Tales from the dark side

This week, the writer William Mayne will be jailed for sexual assaults on his young readers. Nicholas Tucker explores the scandals that have dogged children's literature since the days of Lewis Carroll

Wednesday 28 April 2004 00:00 BST

For the past 50 years, William Mayne has been one of the country's most brilliant children's writers. But on Friday, the 76-year-old will be sentenced after pleading guilty to 11 charges of indecent assault against young girls in the 1960s and 1970s. On the instructions of the judge, the jury entered not-guilty verdicts on two further rape charges.

For the past 50 years, William Mayne has been one of the country's most brilliant children's writers. But on Friday, the 76-year-old will be sentenced after pleading guilty to 11 charges of indecent assault against young girls in the 1960s and 1970s. On the instructions of the judge, the jury entered not-guilty verdicts on two further rape charges.

Mayne's disgrace comes at a time when the reputation of children's literature is riding high, with the best-selling successes of JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson et al. But it will, inevitably, rekindle old suspicions about a profession that some still view as self-evidently regressive. The ghosts of Charles Dodgson and JM Barrie will no doubt be raised by those who would like us to believe that children's literature is a hotbed of repressed sexuality and paedophilia.

Clearly, in the case of Mayne, there can be no defence. Monosyllabic with adults, he was always easier in the company of children, whose parents - some of them also writers - never suspected that this apparently genial eccentric was also on occasions a predatory paedophile. He gave away no clues to this side of himself in his elliptical, teasing and often startlingly original books, of which he has written more than a hundred, and which generally found more favour with critics than with young readers. But on one of the rare occasions that he was persuaded to talk about himself, he wrote: "All I'm doing is looking at things now and showing them to myself when I was younger." Tragically, this habitual point of reference to himself still as a child now seems to have included an overwhelming sexual attraction to children.

But just how much truth is there in the notion that the ranks of children's writers, especially male children's writers, are littered with such sexual deviants? Mayne is certainly not unique. His 19th-century near-namesake, Thomas Mayne Reid, the celebrated writer for boys, not only took a girl aged just 13 for his wife but also wrote a novel about this strange marriage. Charles Kingsley, in addition to his famous title The Water Babies, left a small legacy of crudely pornographic drawings as well as a reputation for enjoying flagellation.

This century Hugh Walpole, the author of the Jeremy stories, once boasted of canoodling with both a father and son at a steam-bath session in Elephant and Castle in London, while TH White, the author of The Once and Future King, used sometimes to pester handsome male undergraduates at Cambridge. Most recently, Ian Strachan - a novelist who specialised in tough, dystopian books about the future - was convicted in 1999 of distributing indecent pictures of children on the internet.

Despite this undeniably queasy history, the two biggest clouds hanging over the realm of children's literature are based on speculation and the flimsiest of evidence. The most famous name here is Charles Dodgson, the pseudonymous Lewis Carroll, known for his openly expressed love for little girls (although he was also fond of some small boys, too). But, try as they might, no one then or since has ever been able to pin anything seriously dishonourable upon him. His desire to kiss his young admirers from time to time was something he only followed up after he had asked for and received parental consent. He also took numbers of photographs of young children in the nude. This would almost certainly land him in court now, but at the time it was thought blameless enough for the mothers of his young models to display these pictures in their own homes for all to see.

Dodgson would entertain his young friends with numerous toys and games he had made up himself. Children he befriended who later wrote about him as adults have recorded the pleasure they took in his company. Recently, one writer also suggested that his interest in young children may also have been a means of deflecting attention from the Reverend's more scandalous involvement with a number of mature, unmarried women.

Even so, the Dodgson rumours remain, much helped by the behaviour of Mrs Liddell, the mother of the original Alice. For reasons never disclosed, she one day abruptly terminated Dodgson's contact with all her children, to whom he never spoke again. One possible explanation is that she suspected him of having designs on one day marrying the daughter who inspired his great work. In all events, Dodgson continued to see and entertain many other small children for the rest of his life, always without scandal.

The reaction that has built up against him since owes much to the sort of after-the-event psychologising made possible by the popularising of Freudian concepts such as repression and denial. In this scenario, an individual's fragile ego is only able to tame a rampant, highly sexualised unconscious by allowing it to express itself in socially acceptable, symbolic ways. Dodgson's fantasies in particular have been seen as providing clear evidence of his repressed sexual desires for children in a manner that would have mystified and horrified him and everyone else at the time.

It is a dismal commentary on current post-Freudian psychological theorising that love of small children and pleasure in their company is still often viewed as necessarily pathological unless that love is expressed by another family member, when it is seen as entirely natural and desirable. In Dodgson's case, his frequent contacts with children also enabled him to write one of the comic masterpieces of all time, whose influence in changing perceptions of both children and children's literature was profound and long-lasting. To take a more benign view of his unconscious processes, perhaps his particular form of literary genius knew that it needed children to unloose his marvellous imagination, just as their company used to free him from the stammer that afflicted him with adults.

The other childless male children's author often the subject of hostile innuendo is JM Barrie. His friendship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys, whom he subsequently brought up after the premature death of their parents, has been linked with a supposed paedophile strain found in Peter Pan and more particularly in his strange story The Little White Bird. The scene in this book where the author undresses the boy David for the night makes uncomfortable reading now, although it caused no stir when published in 1902.

Yet there is no evidence that Barrie ever went in for any form of sexual abuse. Nicholas, the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies boys, roundly dismissed this charge when it was put to him as an old man. The boys' father did not always care for Barrie, perhaps resenting his intrusion into the family. But in truth Barrie became the boys' saviour, and was always seen in those terms. And perhaps he too sensed that he needed children to unlock his greatest work, Peter Pan, which is still providing hours of pleasure on the movie screen after having happily occupied the stage every Christmas for years on end.

This famous play was written as the result of a long summer of imaginary games played by Barrie and the older boys when they were staying at Black Lake Cottage, near Farnham in Surrey. With the nearby small lake turned into a South Seas lagoon, Barrie became Captain Swarthy, a famous pirate chief up against some determined, youthful antagonists. First appearing in the privately printed The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island - which the boys' father promptly lost - the story of these adventures surfaced again four years later as Peter Pan, or "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up". Still best understood as a play based on memories of youthful imaginary games, with the pirates always behaving like small children and sudden death simply another casual incident in an action-packed storyline, the names of the Llewelyn Davies boys are now transferred to members of Mr Darling's stage family. Barrie knew where his inspiration had come from, and he was pleased to acknowledge it.

Many other childless writers have also benefited from contact with the young without ever breaching trust. Arthur Ransome dedicated his first and best story, Swallows and Amazons, to the Altounyan children with whom he had spent a happy time sailing and playing imaginary games on Coniston Water over two summers. He later withdrew the dedication, after a spat about who had first thought up the original story. In fact, Ransome never cared for most children. As Malcolm Muggeridge put it: "A child-adult like Ransome dislikes them and is bored by them, precisely because he is like them. For that very reason, he can understand their games and attitudes as an adult cannot, and so his writings interest them."

Whatever the truth of this, Ransome needed the company of the children of his friend Collingwood's daughter to produce his finest work, which is still read and enjoyed today 74 years after it was first published. And, despite his occasional bad temper, he was remembered with affection by the children he later disowned in a stupid fit of jealousy.

Despite the appalling examples of William Mayne and a few others, it should be said that the vast majority of children's authors are utterly blameless where child abuse is concerned. Most of them like children, and have clear enough memories of their own childhoods and some of the difficulties they encountered not to want to visit any type of unhappiness on the young themselves. Unlike many other adults, they truly understand the difference between being young and being adult and the transition between the two states - which is, after all, what they are often writing about in their books. They know better than most that children have feelings that should be respected. They also know that contact with children can be stimulating for their work, and to put this at risk through inappropriate behaviour could be an act of professional suicide in more ways than one.

While the six children abused by Mayne deserve every sympathy, their case should be seen as quite untypical. The assaults also happened at a time in the 1960s when the very phrase "sexual abuse" had hardly entered the language. We are all more knowing now, and more on our guard.

The hope must now be that the Mayne affair is not allowed to overshadow all future contacts between children's writers and their audiences. There are already police checks to go through when authors visit schools in some local authorities, even if it is just to give a public reading. This is something that the brilliant, highly respected writer Geraldine McCaughrean has recently protested about in print. There are also rumours that some publishers have been inserting clauses into authors' contracts demanding assurances about a clean bill of sexual health where children are concerned. Any other evidence of a growing witch-hunt should be noted and resisted. Children's writers deserve better.

Nicholas Tucker is the author of 'The Rough Guide to Children's Books' (Rough Guides, £5.99)

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