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!’

Another minister of religion, George MacDonald, obliquely got to grips in his fiction with certain doctrinal problems which agitated him, and ended by supplying for his readers a good dose of ‘spiritual nourishment’, even if he couldn’t tell the difference between his grandmother and God. MacDonald’s vision was certainly not comic, and his influence was baleful. It’s well-known that the opening of Phantastes(1858), with the hero’s bedroom turning into a glade, inspired the opening of C.S. Lewis’s distasteful Narnia series, in which a wardrobe gives onto an extraterrestrial wood. The central characters in Lewis’s religious fantasies are a lot of dead children – a motif we might have expected to find discarded by the 1950s. Kingsley, writing in 1862, had used it to better effect. Macdonald himself, in Lilith, invented a country full of children who failed to grow up – that luxuriantly morbid image again. One of them, Humphrey Carpenter notes, is called Peter. Carpenter is very good at picking up all kinds of interesting links and correspondences between one book and another in his chosen period. He causes a pattern to become apparent in which both topical decoration and more enduring preoccupations have a place. ‘Not growing up’, of course, is the unsavoury theme of Peter Pan. Unlike certain of his predecessors, Carpenter claims, J.M. Barrie distorted his Christian model satisfactorily, and provided for his readers an alternative source of numinous sensation. However, the case he makes out for admiring Barrie would seem to rest on his perception of the frightful play ‘on its deepest level’ as ‘a satire of religion and a mockery of belief’: and this we can’t quite swallow. Lewis Carroll, yes; but Barrie, no. Carroll kept his sentimentality for his inferior output, whereas with Barrie this quality infected everything he wrote, and nothing more repellently than Peter Pan. What Carpenter reads between the lines – ‘At the heart of the sentimental dream is a cynical, mocking voice’ – he has surely written in himself.

This refurbishing, of course, is part of the attempt to show how all classic writing for children accommodates some subversive strain, to its great advantage: generally anti-religious, but sometimes just opposed to the futile or facile conventions of the day. Sometimes, indeed, what’s subverted is the progressive attitude the author began with. Take Louisa May Alcott, American progenitor of the ‘happy family’ story. (Charlotte M. Yonge had invented the genre in England with her novel The Daisy Chain.) You could call Little Women an account of the triumph of womanliness, as the original plan – to cry up female insubordination – got twisted into something different. Here, too, the lure of sentimentality proved irresistible, even for someone who started to write in a mood of exasperation with home life, brought on by the exactions of her own. (Infuriating father, over-worked mother, dependent sisters, the lot.) The Jo-Louisa figure, Alcott’s most striking creation, is shaped in the end by the requirements of tosh. Little Women is emphatically not a manifesto for restless adolescent girls with nothing to lose but their daisy chains.

If, for Louisa Alcott, the essence of childhood was located rather prosaically in the cosy American home, other writers pursuing this quality arrived at considerably more pungent expressions of it: the ‘secret garden’ of Frances Hodgson Burnett, for example, which supplies Humphrey Carpenter’s title, is an image of sufficient piquancy to enliven the rather run-of-the-mill story it’s attached to. Childhood itself is a golden age, if we’re to believe Kenneth Grahame, who used this nostalgic phrase for the title of his first children’s book, and an equally romantic one, Dream Days, for its sequel. Carpenter is not insensitive to the irritating orotundity of Grahame’s prose (and what can we make of an author who has his narrator, a manly boy, going in for arch personifications: ‘A whimsical companion I found him, ere he had done with me,’ he says long-windedly about a gust of wind). But he still applauds the achievement of this writer in carrying out his ‘act of exhumation’. Actually, the ponderous pair of novels resurrects a singularly unappealing childhood. Fuss, facetiousness and the routine sneers of the day – the heroes are for ever going on about ‘the female sex ... and the reasons for regarding it (speaking broadly) as dirt’ – make for dismal reading. E. Nesbit, whom Grahame undoubtedly influenced, has a better way of dealing with juvenile high jinks – though Carpenter finds her manner condescending and her ideas unoriginal. At her worst, it’s true, she’s as mawkish as mush – witness The Railway Children – but mostly she rises to a creditable jolliness. It is partly the adult viewpoint – condescending or not – that makes the Nesbit novels funny on their own terms, and not on the terms of a knowing modern readership. An author like Angela Brazil, who signals no gap at all between herself and the wilder absurdities of her stories, lays herself open to the attentions of humorists.

Kenneth Grahame went on to write The Wind in the Willows, in which some riverside animals, fitted out with appropriate foibles, enact the seemlier goings-on of human beings. Carpenter sees it as a work that embodies its author’s irreconcilable addictions: to wandering and to staying put. Mole and the rest of them are hard pressed to choose between the exhilaration of setting off, and the safety of some delectable burrow. The scarpering Toad, a good fellow for all his wilfulness, has to be got out of more than one hole in the course of the story. Certainly this book, with its more supple style, and with the scope it offers for various kinds of interpretation, represents an advance on Grahame’s earlier efforts. But it still shows some deficiency (Toad’s antics notwithstanding) in the field of rigorous farce. The toddlers’ tales of Beatrix Potter are far more bracing.

Moles, rats and toads in clothes: what marks the next stage in the encapsulation of whimsy? Animated toys, perhaps, like Winnie-the-Pooh. Carpenter would have us believe that the sentimentalities of A.A. Milne, so greatly in evidence throughout the Pooh and Christopher Robin saga, are never very far removed in spirit from an adult mockery of the whole business of childhood. Milne, he says, is simultaneously sentimentalist and scoffer, and his own undercover approach makes parodies of his style redundant. (Parodists seized on his writings nevertheless, often with hilarious effect. From ‘Beachcomber’ we have ‘Hush, hush, nobody cares/Christopher Robin has fallen downstairs’; and there’s an episode in one of Richmal Crompton’s William books in which a world-famous infant, of obnoxious smugness and the subject of best-selling works by his mother, informs the unimpressed Outlaws: ‘They’re literary stories and poems, you know. Really cultured people buy them for their children.’) In ‘Vespers’, for example, the little boy isn’t actually praying. True, but whatever he’s doing, it’s presented in a would be endearing manner which a lot of people find unadmirable. The mocking note in A.A. Milne’s voice contains a good deal of blandness.

What unites the Secret Gardens authors is an acute nostalgia for childhood, leading in each case to an avid re-creation of the lost Arcadia, transformed into Wonderland, the Never Never Land, the River Bank, or whatever. The common hankering after idyllic infancy finds a fruitful outlet in Alice, for example, and a barren one in the hands of Barrie. A case might have been made for including Forrest Reid, whom Carpenter doesn’t mention. Lost boyhood is Reid’s theme, as much as Grahame’s or Barrie’s; he was just as odd as the rest of them, and adept at prettifying an impulse towards pederasty. True, he didn’t write for children: but neither did a number of the others, if we’re to take their word for it. The crucial difference is that Reid’s books, even the ‘Tom Barber’ trilogy, magic and all, were never appropriated by young readers, perhaps because of something in them a bit too lushly ‘pagan’ and pastoral. Still, Reid is as much a part of the ‘Arcadian’ tradition as Richard Jeffries, author of Bevis, who does get in.

Carpenter’s claims for the authors under consideraton, perhaps, are not always justified. However, his critical manner is in many respects exemplary: sharp, resourceful, diverting and illuminating. Dryness and irony are by no means excluded from it; and this makes it strange to find him, in the middle of the ‘Pooh’ chapter, succumbing to a hazard especially compelling for the commentator on children’s literature: inflation. Pooh, he tells us – Christopher Robin’s stuffed bear, Pooh – ‘has a little of the true visionary about him’. Whew! We might ask what the Mad Hatter would have said to that.

It was Charles Kingsley, Carpenter remarks, who first recognised the perfect suitability of a children’s book for assimilating ‘an adult’s most personal and private concerns’: the effect of this discovery was to bring into being a kind of juvenile literature that eschews simplicities, while remaining within the grasp of an unadvanced audience. Stories composed in this mode will tend to be more heady, complex and resonant – hence the ‘classic’ tag attached to many of them – than anything aimed straightforwardly at the young. They don’t, however, please a critic like Robert Leeson, who dislikes the high-hat or high-handed approach he claims their existence implies. Leeson is greatly irritated by the children’s writer who writes predominantly to please himself, and only incidentally for the benefit of his short-changed readership. It’s to this practice that Leeson attributes, indirectly, the growth of the social problem concerning the non-reader. He goes further. ‘The so-called “reluctant” reader,’ he asserts, ‘was in fact the great unrecognised critic of the 1960s and 1970s.’ The non-reading child was mutely protesting about ‘the inadequacies of the literature’.

This pronouncement takes our breath away, even when we realise that the complaint concerns inadequacy of social range, and doesn’t refer to a universal insufficiency within the genre. It smacks of bombast. It is hard to imagine a child with the smallest instinct for reading, from any social stratum whatever, feeling deprived of the means to gratify it, what with the riches of the past – and that includes much material not sanctioned by so-called academic tastes – and the recent proliferation of topical stories. By deferring to the juvenile ‘critic’, and attaching his hopes for the future to such demotic innovations, Leeson aligns himself with the children’s writer Enid Blyton, who disdained all disparagement of her work on the part of over-twelves.

Leeson is, however, a vigorous polemicist and a conscientious historian, getting through the centuries at a spanking pace, and still providing an abundance of detail, much of it of value. He has read extensively and for the most part well, and his book contains innumerable engaging asides – for example, the allusion to an old servant, known to John Aubrey, who had at his fingertips a complete history of England’s kings in ballad form. He is good on the vicissitudes of the old folk tale, which aroused deprecation, during the rational 18th century, on account of its outlandish elements (we find Goldsmith offering to bring ‘Dick Whittington’ into line with the current ‘educational’ policy on children’s fiction by cutting out the cat). ‘Tom Thumb shall now be thrown away,’ decreed an anti-fantasist of the period: however, as Leeson smartly observes, ‘far, far worse than Tom Thumb, was Tom Paine.’ But The Rights of Man, with all its reformatory potential, didn’t help to procure for the working classes, and working-class children in particular, a literature of their own.

Leeson’s idée fixe about the poor lot of the lowly, as far as appropriate fictional matter has been concerned, leads him to take a rather rosy view of the distant past, when blatant inequity in this field didn’t obtain; and also of the present, when it would seem to be diminishing. The technological takeover (Leeson looks approvingly on libraries stocked with videos and tapes, along with unbiased books), the reinstatement of storytelling as a social art form, and the reshaping of Britain as a multi-racial society: all these, Leeson says, have helped to undermine the old élitism which bedevilled children’s literature for so long. Nor, he would argue, is it right to condone those past misstatements which merely exemplify some commonplace of the time: that girls are silly, for example, or ragamuffins liable to utter the expletive ‘Cor’. The author’s business was to circumvent unpalatable notions, not to perpetuate them; and ours is not to excuse the offending author by citing the prevailing orthodoxy.

All those middle-class school and family stories of the mid-century: is Leeson advising that these should now be thrown away, or that no girl should have any truck with Kenneth Grahame, no foreigner with Charles Hamilton, and no comprehensive schoolchild with virtually anyone popular before the 1960s? If so, isn’t the field going to end up somewhat impoverished? Not a bit of it, according to the argument advanced in the book, with considerate writers busy grounding their stories in the potent realities of modern life. It isn’t hard these days to find a work reflecting your own circumstances, especially if you are female, black, disabled, dyslexic, incontinent, homosexual, lumbered with rotten hair or an overblown bust, feel thwarted in your ambition to build an adventure playground, suspect your single parent of going in for adultery, or unhappily inhabit a high-rise block. As a supplement to Reading and Righting, Rosemary Stones has compiled a thoughtful list of stories suitable for avant-garde reading, in which striking laundry workers, slave grandmothers, boys fond of dancing, girls finding their feet, visits to the launderette, and other contemporary matters, have a place. On the evidence of this list, you may conclude that no child’s problem is too outré or distressing to merit encouraging treatment. Lunacy and epilepsy get a showing. The old ‘bosom friends’ theme gets a lesbian fillip.

On the back cover of Reading and Righting appears a Guardian cartoon by Posy Simmonds, which shows some unspeakable enthusiasts sounding off about Beatrix Potter and her darker allegories (‘Squirrel Nutkin ... external menace ... paranoia’). Jonathan Cott would have done well to take to heart the warning communicated here. Pipers at the Gates of Dawn consists of interviews with six children’s authors and illustrators, and one pair of folklorists (the Opies). Cott has studied his material deeply and confronts his subjects armed with all the right questions to provoke the response he’s after: the most pretentious one. He’s no sooner through the door than he’s quoting Zen Buddhist monks at Dr Seuss, Conversations with Kafka at Maurice Sendak, and Bachelard at Astrid Lindgren. How beautiful, how interesting, come the replies: with what intonation one can only guess.

Are the poor authors overwhelmed by Cott’s erudition (in the piece on Dr Seuss alone, more than thirty-four extraneous commentators – Tolstoy, Chukovsky, Einstein and Wordsworth among them – are roped in to reinforce some point, or suggest a profitable line of discussion); or is it simply politeness that makes them all agree he’s enriched their understanding of their own work? Certainly, if it hadn’t been for Cott, P.L. Travers might never have spotted the cosmic significance of the cleaning agent carried about by Mary Poppins: Sunlight Soap.

In Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, Sunlight Soap is added to the rest of the moonshine. ‘The mythical and poetic Mary Poppins’, Cott says; he doesn’t have to look too hard at Travers’s animated-Dutch-doll-nanny figure to discern in it a resemblance to the Mary Magdalene of a Gnostic text (‘She speaks as a woman who knows the All’). He goes on to tell us that Dominic the Dog and Pippi Longstocking alike ‘partake of what [Wilhelm] Reich saw as Jesus’s true nature’. P.L. Travers, who doesn’t entirely repudiate the term ‘Ecstatic Mother’ as applied to her inverted nanny, perhaps makes a suitable recipient for this kind of comment; but even Dr Seuss, who told an earlier interviewer (Justin Wintle, quoted in The Pied Pipers, 1974), ‘The Elephant Bird symbolises no great “truth”. I was stuck for an ending and invented the Bird out of dire necessity,’ doesn’t jump on Cott, as you would expect, for reading moral and political implications into such works as The Cat in the Hat. Cott provides a sensible introduction to his book, and then gets carried away. It is one thing to acknowledge the strengths of children’s literature, another to resort to ballyhoo. Pipers takes us nearly as far as we can go in the latter direction. It only remains for someone to attribute numinousness to Nutwood.