One of the gifts an artist may have is the ability to create what Tolkien called a “secondary world”—a fully imagined alternate universe, as consistent as our own, or possibly more so. Such a secondary world may make visible some aspect of the primary one, so that once we have seen, for instance, a landscape by Corot, a play by Chekhov, or a film by Chaplin, we will find echoes of it ever after.
Not all artists have this gift. Some painters of the first rank lack it, while some of the second rank are given it in abundance. It can even coexist with a level of skill that would keep its possessor out of most galleries today. Kate Greenaway, who was famous in her own time for her pictures of pretty children in pastoral landscapes, is hardly visible when measured against the best artists of her period. She began her career as, and in many ways remained, a designer of greeting cards. Her color sense was refined but timid; her range of subjects very narrow. As a draftsman she was at times almost pathetic: her trees seem to be made of green sponge, her sheep look like poodles, and even John Ruskin, her greatest admirer, could not teach her perspective. All she could really draw were flowers and children, especially good little girls—and even here she sometimes faltered: Ruskin irascibly described the feet of her figures as “shapeless paddles or flappers.” Yet she was as popular in her lifetime as, and is probably better known today than, either Randolph Caldecott or Walter Crane, the other members of the trio that revolutionized the picture book in the late nineteenth century—though Crane was a better graphic designer and Caldecott a superior draftsman.
The classic makers of children’s literature are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods—or consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain—or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one continent to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and trans-figured, their lost worlds. Though she was primarily an artist rather than a writer, Kate Greenaway belongs in this company.
In the over eighty years since Kate Greenaway’s death there have been only two biographies of her. The first, Spielmann and Layard’s Kate Greenaway (1905), is a rambling, lavishly illustrated, eulogistic whitewash, which does its best to make her into one of her own quaint, old-fashioned figures. Rodney Engen’s serious and perceptive new …