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The World of the Pied Piper

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 study is therefore long overdue. As he shows, Greenaway’s childhood, in the classic pattern, was marked by turbulence and sudden deprivation.

Though Kate Greenaway was born in London, when she was eight months old her mother became ill, and Kate was put out to nurse on a farm in Nottinghamshire. Kate called the farmer’s wife, Mary Chappell, “Mamam” and wrote of her later as “the kindest, most generous, most charitable, the cheerfulest and most careful woman” she had ever known. “In all things she was highest and best.” No description by Kate of her real mother has survived; she is said to have had a “stern, religious nature…resolved to do what was, in her view, morally right.”

After two years in the country, Kate was taken back to gray, grimy, working-class Victorian London, where her father, a wood engraver, was struggling with decreasing success to support his increasing family. When Kate was five the family moved again, to Islington, and her mother opened a small shop selling children’s and ladies’ dressings and trimmings. It prospered, but Mrs. Greenaway was now at work from 8 AM till 8 PM, and the care of Kate and her younger sister and brother was transferred to twelve-year-old Lizzie. Since their house had no yard or garden, the four children spent most of their time wandering about the London streets. In the summer, when there was enough money to spare, they would be sent to Nottinghamshire, and Kate would stay with the Chappells in what she always insisted was her real home.

Unlike the little girls in her books, Kate Greenaway was an odd, awkward, plain child—intensely shy, strong-willed, and moody. When she was sent to school she had trembling fits that lasted for days, or until she was removed; as a result, she was largely educated at home. She was subject to recurrent nightmares, including one in which her father’s face would change to that of a stranger; “she would desperately tear off the false face, only to be confronted by another and yet another, but never his own.” The prospect of becoming an adult held no attraction for her: as she wrote later, “I hated to be grown-up, and cried when I had my first long dress.”

Kate Greenaway’s skill at drawing persuaded her parents to send her to art school when she was twelve. She was a docile and dedicated student, who made few friends and won prizes for delicate, carefully executed, academically correct work. She went on to become a moderately successful but undistinguished commercial artist, whose greeting-card designs and magazine illustrations clearly derived from the best-known figures of the time: Walter Crane, Richard Dadd, and John Tenniel. The breakthrough did not come until she was thirty-two, when she began Under the Window, a collection of verses and drawings in what was to become her famous and characteristic manner. The book was published for Christmas 1879 and was an instant popular success.

What Kate Greenaway had done was to imagine and portray a world that thousands of people then and since have wanted to enter in imagination. Her vision was of an idealized childhood in an idealized English country landscape: of sweet babies and delicately pretty girls and boys playing in perfectly tended gardens, gathering flowers in cow-piefree meadows, and dancing on the tidy village green. In the Greenaway world it seldom rains and is nearly always springtime or summer; everyone is graceful, charming, and prettily dressed. Though her books appeared in the 1870s and 1880s, her pastoral landscapes show no trace of industrialization or urbanization, and her figures usually wear the styles of Wordsworth’s time rather than her own: the simple loose frocks and smocks and slippers of the ideal Romantic child. These quaint, old-fashioned costumes are appropriate, since what Kate Greenaway presents is a greeting-card version of Wordsworthian innocence, untouched by age, dirt, poverty, illness, care, or sin. Ultimately, perhaps, her vision derives from Blake, particularly from the illustrations to his Songs of Innocence, many of which show an ideal rural scene peopled by children in loose, light-colored clothes.*

Though the popularity of Kate Greenaway’s world seems easy to understand, in fact it has certain odd aspects that are not apparent at first glance. For one thing, there is the extreme, almost obsessive attention to costume. The clothes her children wear were often sewn for her models by her own hands, and details of construction and trim are so carefully noted that they could be—and sometimes have been—reproduced as if from a fashion plate. Possibly we should expect this from someone who was the daughter of a “ladies’ milliner and outfitter”—and also from someone who, disliking her own appearance, wore drab, dowdy clothes. Other factors must be responsible for the strange air of disengagement and even melancholy that often hangs over her scenes. Greenaway children are as a whole remarkably quiet and well-behaved. They seldom quarrel or fight; they smile infrequently and almost never laugh or cry. Even when they are playing together they do not seem to be much aware of one another; their habitual expression is one of dreamy self-absorption. The only close relationships occur between mother and child, or between an older girl and smaller children.

Another odd thing about Kate Greenaway’s world is that most of the people in it are young and female. She shows a few old ladies, but not many women between twenty and sixty. And—except in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, of which more later—there are almost no males over the age of ten. Moreover, the little boys are greatly outnumbered by the little girls; and those who do appear are often rather girlish looking.

Kate Greenaway’s peculiarities, as well as her gifts, probably helped to make her a success. A fantasy world populated largely by sweet, pretty, charmingly dressed, dreamily innocent little girls was well suited to the Victorian cult of the child—especially the female child. A preference for childishness and innocence in adult females was wide-spread, and some Victorians carried it to the point of preferring actual little girls to grown women. This taste might be expressed harmlessly as friendship, as in the case of Lewis Carroll. Or it might become overtly and destructively sexual, as Steven Marcus has shown in The Other Victorians. Kate Greenaway’s most famous fan, John Ruskin, seems to have fallen between these two extremes. The story of his disastrous unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray and his thwarted love for the neurasthenic Rose La Touche is too well known to need retelling here; but it is worth recalling that Effie was thirteen years old when Ruskin first became interested in her, and Rose nine, and that they were both physically very much the Greenaway type. Ruskin himself had been deprived of his full share of childhood happiness, and in a more thoroughgoing way than Kate had. As a child prodigy, he was allowed no playmates and almost no toys by his puritanical but obsessively devoted mother; most of his time was spent in lessons or in solitary contemplation.

In 1879, when Under the Window was published, Ruskin was sixty, “a weary, broken man, famed throughout Britain for his books and lectures, but plagued by fits of madness triggered by overwork….” He had resigned his professorship at Oxford and retired to his country house in Lancashire, “where he received a steady stream of well-wishers and maintained a voluminous correspondence with his admirers, particularly young, unmarried women…his ‘pets,’ as he called them.” Another favorite activity was having little girls from the local parish school to tea. The dainty nymphet charm of Greenaway’s figures was almost guaranteed to appeal to Ruskin who, as he put it, only wanted to be loved “as a child loves.” His enthusiasm for Under the Window was immediate; and shortly after it appeared he wrote Kate Greenaway a long letter in a highly playful and somewhat feverish tone:

  1. *

    I am indebted to James Merrill for this observation.

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