SECRET GARDENS: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature by Humphrey Carpenter
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SECRET GARDENS: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature

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From the consummate biographer of Tolkien and the best biographer of Auden, one would expect nothing less than discerning portrayals of the great English writers of children's fantasy from Kingsley to Milne. In accounting for their appearance in 1860-1930 England, Carpenter is highly suggestive if not all-comprehending: yes, children's literature managed for the first time (in America as well) to be both moral and entertaining; manifestly, the child became, through the Romantic movement, ""an important figure in the English literary imagination""; and certain writers, mostly peculiar sorts, did indeed discover (as Carpenter notes of Kingsley) ""that a children's book can be the perfect vehicle for an adult's most personal and private concerns."" But in scanting the social context, in dismissing most realistic children's fiction and all American writers save Alcott (progenitor, unfortunately, of the ""utopian life"" line), Carpenter exhibits a certain fussiness, even fustiness. More than compensation, though, are the essays themselves. If Carpenter can't quite explain how the ""energetic"" young Charles Dodgson became the ""temperamentally very different"" author of Alice, he not only brushes away cobwebs and veils, he is acute about Nonsense and commanding on the work: ""That the Alice books should consist, on their deepest level, of an exploration of violence, death, and Nothingless is not in itself very surprising. Comedy tends to lead in that direction. What is especially striking about Alice, given what we know about Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, is that he does not stop simply at the exploration of Nothingness, but creates something that is specifically a mockery of Christian belief."" The readings are better than sensitive, they're exhilarating: ""Beatrice Potter had for many years glanced wistfully at the hills, but had walked obediently the other way, remaining in the family fold and working off some of her feelings about the society which had imprisoned her by creating her bitter little stories. Now escape had come, when she was almost in her fiftieth year--it is notable that Pigling and his lady-love Pigwig escape across the county border by pretending to be old."" And, most exceptionally, Carpenter repeatedly makes the transit between child and adult meanings: ""Pooh, Piglet, and the other toys are really a family of children living their lives under the benevolently watchful eye of a parent-figure, Christopher Robin. This, of course, is exactly how real children treat their toys. . . But [Christopher Robin's] interventions in the narrative are not usually those of a parent sorting out unruly children: instead, Milne makes him step in as a deus ex machina, and appoints him not merely as adult in charge, but as God. . . the God of Love."" Rewarding as scholarship, interpretation, recollection.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin