Dawn by Jonathan Cott
    Viking, 327 pp, £12.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 670 80003 1

Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Lost Boys’, in later life called Peter Pan ‘that terrible masterpiece’. Brigid Brophy, having reread Little Women and its sequels, dried her eyes and blown her nose, resolved that ‘the only honourable course was to come out into the open and admit that the dreadful books are masterpieces.’ She did it, though, ‘with some bad temper and hundreds of reservations’. It isn’t an uncommon reaction. These works, and many others, are among the exasperating classics of children’s literature which affect you at some level in the way the authors overtly intended, for all your rational revulsion or boredom or disapproval of the outworn ideologies they may sanction. The last dissenting emotion is perhaps the one most frequently aroused at present. Children’s stories from the past are continually disparaged for being insufficiently egalitarian, or wide-ranging, or whatever. Robert Leeson, in Reading and Righting, is struck by the failure of children’s authors before the 1960s to represent the working classes satisfactorily in their fiction. He claims a kind of ‘cultural invisibility’ overtook the proletariat, and traces this deplorable disappearance right back to the late 15th century and the start of printing. Along with the ancient folk tale, transmitted orally, went a proper respect, imaginatively expressed, for everyone’s social role. Then the powerful middle classes, into whose clutches the rudimentary book trade fell, proceeded to impose their own view of things on the developing literature.

Starting from such a standpoint can lead to an unduly socialist reading of certain classics. For Carroll’s Alice, Leeson tells us, ‘the worst thing that can happen is that she should wake up and find herself living in a poor child’s home.’ Really, of course, Alice is simply afraid of finding herself not herself, but someone quite different: Mabel, for instance, who lacks toys, or Ada, whose hair goes in ringlets. Nor did Charles Kingsley conceive The Water-Babies as an unambiguous parable about the dirty poor requiring a good going over before they were fit ‘to enter paradise alongside the already clean and respectable’. Kingsley’s obsession with washing and cold water was a good deal odder than this suggests. Cold water, lukewarm socialism and red-hot religious feeling were elements in this author’s exorbitant life. The last was all the more fervent for being sometimes insecure, and for not being entirely separated from sexual feeling. Humphrey Carpenter, who – for all the occasional lapse of tone or judgment – has written a first-rate book about Kingsley and the other children’s authors of the original ‘Golden Age’ (the 1860s to 1920s), mentions a childhood friend accidentally drowned, and a brother who may have met his end in a Cornish pool, to account in part for the clergyman-author’s harping on water, and on life underwater. Very little of conventional Christianity gets into The Water-Babies, even in the form of allegory: instead you find a peculiar parallel religion, as Carpenter points out, delineated ‘with comic and sexual overtones’.

Indeed, the strength of much celebrated children’s writing of this period would seem to stem from an ulterior force, or extraneous ethic, which takes over from the ordinary moral views the author set out to encompass; or at least from a productive ambivalence in his outlook. In the chapter entitled ‘Alice and the Mockery of God’, for instance, Carpenter shows us Dodgson, in his Carroll persona, merrily poking fun at piety – all the verse interjections in the Alice books are parodies of some edifying opuscule or other – and then going on to speak very severely about the type of person who ‘degrades what he ought to treat with reverence, just to raise a laugh’. Clearly, Charles Dodgson’s right hand didn’t care to know what the left got up to. Do we have here a case of Jekyll/Hyde? Certainly the nimble Carroll seems endowed with a personality greatly at odds with that of the decorous Dodgson. And, unfortunately, after The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Dodgson succeeded in quelling his impulse towards entertaining irreverence. He also succeeded in hoodwinking himself about what exactly he had accomplished with Alice, attributing to it in his own mind a wistfulness it doesn’t possess. After quoting the dreadful ‘Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves Alice’, Carpenter asks: ‘What would the Mad Hatter have said to that?’ We know the answer: ‘Not the same thing a bit!’

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