Children at the moment are made far too much of by the press, television, and movies: childish characters are beginning to invade the adult world of the TV thriller, sentimentalizing its stark effects or being clever beyond their years. When I was a child I disliked children’s books, or thought I did. My mother tolerated this attitude, and sometimes allowed me to take out an adult novel when she changed her own book at the circulating library of those days. I pretended to enjoy these novels—I still remember one called Return I Dare Not, which sounded promising—but in fact I found them silly, boring, or incomprehensible. Then I discovered Kipling, who doesn’t fit into any category, and I enjoyed, as I still do, every book and story that he ever wrote. I enjoyed in the same spirit the novels of Kipling’s friends Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson. None of these seemed to be about children, or for them.
In any age, I suppose, there is a backlash somewhere against the cult of childhood. W.C. Fields was funny, but dead serious, in saying that no one who sincerely hated children could be wholly bad; the poet Philip Larkin discovered with relief when he grew up that it was children he had hated all his life, not human beings as such. Alison Lurie once or twice implies in her shrewdly engaging way, as one might expect from so humorous and subtly perceptive an adult novelist, that men, but not women, were encouraged by the books they read in childhood to see themselves secretly as children for the rest of their lives:
In the early years of the twentieth century, the heroes of most adventure stories were boys; girls stayed home and learned to get on better with their families. If they were rejected children like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or orphans like Anne of Green Gables and Judy in Daddy Long-Legs, they found or established new families. At the end of all these stories, or their sequels, the heroine grew up, fell in love, and got married.
These things have now changed, and the fairyland of Oz had a lot to do with it.
An adult’s suspicions of children’s books can be disarmed if the characters are not children but animals or eccentric adults, such as those Lewis Carroll’s Alice meets in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; or if, as in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the characters are animals whom the reader instantly recognizes and accepts as different kinds of grown-up. This makes Grahame’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece a classic for all ages and seasons: its style and manner see the wholly arbitrary figures of Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger, vividly enacting every well-known trait of the gentry class, as that class sees itself, and as it feels threatened by the proletarian envy of lesser animals, like stoats and weasels. A gentry animal seems to be accepted by human beings as one of themselves, and liable for that reason, like poor Toad, to severe penalties for reckless driving. As in the case of Alice and other comparable classics, The Wind in the Willows contrives at the same moment to be logical and illogical, magical and briskly down-to-earth.
Alison Lurie well understands the delightful ambiguities involved in such worlds, and takes other examples from Hans Andersen, Frank Baum’s Oz books, and the Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll—whose books have something in common with A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh. I would say, nonetheless, that compared with Kipling, Treasure Island, and The Wind in the Willows, even with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, all these later international children’s best sellers, including the greatly overrated Harry Potter, carry the fatal stigma of being “for children,” whereas the best of their predecessors were for any reader who chose to investigate them.
I am surprised, by the way, that Alison Lurie does not mention in the category of ambiguity between young and old Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle, at one time very popular in England and America. Maybe the good doctor would be banned today as politically incorrect, since he once obliged a handsome Negro king, who longed to be white, by transforming him, at least temporarily, with various experimental dyes. The Russian wife of John Maynard Keynes once remarked that all males in Britain were either boys or Old Boys. Dr. Doolittle, as I recall him, was very successfully both; so perhaps “boys” and “old boys” are as common in the US as they are, or were, in England. (Frank Baum’s Oz books on the other hand are largely dominated, and even ruled over, by girls and women, which must surely account for their once special popularity with female readers.)
Lurie’s longest, most subtle, and most illuminating chapter is on a writer usually thought of as a children’s poet—Walter de la Mare. She is perhaps a little hard on de la Mare’s poetry, which at its best can be strangely haunting and wholly original, but she is entirely and enthusiastically right about his wonderful prose. He wrote, for example, a uniquely odd novel called Memoirs of a Midget. The midget, never named except as “Miss M,” is a young woman between two and three feet tall, who begins life as a dreamy orphan, fascinated by stars and by the patterns of flowers and plants. She falls in love with a beautiful and ambitious full-sized woman, and is herself courted by a male dwarf. She finally joins a circus as a kind of child prodigy, and at the end of the book contentedly inherits some money.
For her creator it is clear that she was a kind of imaginary companion, almost an alter ego. Alison Lurie speculates that the handsome woman she loves, and the dwarf who loves her, represent a kind of triadic image of the poet’s own feelings, a daydreaming made into art. De la Mare had indeed fallen deeply in love, a procedure bound to be unsettling and unusual in his case, with Naomi Royde-Smith, the literary editor of the Saturday Westminster Review, to which he had contributed poems and stories. His feelings were returned with interest, but he could never bring himself to go to bed with the lady, as vigorously as she cajoled him to do so. He himself was already married, to a woman eleven years older than himself. “Surely,” as he wrote wryly to Naomi, “a man with a wife and four children has no justification for allowing any of his flock of selves to stray from the domestic fold.”
The poet’s biographer, Teresa Whistler, shrewdly takes the view that he preferred the idea of his love to its reality; and, as he wrote to Naomi in one of nearly eight hundred love letters, “I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory…where I cannot change you, nor you yourself.” Few lovers would be flattered or comforted by receiving such a declaration, yet de la Mare was an artist for whom love had a peculiar but very real meaning, even though it might be too elusive and androgynous to include masculine passion. Alison Lurie is surely right in suggesting that the “Miss M” of the Memoirs is an adult in a child’s body, while de la Mare, with his peculiar gift of imagination, was a child in an adult’s body; she even suggests that if the author had been a woman the book might now be claimed as a feminist classic. (But why, after all, should a man not write a feminist classic, which in its own oblique and unspoken way could also be seen as a children’s classic as well?)
After a long period of neglect de la Mare may be beginning to be seen as the remarkable writer that he is, particularly since his many short stories have been collected and issued in two volumes by his grandson.* The best of them—”The Riddle,” “Miss Duveen,” “Seaton’s Aunt”—are as good as any by Henry James, and many concern children, or the typical de la Mare adult who seems not unlike a child.
His masterpiece, “A Recluse,” delicately detailed and beautifully disquieting, shows us a man in whom old age has transformed the imaginative pleasures of a child into an eerie commerce with the spirit world: that commerce has come to preside and dominate, malignantly, over his own beautiful old house. The innocence of childhood dreams can become in the end the terrors of adult solitude and obsession. Although she does not mention “A Recluse,” Alison Lurie is surely right to pay particular attention to this neglected master, whose relationship to childhood was at once simple and guileful, complex and nostalgic. A Russian writer like S.T. Aksakov would understand such an attitude better than most of de la Mare’s countrymen have done (he himself was partly from a French Huguenot background).
Another half-forgotten master, de la Mare’s contemporary John Masefield, was a would-be writer condemned when young to be a man of action. Sent to sea at the age of thirteen, he detested the hard life on a tall ship in the 1890s, about which he was afterward to write with such fervor and success. Masefield was no seaman, any more than de la Mare was the oil company clerk his circumstances forced him for some years to be, or Frank Baum an actor-manager. All three writers took refuge from the routine of their adult lives in the invention of their own particular childhood worlds; and Alison Lurie rightly values Masefield’s “children’s” book, The Midnight Folk, above all his often stirring sea stories and his poems.
Adults can get their revenge by writing children’s stories, or, still better, illustrating them. In a brilliant chap-ter on such illustrations, Alison Lurie points out that Gustave Doré’s macabre and vigorous drawings were intended to terrify the kids. His highly disturbing sketch for “Little Red Riding Hood” shows the wolf, wearing the murdered grandmother’s ruffled cap, in bed with a wide-eyed half-naked little girl who seems to have just realized that she is about to be eaten, or raped, or both.
These are frightening stories, Doré is telling us: children, especially girls, are in great danger. Brilliant though these pictures are, it is no wonder that they are seldom reprinted in modern collections.
Famous twentieth-century illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac avoided violent events, and if they pictured Red Riding Hood, they showed her at a safe distance from the wolf, looking at him “with a blank or puzzled expression.” But both were first-class at their job, and Rackham in particular gets the fear and excitement of a tale like Peter Pan into his still-life sketches of strange plants and grotesquely twisted trees. The more modern tendency, as with Maurice Sendak and Wallace Tripp, is to avoid pictorial elaboration and become largely diagrammatic.
Like adult fiction most children’s books die a natural death. Harry Potter will soon have had his day, although as with Richmal Crompton’s William, or Angela Brazil’s school stories, a cult and a small but faithful following may survive. But true classics, whether for adults or children, survive in their own right.
Adults have their own ways of being children. One of the pleasures of marriage is the mutual possession of a childish “little language,” as Jonathan Swift termed it, which only the couple in love understand. Most real children don’t much care for adult nonsense, and Hans Andersen’s attempts to amuse Dickens’s children with a species of homemade jabberwocky were coldly received; indeed the Dickens family groaned in unison when Andersen used to invite himself for an indefinite stay. To put it frankly, he was a bore.
Alison Lurie’s is the best book on the classics of the genre I have ever read, and although it has not made me feel any better disposed toward children as such, it reminded me of the story about the old French priest who was asked by some inquisitive admirer how much he had learned from more than sixty years of hearing confessions. The old man pondered for a few moments and then said with a smile—”absolutely nothing.” “No, wait”—he went on after a pause. “I have learned one thing—that there are no adults in the world. We remain always children.” The best readers of any age are probably the ones who are always children too.
March 27, 2003