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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.