- 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!’
Vol. 7 No. 11 · 20 June 1985
SIR: In her review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens (LRB, 23 May), Patricia Craig is mistaken in saying that the opening of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe imitates the opening of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It would be difficult to see how an old wardrobe in a professor’s spare room could be in any way connected with ‘a stream of clear water, running over the carpet’ in the bedroom of a castle; and in fact there is no connection. The wardrobe is taken straight from The Aunt and Amabel, a story by E. Nesbit, whose children’s stories Lewis much admired. He takes care to make sure that we shall not miss the derivation. In The Aunt and Amabel, ‘trains leave Bigwardrobeinspareroom all the time.’ In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Faun addresses Lucy as ‘Daughter of Eve, from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe’. Incidentally, the central characters in the ‘Narnia’ series are not, as Ms Craig claims, ‘a lot of dead children’ until the final book of the series, The Last Battle.
Other lovers of the great books for children must have regretted, as I did, on reading Secret Gardens, that a writer of the stature of Humphrey Carpenter should belittle so much that is, and has been for generations of children, of such value. According to him, the Alice books ‘consist, on their deepest level, of an exploration of violence, death and Nothingness’. Mrs Ewing, Mrs Molesworth and Mrs Burnett ‘tried to develop a new kind of children’s literature’, but Mrs Ewing ‘lacked the conviction to continue’ and ‘the others did not have any real understanding of children.’ ‘In The secret Garden, which is in any case ‘largely made up of borrowings’, ‘characters are crudely drawn and predictable and the prose style is sloppy.’ E. Nesbit’s child characters in the three Psammead books are ‘entirely unmemorable’, ‘virtually undifferentiated’, and ‘the degree of originality in [the books] is comparatively small.’
Patricia craig carries this style of criticism further by calling the ‘Narnia’ stories ‘distasteful’, and says that Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days ‘resurrect a singularly unappealing childhood. Fuss, facetiousness or the routine sneers of the day … make for dismal reading.’ ‘Isn’t,’ she says later in her review, ‘the field [of children’s literature] going to end up somewhat impoverished?’ Well, yes, it is, if parents and children pay any attention to this sort of critical nonsense. Parents may, more’s the pity, but kids now have access to good collections in school and public libraries, and are not so dependent on their parents to give them books. I hope that they will continue to read, enjoy and be nourished by the books that so many generations of children before them have loved.
Patricia Craig writes: ‘Imitates’ is G.M. Watkins’s word, not mine; ‘inspired’ was the one I used, and I think most readers would agree that there is a certain similarity between a bedroom in which the carpet turns into a stream in a woodland glade, and another bedroom (‘spare’ or not) in which fur coats in a wardrobe turn into pine trees in a wood. If I’d set out to enumerate the correspondences between Phantastes and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I didn’t, I might have mentioned the backless broom cupboard in the former: I suppose Mr Watkins will deny that this has any connection with the backless wardrobe of the latter. Lewis ‘admired’ George MacDonald no less than E. Nesbit, and acknowledged the influence on his work of both these writers. As for Mr Watkins’s point about the ‘dead children’ – it makes a difference if they’re only technically dead in one book, does it? Throughout the series the Pevensie children keep visiting a place which Lewis clearly means to be taken as a version of the Christian heaven, complete with God in the shape of a lion called Aslan (eventually promoted to a capitalised pronoun); in the end he kills them off in a railway accident so that they can stay in this paradise instead of being ejected after each adventure. You could say they’re at least half-dead all along, and more than half in love with death. Lewis’s final assurance to his readers is that things are just beginning for the killed Pevensies. (We are reminded here of Barrie’s ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure … ’). I don’t think it’s especially eccentric to call this and other Christian motifs in the series distasteful: however, that is a matter of opinion, and Mr Watkins is entitled to repudiate my view of certain children’s classics as much as he likes, along with Humphrey Carpenter’s and anyone else’s that he finds insufficiently bland in tone. But I’m rather at a loss to understand why it should make ‘critical nonsense’ simply to disown the position advocated by him.
Vol. 7 No. 13 · 18 July 1985
SIR: Crushed and trembling though I am under Patricia Craig’s passionate rejection of my opinions (Letters, 20 June), I still venture to correct her on yet another fact about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. She says that Lewis ‘clearly means [Narnia] to be taken as a version of the Christian heaven’. Lewis clearly does not – on the contrary, he makes it very plain, by introducing sin and evil into Narnia, that both Narnia and Earth are worlds created by God, or Aslan. When heaven does appear, in The Last Battle, both Narnians and Earth-dwellers inhabit it. Ms Craig ‘could say that [the Pevensey children] are half-dead all along.’ I couldn’t. Nor, I should I think, could most readers of the Narnia books. That, as I pointed out in my first letter, is the great difference between us.
Patricia Craig writes: ‘By the Mane of Aslan’, as Caspian said in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, here we go again. Can we say that, throughput the series, the Pevensies are on the way to heaven – ‘the real Narnia’, of which the shadow-Narnia is simply a foretaste, God and all – and leave it at that?
Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985
SIR: As a writer and reader of children’s books, classical and contemporary, I very much hope I am not alone in feeling troubled by Patricia Craig’s ferocious attack on George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis and Barrie’s Peter Pan (LRB, 23 May). I hope I am not alone in disagreeing with her opinion that MacDonald’s influence was ‘baleful’, the Narnia series ‘distasteful’, the central characters ‘a lot of dead children’, and Peter Pan ‘repellent’.
Why, then, is it always sold out? Why are the ‘Narnia’ books still selling so well in 1985? Why does The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe play to full houses of tough Scots tykes at the Edinburgh Festival, one of whom told the White Witch afterwards that it was ‘fucking brilliant’? And even if they now wear jeans and T-shirts instead of grey flannels and gingham dresses there are still plenty of Susans, Peters, Lucys and Edmunds about. I never cease to be glad they were about in the 1950s, inevitably rather a dark age from all points of view. I still hear young adults talking about these books, read in the Sixties and Seventies – kids who had not been brought up ‘religiously’, oblivious to the Christian allegory, loving Aslan for himself, and even annoyed to learn later that he was almost certainly intended to represent Christ. Where Nutwood drags the unhappy reader down to a sickening and parochial distortion of Christianity, Narnia lifts the reader (as does Lewis’s trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength) up to universal, necessary concepts and questions of good and evil and, above all, questions of true conscience.
C.S. Lewis was a man of integrity. Perhaps Ms Craig has not read his shortest and possibly most significant book, The Abolition of Man, in which he warns against the dangers of failing to educate the feelings, of failing to link thought with emotion, of the need for magnanimity in its fullest sense. In the same book, Lewis owns to his sense of failure, in spite of ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’ there is a way to conduct one’s life according to the guidelines of a numinous Way. He believed, however, that failure was not an impediment, that one was obliged to continue on the way in the spirit of Pascal’s famous ‘as if’. So all his books, including the ‘distasteful’ ‘Narnia’ series, can be seen as a sincere attempt to define and share his best thought, his best feeling. The same goes for George MacDonald. Auden said: ‘His most extraordinary and precious gift is his ability, in all his stories, to create an atmosphere of goodness about which there is nothing phony or moralistic.’ (Heartfelt praise from the author of The Sea and the Mirror.)
Without conscience and without imagination there is no vision, no questioning, no wondering, no wishing, no aspiring, no being. But, of course, any attempt to include the numinous in any kind of writing is risky. To be too overt about anything one holds dear is always hazardous and usually undesirable; to confuse sentimentality with real feeling extremely easy for all of us always. Perhaps MacDonald and Lewis fell into these traps here and there, but the authenticity of their work, their concern, their love, cannot be doubted, should not be belittled. The essence of the ‘ideology’ of these two men is not ‘outworn’, though obviously their social contexts and their modes of expressing their ‘ideology’ are outdated. But with their examples before us I would wish to see more children’s books embracing the numinous right here and now in the world we inhabit daily. Jill Paton Walsh did it in Goldengrove and Unleaving. Jane Gardam did it in The Hollow Land. Robert Cormier did it in The bumblebee flies anyway. Mysteries can be as near to us as our jugular vein, as well as far off among the stars or at the rainbow’s end.
The numinous doesn’t have to be imbued with nostalgia, a word which anyway has long been encrusted with spurious overtones. It used to mean a painful longing for home – a far cry from ‘a hankering after idyllic infancy’. Surely many of us have that painful longing, sometimes, for the one convincing memory of childhood: living in the moment – no dwelling on the past, no anticipating the future – a state which we lose so frequently as we grow older. We speak carelessly of Arcadia, and sneer at people who try to re-create it, forgetting that death was there too, is there too. Barrie sensed that, and I will defend his ‘dreadful, repellent masterpiece’ for the flying, the fun, the fear, the not wanting to go to the office everyday, for sending everyone, except Peter, back to go to the office everyday, for daring to say that life (and death) must be a very big adventure (which some find hard to engage in), for giving kids a chance to shout ‘No, I don’t believe in fairies’ but hoping most of them would say ‘Yes!’
Mircea Eliade says somewhere that ‘the nostalgia for paradise belongs … to those profound emotions that arise in man when, longing to participate in the sacred with the whole of his being, he discovers that this wholeness is only apparent, and that in reality the very constitution of his being is a consequence of its dividedness.’ I submit that MacDonald, Lewis and Barrie would have understood the notion of man’s lawful fallibility implicit in these words. They saw there was something to struggle for. They recorded provisional defeats and provisional triumphs, grounded in an active relation to mysteries higher, larger, deeper than ourselves, yet accessible to us all. Patricia Craig and I may not see eye to eye on these matters, but we certainly do about Nutwood. If anyone ‘attributes numinousness to Nutwood’ I hope she will join me in heading immediately for the nearest desert – no trees for Hissing Sid to slither out of, no trees for the White Witch to turn to stone and plenty of space for both of us.
Vol. 7 No. 17 · 3 October 1985
SIR: Jenny Koralek (Letters, 5 September) is certainly not alone in feeling troubled by Patricia Craig’s ‘ferocious attack’ on some children’s writers: many people I have spoken to share her unease. It is evident that Ms Craig is not a Christian. Perhaps she may even be anti-Christian. On the issues of Christian writing few can be unbiased: but while love and I understanding nearly always result in a good review, hostility does not, and may stand in the way of the fundamental knowledge of Christian ideas which is necessary to the criticism of Christian literature.
Pennard, West Glamorgan
Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985
SIR: I apologise for troubling Jenny Koralek (Letters, 5 September), and for causing unease to afflict Dr Pryor and her friends (Letters, 3 October). I had thought that, in my review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens (LRB, 23 May), I expressed, in passing, some fairly uncontentious opinions about one or two children’s authors whose work I don’t especially admire: however, it seems that what I engaged in was a ‘ferocious attack’ – an attack not only directed against certain sacrosanct classics, but one designed to call in question the whole basis of Christianity. Two letters have told me as much. The author of one, indeed, suspects me of being positively ‘anti-Christian’. I do not think that this is the case – not unless a certain distaste for C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories makes me so.