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Big Little Books

Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature

by Humphrey Carpenter
Houghton Mifflin, 235 pp., $16.95

Children’s books are now big business, Stories for children may not be subject to the direct censorship practiced on school textbooks in some American states; but both in America and in Britain there are subtler pressures on authors and illustrators to trim their work to make it more salable, less likely to affront susceptibilities of race, religion, sex, or class. When Huckleberry Finn has been banned by a public library on racial grounds, publishers are going to keep a sharp eye on what may offend. Humphrey Carpenter finds a nineteenth-century parallel in the Evangelicals and pioneers of the Sunday school movement, who concerned themselves with purging children’s stories of all that second opposed to religion or a stable social order:

So modern authorities in children’s books (librarians, teachers, critics and publishers) seize on the banners of Sexism and Racism, apparently in the belief that simply by ridding children’s stories of these undesirable elements, and commissioning books that preach the opposite viewpoint, all will be well.

His main interest, though is in authors who were never much bothered by these particular pressures. Theirs were different, and within themselves. They came from doubts about religion, about progress; from hatred of industrialism, and all that Dickens meant by Coketown; from impatience with middle-class morality; from their own failures to mature or to love. Mr. Carpenter’s theme is how such pressures came to find an outlet in the particular form of the children’s story. His golden age runs from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century; and the books he studies in detail, from The Water-Babies to Winnie-the-Pooh, are still being read today. He offers fresh and often provocative interpretations that will make some of his readers take down old favorites from their booksheives and given them a sharp look.

Religious doubt links his first three authors, Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald. Kingsley was the muscular Christian with an obsession about washing and cold water—which didn’t prevent his luxuriating in erotic fantasies. His letters to his fiancée describing their future bliss come strangely from a Victorian parson. He threw himself into the Christian socialist movement; he wrote novels about social questions, Yeast and Alton Locke. But when he was in his forties, his world went to pieces: Christian socialism had been a mistake (“I have seen that the world was not going to be set right in any such rose-pink way”) and his faith was slipping. He was rescued by his scarcely rational ideas about sexuality and cold water, which

could be worked into a children’s story far more effectively than into an adult novel. In doing this he was the first writer in England, perhaps the first in the world with the exception of Hans Andersen, to discover that a children’s book can be the perfect vehicle for an adult’s most personal and private concerns.

The book was The Water-Babies (1863), a remarkable mixture of themes and modes, with it escapes and quests, its comic creations like the Doasyoulikes who evolve backward into monkeys, its funny lists of doctors’ remedies, its kindly characters like Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Carpenter thinks that Kingsley was fumbling toward the creation of an alternative religion.

in which maternal fairies take the place of the love of Christ, and the angelic hierarchy includes such unchristian figures as the mysterious Mother Carey, who “sits making old beasts into new.”

But the image that has given The Water-Babies its continued existence is surely of grimy Tom tumbling into the clear cold stream and, supposedly drowned, finding himself “quite alive, and cleaner, and merrier than he had ever been”; and of his journey down the river in search of the great sea.

Lewis Carroll is the next candidate for religious doubt. Mr. Carpenter looks below the mathematical structure and intellectual fun of the Alice books (1865 and 1871) to discover the nothingness that is the logical end of any nonsense pursued to its conclusion. Alice and Through the Looking-Glass are full of violence and death: a baby is pelted with saucepans and fire irons; friendly oysters are gobbled up by the Walrus and the Carpenter; Humpty Dumpty is smashed beyond repair; both volumes end in scenes of chaos. This could reflect a sense of chaos and nothingness in Carroll’s psyche. Mr. Carpenter speculates further that Alice contains much mockery of Christian belief: he adduces “How doth the little crocodile,” “You are old, Father William,” and the other parodies of pious hymns and poems; and suggests that the labels on the magic bottle and cake by which Alice alters her size—DRINK ME, EAT ME—directly echo Christ’s words at the Last Supper; here they lead not to any fellowship with the divine, but to alienation and confusion.

I’m not sure I can follow Mr. Carpenter all the way here—the parodies surely mock the smug pieties of Isaac Watts and Southey rather than the religion itself. Yet conflict between what Carroll professed as the Rev. C.L. Dodgson, and what slipped out in the Alice books, would help to explain the extraordinary change of tone between them and his later books. Alice is tart, cynical, destructive; Sylvie and Bruno is sugary pietistic.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that C.L. Dodgson, having peered into the abyss of Nothingness and AntiReligion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should have shuddered at the sight, stepped back hastily, and turned his mind to safer stuff.

Carroll’s friend George MacDonald was always in search of a faith. Though he was deeply influenced by Novalis and Boehme, Dante and Blake, “the one religious state of mind MacDonald never experienced was secure orthodoxy.” In The Princess and the Goblin (1872), his best children’s book, he is creating from the stuff of folklore and fairy tale “an alternative religious landscape which a child’s mind could explore and which could offer spiritual nourishment”—an enterprise that MacDonald’s great admirer, C.S. Lewis, would repeat a century later in his Narnia books. MacDonald presents a threatening underworld of goblins, a labyrinthine palace above, and at the top of it a wonderful old lady who comforts the princess when she’s lost, spins a thread to guide her through the tunnels of the mine, sends out white doves as messengers, and sits by a fire of roses: that image from Dante which is also the climax of Eliot’s Four Quartets.

MacDonald is rather strangely followed by Louisa May Alcott. Carpenter sees Little Women (1868) as her response to the strains of an insecure and uncomfortable youth when she had to turn to work as seamstress and washerwoman to keep the family going at all. So she created the Happy Family; but there are plenty of tensions under the surface affection and jollity of her March household. Jo, like her creator, resents the limitations of being a girl, and can’t stand the idea of becoming a lady; she wants to write stories but her sister Amy tears them up. Carpenter suggests that Louisa Alcott threw her hand in when she finally allowed Jo to be tamed into a proper Little Woman, denied her imaginative outlet. Alcott was thus denying her own nature; she was assenting to conventional pieties about the family; and (though she can hardly be blamed for this) her books set the fashion for all those girls’ stories, the Katys and Pollyannas, which place true happiness firmly within the walls of home. Mr. Carpenter is rather stern with Louisa Alcott, perhaps because he did not read her in childhood and now casts a cold adult eye.

In his second section Mr. Carpenter turns to writers he calls “the Arcadians”: Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, J.M. Barrie, and A.A. Milne. What they have in common is skepticism about accepted adult values, and a longing for a great good place, which is less a New Jerusalem than a pagan Arcadia. There is first a word about Richard Jefferies and his rural idyll Bevis (1882); Carpenter quotes a passage where the boy is making a raft out of a packing case as illustrating a new, uncondescending manner of writing about children from within their own consciousness, which presaged the work of Kenneth Grahame.

The sketches in Grahame’s early books, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), recapture Grahame’s own peculiar, but seemingly not unhappy, childhood, when he and his siblings lived with a grandmother and aunts in a house by the Thames. Their mother had died, their father lived abroad, and absence of parents seems to have given the Grahame children the freedom to adventure that it does to so many storybook families. Only the Grahame children’s adventures were all of the imagination. An old pig-trough becomes the Argo, and their voyage upriver leads to an imprisoned Medea; the pretty girl discovered in a garden set among briars and tangles must be the Sleeping Beauty; a belt of rhododendrons becomes—“if your imagination were in healthy working order”—a tropical forest alive with monkeys and parrots; the Roman road on the downs surely leads right to Rome, that golden city. The children are always escaping—from lessons, from tidy clothes and clean hands, from the unreasonable demands of grown-ups who haven’t the least idea how life should be enjoyed. It is a child who describes the escapades, but from time to time Grahame interposes the voice of his older self, looking back: a reminder that the golden present will one day be the past—but that the grown-up can (though not many do) keep the hope that he may someday travel to the end of the world and find the golden city.

These early books of Grahame’s were a celebration and recreation of the high points of his own childhood. When he came to write The Wind in the Willows (1908) he was under different pressures: dislike of city routine (for years he worked in the Bank of England) and dissatisfaction with a joyless marriage. The way of escape, in the stories he told his only child, was now the river, as the real River Thames was for so many other London workers. In Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, for instance, through all the larks and horseplay, the river is a place of liberation; one thinks too of William Morris and his friends sculling up the Thames from Kelmscott House in smoky London to Kelmscott Manor in Arcadian Oxfordshire. It is on an island in the river that Grahame’s heroes Rat and Mole encounter the god Pan piping at the gates of dawn. My edition of The Wind in the Willows has a frontispiece with the legend: “And a river went out of Eden.” For Grahame it stood for imagination as well as escape.

In all his books Grahame was dealing with notions and feelings that often appeared in the adult literature of the time. (His own sketches in The Golden Age had started life in adult periodicals, two of them in The Yellow Book). The yearning to travel is in Stevenson’s poems, and one can hear it in the cry in Pelléas et Mélisande: “il faut voyager.” The longing for the lost Eden of youth sounds in Housman’s land of lost content, and in Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer. Pan pops up in many a story and essay around the turn of the century—in Arthur Machen’s tales, in E.M. Forster’s early stories, in various volumes of John Lane’s Arcady Library. The oddest Pan of the lot was Barrie’s.

Grahame peopled his Arcadia with animals: creatures even freer from the constraints of grown-up life than the children of The Golden Age. Beatrix Potter’s Arcadians were animals too. Hers was a very unsentimental and down-to-earth Arcadia, where rabbits may end up in pies and gentlemanly foxes lay traps for gullible ducks. For all Mr. Carpenter says about the various stresses on Beatrix Potter—religious doubts (but they don’t seem to have bothered her much), conflict with her conventional parents (but they did let her paint, and keep hedgehogs, rabbits, and mice in her room)—I would say that her books grew out of positive feelings of love and delight. They were created from her happy memories of country holidays, affectionate amusement at the ways of her animal friends, her own growing skill at depicting them in paint, and the wish to share these pleasures with a child. There certainly was too the element of escape from polite life in South Kensington. When Peter Rabbit appeared in 1902, the beloved Lake District was only visited on holidays. When Beatrix Potter acquired a farm there, and later a local husband, the stories stopped. No need to remember or recreate Arcadia: she was there.

With Barrie we are back with really heavy pressures: from Mother (forever lamenting the death of an older son and forcing Jamie to do his best to compensate); from his own feelings that he wasn’t really a proper man, and certainly not a proper husband. Out of these failures came the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

When Peter Pan was first staged at Christmas in 1904, it gave a shock of pleasure to adults as well as children (saving a few curmudgeons like Anthony Hope, who came out saying “O for an hour of Herod”). Nothing like it had been seen before: nothing so funny, so delicate, so truly for children, so different from the common pantomimes of Puss in Boots and Jack and the Beanstalk with their dames in drag and their vulgar jokes and scant attention to the original tales. Peter Pan became a cult; highbrow undergraduates at Balliol College put on a performance, with many a future public servant and university professor cavorting as the Lost Boys.

Fifty years later—after Freud and two wars, when to die was no longer “an awfully big adventure”—the play took on a darker tone. I still remember my embarrassment when, taking my children to Peter Pan and seeing it for the first time as an adult, I realized how flagrantly Barrie was giving himself away: in the drooling about mothers, in Peter’s self-pity and refusal to leave childhood. “No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.” All this passed my children by in their excitement at the flying and the pirates and the underground home. No wonder that, brooding over the mixture of such splendid stuff with Barrie’s self-exposure, Peter Llewelyn Davies (one of the five boys for whom the play was written) should have called it “that terrible masterpiece.” Or that Barrie himself should have admitted, “It is as if long after writing ‘P. Pan’ its true meaning came to me—Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.”

So Peter, and the Never Never Land, are Barrie’s escape from his demons. But as Mr. Carpenter points out, the constituents of that land come not from the depths of Barrie’s imagination but from children’s reading: Treasure Island, The Coral Island, penny dreadfuls. Captain Hook is no figure of evil: simply the demon king of popular melodrama.

With A.A. Milne, the last author Mr. Carpenter discusses in detail, I am at a disadvantage. I missed reading him in youth, was resistant to Christopher Robin and Pooh when eventually I did meet them, and thought it shocking of a parent so publicly to name his son in these verses and stories. But I readily admit their appeal to children, which often lasts a lifetime. (Though how much is owed to Ernest Shepard’s illustrations?) Clearly Mr. Carpenter has felt it, though he is in no way starry-eyed. Nor was Milne, about children in general. He spoke of them having “an egotism entirely ruthless”; indeed the characters in the Pooh stories display a good deal of greed, selfishness, and self-pity.

Christopher Milne has written that “My father’s heart remained buttoned up all through his life.” This seems to have been the main pressure on Milne to turn back from a chilly marriage and a rather unsatisfactory literary life to the childhood when he had been happy and easy. He would have liked to relive that childhood alongside his son.

But his own reserve and the constant presence of Nanny got in the way, so that he was impelled to do that reliving on paper rather than in the actual company of the boy.

Briefly, at the start of the Milne chapter, Mr. Carpenter has referred to the book from which he takes his title: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden (1911). How the person who committed the dreadful Little Lord Fauntleroy could, twenty-five years later, have produced this book is a wonder. One reason for its appeal, and for its difference from her earlier work, amy be illustrated by an experience I have shared with many other readers. When we came to reread it as adults—perhaps to our own children—we found we had forgotten the first chapters, where Mary’s parents die of cholera in India, and she stays with horrible relations in England. We remember only what happened in the rambling old manor house and the secret rose garden. When she wrote this book, Mrs. Burnett had in mind a much-loved walled garden in Kent; but she was also drawing on that image of the enclosed rose garden which has haunted the imagination of poets from the Romance of the Rose to “Burnt Norton.” Here Mrs. Burnett was reaching a deeper level of imagination than in the early chapters, or in her other stories. And here we reach a conclusion surely implicit in Mr. Carpenter’s delightful study: that where real imagination is concerned (distinguished, in a Coleridgean sense, from fancy or invention), the line dividing children’s stories from other literature is very faint indeed.

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