(Arthur Rackham, illustration for The Wind in the Willows, New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1940; found here)
Before you ask, no, not that Humphrey Carpenter: this Humphrey Carpenter wrote a number of biographies, including one of Tolkien, and some children’s books, including Mr Majeika. He was also the editor of the first Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, published a year before Secret Gardens. In his preface he explains the purpose of his book:
About twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, it occurred to me that the great English children’s writers from Lewis Carroll to A.A. Milne formed some sort of identifiable literary movement, like (say) Bloomsbury or the Georgians or the Romantics. And the vague ambition began to gather in my mind of one day writing a book about them. It was to be concerned largely with their personal psychology, which I could perceive to be in many ways very odd.
Convinced that ‘the work of the great children’s writers between about 1860 and 1930 formed some sort of discernible pattern of ideas and themes’, Carpenter set out to discover ‘why so many authors in this period of English history had chosen the children’s novel as their vehicle for the portrayal of society, and for the expression of their personal dreams’. After a brief survey of the history of children’s literature up to the middle of the nineteenth century, he divides his book into two parts: the first (‘Arrears of Destruction’) deals with Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald and Louisa M. Alcott, the second (‘The Arcadians’) with Kenneth Grahame, E. Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne and a writer you have perhaps never heard of, Richard Jefferies. There’s a final chapter at the end on children’s literature since the Second World War, with particular reference to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philippa Pearce and Alan Garner.
The writers of the first group (Kingsley et al.), Carpenter argues, destroyed what had formed the foundations of writing for children up to that point and not only that but tore down the very basis of society in their works. In the case of Kingsley, Carroll and MacDonald, it was established religion and faith in God that was attacked; in the case of Alcott, it was the family unit. The men were tormented by religious doubt and also perhaps unconventional romantic-sexual inclinations (certainly I’m not sure I’ll ever read The Water-Babies again in quite the same light); Alcott, according to Carpenter, suffered from some sort of gender dysphoria coupled with the need to provide for her family and take on the responsibilities that her father had declined – take his place, in fact. These books destroy but do not offer any positive replacement for what their authors railed against.
The second wave of writers had to build something out of the ruins left by the first, and this they did by trying to recreate the experience of childhood. Carpenter posits that all of them, in different ways, wished to recapture an idyllic and rural childhood. (The exception here is E. Nesbit, who had a less happy time as a child and so constructed idyllic settings from her imagination.)
With Christopher Robin and Pooh in the enchanted place, Carpenter (while complaining about the sentimentality of this chapter) believes that the Arcadian phase of writing for children ended. His next outstanding children’s novel is The Hobbit, which, far from offering a golden world of talking toys or flying boys, is set in a place of deep anxieties, fraught with creatures who wish to harm the hobbit and his companions and where treachery and intrigue are the order of the day. It is ‘a bitter adventure’ that Bilbo undertakes. Subsequent British writing for children, Carpenter argues, far from picturing childhood as a special and magical time, is about the necessity of growing up.
Well. I had a complicated reaction to this book. One the one hand, it is an entertaining read, its prose clear and straightforward to read. I liked the main groupings of the books and, when Carpenter moved away from the psycho-analytical angle, his insights. On the other, there did not seem to be a lot of common ground between all these writers and their works, other than those I’ve mentioned in the summaries above, which are pretty broad similarities due to time and social context. I did not feel that the psycho-analytical angle yielded much. Also, I did not think that he made a good case for the inclusion of only one American writer, Alcott, and not Mark Twain or Joel Harris, for instance. And his dislike of E. Nesbit’s work was so strong (he calls her a ‘hack’) that it was hard to see what she was doing there either, considering his avowal to discuss only outstanding children’s literature. I am not sure, therefore, that he altogether achieved his purpose.
(Arthur Hughes, illustration for At the Back of the North Wind, London: Strahan, 1871; found here)
Furthermore, Carpenter was clearly a man of very definite opinions and I disagreed wholeheartedly with a lot of what he wrote (despite obviously being considerably less knowledgeable about the subject than him). Disagreeing with an author is, of course, not a bad thing per se and disagreeing with Carpenter was actually fun. His standards for children’s literature were, I felt, absurdly high. Quick to condemn the works he studies as ‘brilliant and a failure’ (The Water-Babies), ‘rambling ... predictably monotonous’ (The Princess and the Goblin), ‘dull’ (Little Women), ‘condescending’ (pretty much Nesbit’s entire oeuvre), ‘sentimental’ (parts of The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner, and scores of ‘lesser’ works – sentimentality seems to be the worst crime a writer can commit in Carpenter’s book), he is not quite as quick to define their good qualities. There is little sense here of the peculiar magic of many of the works discussed; perhaps he felt he would be preaching to the converted? In fact, only the Alice books and most of Beatrix Potter’s work escape some degree of censure. Fans of Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and C.S. Lewis should probably have a drink before reading his views on them, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is ‘ridiculous’ and ‘crude’.
However, I did feel that taking a psycho-analytical approach to the works, though interesting, was ultimately limiting. And the case of Lewis Carroll’s childhood further shows that it can be problematic. Some biographers speculate that Carroll was deeply affected by the death of his mother and was unhappy at school; Carpenter quotes a few letters to argue that exactly the reverse was true: his mother’s death hardly affected him at all and school wasn’t that bad. It’s impossible to evaluate whose version is more accurate and so using one of them as a reliable basis for understanding his works seems unwise. (Especially when it conveniently fits with your theory...) As for his analysis of Louisa M. Alcott (who looked ‘mannish’ like her mother and thus must have longed to be a man), I thought it was outrageous and entirely lacking in sensitivity or nuance. In fact, his analysis of women’s writing overall was poor (he seemed to think that Christina Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses is just a poor shadow of Alice).
My other quibble though is a minor one: he discusses Beatrix Potter’s books purely in terms of their text and with not one single reference to the illustrations. And yet, the illustrations are fundamental to the stories. Delicate, pretty, civilised, they provide the veneer of respectability which the stories themselves, concerned with eating or being eaten, undermine and satirise. We all want to live in Tabitha Twitchett’s lovely house in the Lake District and yet we would not want to share our home with someone who plans on baking our children, like Samuel Whiskers. I recently read The Tale of Kitty in Boots, an unpublished Potter work discovered in 2015 and published a year later with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Granted it is not one of her finest works, but Blake’s illustrations – and while I love his work, he would not have been my choice for this – only reinforce the violent comedy, never complicate it. There is no sense that Kitty is trespassing on social norms, just that this is a rollicking tale of cross-dressing and rabbit-eating.
That was a massive digression... It’s an imperfect book reflecting its times, but it does give a good overview, I think, of the development of children’s literature over 150 years and some useful potted biographies of some of the most important writers in the field. And many of Carpenter’s insights are brilliant: the destructiveness of the early books, the idea of Christopher Robin as a sort of watchful god of love who yet never intervenes, the richness of the layers of The Wind in the Willows. Worth quarrelling with.
(E.H. Shepard, illustration for Winnie the Pooh, London: Methuen, 1926; found here)