The childhood they never had

INVENTING WONDERLAND: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Jim Barrie, Kenneth Graeme & A A Milne by Jackie Wullschlager, Methuen pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BEDTIME stories will not seem the same. Of the five classic children's writers in Jackie Wullschlager's survey, four would today have been taken into care at an early age. Although the fifth, A A Milne, spent his first few decades c/o Easy Street, he would later have received counselling from Claire Rayner for his terminal split with the real Christopher Robin, his only son.

The adult Lewis Carroll would have been locked up for pestering mothers for permission to photograph their little girls in various stages of undress - and the press would have made much of his being an Oxford don and clergyman who refused to have his own photo taken on the sabbath, even when fully clothed.

The loved ones of Edward Lear were above the age of consent, but unfortunately were male and liable to become Viceroy of India, which in Victorian times ruled out much of a meaningful relationship. Lear himself was the 20th of the 21 children of a bankrupt stockbroker. Possibly he was abused by a relative as a ten-year-old; he was certainly rejected by his mother when little more than a toddler.

No wonder, explains Wullschlager, he created in his subsequent life and nonsense poems the childhood he never enjoyed. Similarly, you don't have to be a member of the Institute of Psychiatry to work out that the creator of Peter Pan was severely challenged in the growing-up stakes. Six-year- old J M Barrie, it turns out, was also rejected by his mother, who was grief-stricken at the death of her older son; he reinstated himself by dressing up in his dead brother's clothes and even managing to whistle like him.

For five-year-old Kenneth Grahame, it was his mother who died and his father who departed into exile and alcoholism, leaving his children to the care of their not particularly affectionate grandmother. Grown up, Kenneth was a far from adequate parent to his visually handicapped son Alastair, who was to commit suicide as a young man. For eight years the only way to quieten down the both neglected and spoiled brat was to tell him stories about a wild creature sharing many of his naughty characteristics: Mr Toad.

However fantastic the worlds created by these children's writers, they came directly out of actual experience and obsessions. Carroll's dormouse was in fact slightly toned down from reality, being based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's wombat, which used to sleep on the tea-table; the Mad Hatter was the name of a college servant whose invention of an alarm clock which tipped the sleeper out of bed was exhibited at the Great Exhibition. Alice was the Christian name of the ten-year-old for whom he created the story and whose friendship he subsequently lost (the suggestion has been made, though not by Ms Wullschlager, that he actually proposed to the poor kid).

A A Milne also stole a real child's name (and his good name as well, according to the adult Christopher Robin) for his stories, not to mention his soft toys. Barrie had five models for Peter Pan: a family of boys with whom he was obsessed.

Yet the catalogues of disasters in Inventing Wonderland do not make for depressing reading. Wullschlager briskly charts the change from adult books that children liked (Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe) to children's books that adults also enjoyed (Alice, Pooh and the rest of the gang). She sweeps from Carroll to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from Ratty and Mole to Adrian Mole. Her enthusiasm does not diminish, but she is sometimes a little severe in her judgements. Milne's yarns "inauthentic" and "infantile"? May her pots of honey have lumps of cheese lurking at the bottom.