The writers who could not grow up

Michele Roberts digs deep into the fantasies behind the "golden age" of children's literature; INVENTING WONDERLAND: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne Jackie Wullschlager Methuen pounds 25
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Jackie Wullschlager's book proposes Peter Pan as the muse of authors: "This book is the story of five writers who could not grow up, and who transformed their longing for childhood into a literary revolution." The story we're offered turns into a myth of the author's own. Sliding between ideas of childhood as a lost paradise and the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a lost golden age of children's books, she ends up writing an elegy that mourns the loss of innocence in modern writing for children and, by implication, in modern childhood itself. There's a romantic lament concealed beneath the biographical facts and historical readings, a sad and nostalgic reaching back to those vanished good old days.

Wullschlager's introduction sketches out the ground that later chapters criss-cross in more depth. The facts themselves, in this much-researched area of literature, are not particularly startling or new. What matters is that she has selected a particular group of five authors, who represent, in her view: "the great fantasy writers." Asserting that these five created "a radical new literature for children of . . . fascination and enchantment" she enquires: "was there a shared character trait, or fact of biography, that sparked these writers into fashioning myths of childhood?" Yes, gentle reader, there was: "each was a boy who did not want to grow up, who remained in part always a child. Several lost parents early and had difficult childhoods; in fantasy they tried to capture the perfect childhood they had never had . . . All shared a reluctance to engage in conventional behaviour and relationships. They were loners, in some sense social misfits, who found in fantasy an escape and an outlet to express their rage against a constricting adult society. . . Sexual repression is a shaping drive of the fantasies. . . Each child-centred fantasy offered its creator a refuge from adult problems."

Writing as therapy? Given that the famous five did not simply become train-spotters, presumably they also shared a certain talent for handling words. Wullschlager does not discuss this, though her book implicitly suggests that the capacity to weave an action-packed narrative is consoling and healing in itself. In that sense, these damaged lost boys invented tales they could bear to tell and hear themselves, just as patients in therapy do. Canonized as great writers, they go on being held up as models to successive generations. Sometimes I wonder whether children would actually choose their books if given free choice. I loathed Alice for its cruelty and violence, for example. It was required reading in my childhood, like all the other works discussed here. I did not voluntarily re-read any of them, with the exception of Lear's poems, which I learned to app-reciate as an adult. It's the adults who buy these books who share the authors' Peter Pan fantasies. You could argue that they are not written for children at all.

Lewis Carroll seems to have regarded children as objects who existed to amuse and titillate him. Little girls, supposedly "pure" and "innocent," were not recognised as having complicated emotional and sexual lives and feelings of their own, which gave Carroll licence to photograph them naked without having to concern himself with their responses, conscious or unconscious. It's not so much his desires to look which shock as his refusal of responsibility for any feelings he awakened. He wrote, for example, to a Mrs. Mayhew: "At any rate, I trust you will let me do some pictures of Janet naked; at her age, it seems almost absurd to even suggest any scruple about dress. My great hope, I confess, is about Ethel . . . Do consider her case in reference to the fact that she herself is quite indifferent about dress. If the worst comes to the worst, and you won't concede any nudities at all, I think you ought to allow all three to be done in bathing drawers, to make up for my disappointment! P.S. . . . what I like best of all is to have two hours of leisure-time before me, one child to photograph, and no restrictions as to costume!"

Even making allowances for our modern penchant for discovering child- abusers hiding under every nursery bed, it is difficult to regard Carroll as merely sentimental. He was obviously repressed about the sexual satisfaction he got from looking at naked little girls, and this repression was convenient, for let him sound "innocent". But while he could look at little girls' bodies, he had no intention of letting them see his. He was not to be photographed by anybody, and refused all requests for photographs, even by members of his own family.Wullschlager does not seem to notice this flourishing of the double standard.

Indeed, her book is perplexing because it occasionally raises gender as a theme only to drop it. She notes en passant that Victorian morality concealed "a reticence and suspicion about female desire. . . In a society which refused to accept mature sexuality . . . the pre-sexual child became an obvious ideal." This begs all sorts of questions, not least why female desire was suspect, and why men, rather than women, turned to "the pre- sexual child" as "ideal." Women writers' explorations of childhood sexual feelings are passed over lightly or omitted altogether. Christina Rossetti's disturbing tales are mentioned but not discussed. Great female writers like E Nesbit and Fran-ces Hodgson Burnett are largely ignored. Yet Wullschlager seems unaware she has singled out male writers and that some account of masculinity in Victorian culture might have been helpful.

She smothers such problems by writing a prose which at its best is simple and "childlike" and at its most fraught, when the material misbehaves like a child in a tantrum, descends into banality: "sex, when swept under the carpet, resurfaces in a potent and twisted form". Occasionally, the difficulties over-master her and she is reduced to non sequitur: "Barrie, like Lear and Carroll, and also like Kenneth Grahame, was a bachelor by temperament." The clue to these language problems comes in the last chapter, where she wistfully invokes the "innocence" of Victorian childhoods no less than three times in as many pages, linked to a belief that fantasy tales re-write and underline that innocence. Yet, as her sad little biographies themselves show, these children's books re-state and re-inscribe the traumas of childhood, contain them rather than overcome them. Boys Own Stories unravel into bandages.