Good Books

Marghanita Laski

  • The Promise of Happiness by Fred Inglis
    Cambridge, 333 pp, £17.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23142 6
  • The Child and the Book by Nicholas Tucker
    Cambridge, 259 pp, £15.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23251 1
  • The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction by J.S. Bratton
    Croom Helm, 230 pp, £11.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 07 099777 2
  • Children’s Literature. Vol. IX edited by Francelia Butler, Samuel Pickering, Milla Riggio and Barbara Rosen
    Yale, 241 pp, £17.35, March 1981, ISBN 0 300 02623 4
  • The ‘Signal’ Approach to Children’s Books edited by Nancy Chambers
    Kestrel, 352 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 7226 5641 6

The easy truism, that a good children’s book is a book that’s good for children too, has enough truth in it to ensure that most fiction reviewers are at least open to the genre. But unless we specialise in children’s fiction, the current literary theory about it is likely to interest only some and only at specific times: those of parenthood and of grandparenthood. My own present interest is the latter.

The last time of looking at the theory, some thirty years ago, was when children’s books were in a doldrums that had lasted from just before the First World War till well after the Second. Though that forty-year gap was not entirely empty, it is odd to notice now how totally even its better books are ignored. All the books about children’s books reviewed here are worthy, honest and interesting. Two of them, The Promise of Happiness and The Child and the Book, aim at comprehensiveness. Only Nicholas Tucker mentions Hugh Lofting who wrote the Dr Dolittle series, and the Index entry reads: ‘Lofting, Hugh, racialism’; only Tucker, and he only in passing, mentions The Borrowers and its sequels. No one mentions the Orlando books. No one mentions Noel Streatfeild. Clearly some of these and other good writers of the period will and should come back into notice. They are mentioned here to draw attention to the inherent fashionability of the topic.

The effects of any literature on readers remains a mysterious and controversial topic, writes Tucker towards the end of his book, an adage to embroider in cross-stitch above the desk of anyone who theorises about children’s literature. This accepted, we can enjoy argument to our hearts’ content, make pleasing patterns at will; so long as we never forget that we know almost nothing, beyond guesses, of the effects of literature on children.

But knowing is, of course, one thing, believing another. And what we most of us believe in is what Inglis in The Promise of Happiness calls ‘bibliotherapy’, the use of novels as not only propaedeutics but also as moral therapeutics. Theoretically, Inglis, like most of the other writers here, is against this. Practically, he is entirely in favour of the use of books for doing all sorts of kinds of good, as is everyone else here, as who is not, and, when it comes to children’s books, with hurricane force.

The kind of good most persistently sought for children through books has been moral good, as J.S. Bratton demonstrates in her/his admirably interesting survey, The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction. Over the hundred and fifty years or so from Bratton’s beginnings to now, perhaps the most constant and one of the most attractive aspects of this growth has been awakening to charity, using the name, rather than the fashionable all-purpose ‘love’, to denote that Pauline virtue of loving-kindness to the naturally repellent, the lame, the maimed, the halt and the blind. There are other interpretations of moral growth. Early in Bratton’s period, in the typical fictional tracts manufactured for the newly-literate poor, the aim is to awaken the child to Christian promise, especially in the light of quite probable premature death. The boys’ writers of the 19th century, from Marryat to Henty, typically sought to arouse male virtue, fearlessness, pride in nationhood and then in empire, and finally achieved, as Bratton drily glosses, with ‘a simple code of conformity glorifying physical power, simplicity of speech and mind, softness of feeling, and self-satisfaction with the state not of manliness, but of being a boy’. Again, we must bear fashion in mind. These childish readers, when grown to rule the Empire, seemed to Santayana the sweetest young boyish masters the world had ever seen.

The critics concerned with modern children’s fiction tend to see the sought growth in terms of identity problems: sometimes, of course, class identity, and especially pride in a working-class or ethnic identity, while middle-class children have rather to make out with what can’t be helped. Nowadays sexual identity comes into the picture too, though most of the glosses on the material are more than usually fashionable and meaningless. To say that older boys and girls tend to read different kinds of fiction is a right or wrong observation: to say that they do so because they are seeking sexual identities glosses fact with jargon.

As Tucker points out, the belief that the book can be used as an instrument for shaping moral perfection has made children’s fiction in our own day extremely difficult to write, for with moral concepts so fragmented, some or other adult critic will be morally outraged. Paper-chases offend environmentalists. Rabbit-love offends farmers. The presentation of happy family life offends convinced single parents. Conventional villains – say, witches, dwarves – may create or confirm repulsion from the handicapped. The imperialism of Biggles, the snobbism of Blyton, lead Labour councillors to forbid them public shelf-room: Blyton, Tucker says, is the most banned author in public libraries. Then there is yet another, and very sweet-smelling, aspect of moral growth which is put forward by Inglis: that the right function of children’s fiction is to give children such pictures of virtue and happiness that they can live well in the world.

Of course none of these three intelligent critics believes that story books ‘work’ like textbooks. Of course all agree that good books are the thing, and on which books are, for the required purposes, good books, there is not much disagreement: in fact, as between Inglis and Tucker, there is mainly disagreement on Lord of the Rings, which for Inglis is schmaltz (Götterdämmerung for the fascistically-minded dispossessed), and for Tucker a valuable myth giving meaning to individual fantasies of achievement.

On how books – good books – work, Inglis is bold and clear. He recalls his child self reading ‘The Tree of Justice’ in Rewards and Fairies, the old madman brought before King William by Rahere the Jester revealed as Harold Godwin, and Hugh, the Saxon knight, kneeling to him. And ‘each time,’ writes Inglis, ‘the queer, crisp ripple of excitement tingled along my spine; the brimming tears which never quite fell, the chokey lump in the throat ... You see the same in children in the right mood listening to a well-read story in the classroom; when it ends, their eyes are brimming, they don’t say anything, and they yawn hugely and stretch.’ What Inglis is describing is ecstatic response. This, at more or less intense levels, is the response that good literature should arouse in us all. This is what art is about, and, possibly, why governments give public money to the arts, just so that we may all, from the moment we are capable of doing so, feel tingles down the spine and tears in the eyes and lumps in the throat.

Let us, for the moment, go along with that assumption. The ecstatic experience that is triggered by art, as by other triggers such as religion and nature, may be an instrument of conversion. This achievement was the hope of the Victorian tract, and such fulminant moments of moral change were often there described. More subtly, such experiences as Inglis tells of may, it is thought, leave the experiencer imbued with the ethos put forward by the storyteller, from which it must follow (as indeed, it does) that good books – that is, those which can arouse ecstatic impulses – are more potent than those which cannot. More subtly still, a novel that attains the standing of art may, as George Eliot hoped, act as ‘the aesthetic not the doctrinal teacher’ and thereby achieve ‘the raising of the nobler emotions, which make mankind desire the social right’.

Crudely, then, to simplify what we can fairly take to be the intent of those who concern themselves anxiously with children’s reading: good fiction can, like other art, be fulminantly potent in triggering experiences which may establish ideals in developing minds. But fiction, unlike almost all other art, actually spells out the ideals in question. It is, then, important with fiction more than with any other art, and with children’s fiction especially, that the ideals, the ethos, the social rights contained in it are of a good, not a bad kind.

So far, so acceptable, given the obvious proviso that we can argue about the right kind of good till the cows come home. But there is much that is only dubiously true in even this simple thesis, and, so far as children’s fiction is concerned, it doesn’t begin to meet the needs or the facts of the case.

To cavil, then: first, we have no idea whether all children, or, indeed, all adults, can make responses to art; or, if maybe to art, then perhaps not to literature; or, if maybe to literature, then perhaps not to the novel; and if to the novel, whether to different levels of novel for different levels of intelligence. If there is, in fact, an effective process of the kind implied by Inglis, spelt out by George Eliot, it could even be that only a very few people of whatever age are susceptible to it.

For those few that are, the ones capable of the tingle, the tears, the gulp, we have no sufficient reasons to expect thereby transformations for good. Certainly the arts can give feelings of rectitude, but they do not necessarily make us good, as George Steiner despairingly observed in his sombre study In Bluebeard’s Castle, and Tucker refers to Steiner’s book in a similar context to mine. ‘While love of the arts may ennoble some individuals,’ Tucker writes, ‘elsewhere the same arts may act as a type of drug through which people can temporarily escape from the knowledge of their shortcomings or transgressions.’ No theory of literature’s efficacy in bringing about lasting conversions to charitable attitudes can survive contact with London’s literary institutions.

This point about morality and response is worth some labouring, for, in relation to art and children’s fiction, it is the point that most anxiously exercises the concerned. It is indeed true that such feelings of response may give rise to altruism; it has been said, in a religious context, that these simplest experiences, probably the only ones available to children and similar to the first Christian steps on the Way to God, are those that awaken the social and civic virtues. There is no other known way to do so, no other known way in which children’s natural and instinctive revulsion from certain kinds of people, places, situations can be transformed into that charity which is pitying love.

Again, this may not work, or, at least, it may not work in the practices of life as against its more or less brief recognition in exalted moments of idealism. Tucker refers to children who can enjoy Rumer Godden’s novel, The Diddakoi, with its sympathy for the Gypsies, yet emerge with their own social group’s prejudice against Gypsies unaltered. And as I started this review, the eight-year-old girl staying with me, a nice child who has read all the best children’s fiction, was writing a comic story about ‘Grayam’ whom nobody loved because he was old and fat and dirty, and who received, at the end, not pity but humiliation.

If we rely on the ecstatic response as a source of good, we are relying on a very feeble reed. The best we can say for it is that it sometimes works, and that perhaps it works best (here is my own moral decision) when it sets off creative pattern-making that need have nothing whatsoever to do with the nature, moral or otherwise, of the trigger; and I should like to think that it is for this response that the state gives money to the arts.

But let us suppose, for the moment, that art in fiction does work, does do all that the morally-committed critics, from Leavis to these here, hope for it. Let us suppose that we can identify and agree, more or less, on what fiction is of artistic worth. To confine ourselves to this only, whether we are adults or children, is, if we are addicted readers, impracticable.

What Mrs Leavis in her magnificently austere Fiction and the Reading Public entirely failed to realise is that the Great Tradition in fiction simply isn’t big enough to satisfy the compulsive reader of fiction: it is the relative paucity of fiction as art, as compared with the plethora of art objects, good and bad, in the other disciplines, which inclines me to treat fiction-as-art as a happy accident rather than a desideratum. And if there is too little fiction-as-art for fiction-addicted adults, how much less for children! Tot up all the children’s novels commended by Bratton, Inglis and Tucker, divide them by the ones available to a child at any particular stage of its development, and there will be much more reading-time empty than can conceivably be filled by the fiction counted as literature.

Inglis and Tucker, who are the relevant authors here, of course recognise the fact that for much of the time, child readers will, must be reading something other than the books in the children’s Great Tradition. (‘The great children’s novelists,’ Inglis begins unequivocally, ‘are Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, William Mayne and Philippa Pearce.’) What they may be charged with is not treating this fact with the seriousness it deserves: not, indeed, considering even the possibility that it might be wise to revise the whole view of fiction in its light. Is it not possible, probable, likely, that the primitive need for story, for children and for adults too, should be accepted as not having anything necessarily to do with art, to be simply a psycho-physical need for this kind of pattern-making, and the criteria called for less those of art or of morality, but to do with the craft of storytelling?

To do credit to Tucker and Inglis, they make some forays in this general direction, though never to the extent of treating storytelling as primary, art as incidental. Tucker has, however, a couple of particularly interesting pages where he recognises a group of novelists, from Hans Andersen to Henry James and Proust, as presenting special difficulties of inaccessibility. I think it unsurprising that, as well as making this potentially explosive discrimination among novelists, Tucker is also fairer to Blyton than most critics are. Inglis, equally identifying a need for story rather than art-story, commends the tales of school life – in particular, for their celebration of friendship. But his general answer to what children may read at non-art levels is comics, and this really isn’t sufficient. Both Tucker and Inglis acknowledge that adults are generally less high-minded about their own fiction-reading than they want children to be. Children’s reading might present an altogether merrier scene if the basic desideratum of their fiction was simply good storytelling, and if such other ingredients as art and right attitudes and even good language and useful information were all treated as decorations on the cake. And the same could well go for adult fiction too.

Children’s Literature, an annual publication of the American Modern Language Association and the Children’s Literature Association, has some plums. Of especial unforgettableness are a burst of rage from Martin Green against ‘charm’ as imbuing the Peter Pans of Barrie and of Disney; a vindication of Amy March as holding the right attitudes to art and to life – this by Anne Hollander; by Ronald Berman a perfectly ridiculous analysis of the child’s eye as used by Dickens and by Charlotte Brontë, in which Miss Murdstone’s ‘hard steel purse’ is interpreted as a threat of vagina dentata – but which is redeemed by two of Fritz Eichenberg’s exquisitely potent illustrations to (whose edition of?) Jane Eyre.

The ‘Signal’ Approach to Children’s Books is, of course, an English compilation, more of a generally sturdy good standard, less dramatic in high spots. To pick out this or that extract, comment or illustration is less useful here than to insist that no one interested in children’s books will want to ignore it. It contains, incidentally, the only mention in all these books of the once-famous novel, The Family from One-End Street by Eve Garnett, a nice example of the trough of disesteem in which even good books of the barren years are now drowned.

Of Bratton’s survey of Victorian children’s fiction, I think very highly indeed; of its comprehensive scope and of its general achievement of the stated aim of judging inside the period’s judgmental contexts. But Bratton has made heavy weather of the Introduction, which is here an especial pity, as the appalling typographical lay-out has made as off-putting a page as I’ve seen for some time.

Both Inglis’s book and Tucker’s are good. The former is imbued with a kind of humanistic nobility that makes it – alas – both old-fashioned and refreshing. Tucker’s judgments are sometimes odd. He seems to think – but maybe this is only his way of putting it – that The Blue Lagoon was published after Lord of the Flies. He cannot have read much of Laura Wilder if he thinks hers are gently idealised pictures of Late Victorian domestic life: there are not many modern novels with episodes as purely tragic as the crop failure of one, the agonising eight-month snowbound winter of another, or set in poverty so complete yet so totally undegrading as here. But Tucker can be charmingly witty. For instance: ‘except in his taste for oats and hay, Black Beauty’s behaviour is what one might expect from a refined, sensitive young man who has suddenly had a saddle placed on his back and a crupper tied round his nether regions.’

Finally: the subject totally neglected by all these writers, except, perforce, Bratton, is religion. Whatever needs of this kind modern children may have are not even touched upon: indeed, I can’t offhand think of any modern children’s novel predicated upon religion except, just before the Second Golden Age began, Meriel Trevor’s good Catholic novel, The Sparrow Child. Nor, and this is really very strange, is there any attempt to use art, as quite a lot of adults do, in religion’s place. Even Inglis, who asks for the vision of the children’s novels to be that of the good life, never suggests that the vision might include lives enriched by art. Noel Streatfeild, who was perhaps the only, and certainly the most important children’s novelist to make the life of the executant artist the core of the fiction, is not mentioned by any of these critics.