Humphrey Carpenter’s “Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature”

 HumphreyCarpenter

The Curmudgeon in the Garden (from Children’s Literature)

 


Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature
by Humphrey Carpenter
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Secret Gardens may become many scholars’ bête noire. Already one of my acquaintances has advised me that she learned nothing new from Humphrey Carpenter (except in his chapter on J. M. Barrie), and another wrote that she found the book appalling. My own feelings are different; despite its shortcomings, I feel the work is deliberately iconoclastic and successfully provocative.

Much previous scholarship about children’s literature has been of three kinds: the glimpse at the field as a whole, as in Roger Sale’s Fairy Tales and After; studies of a single author, such as C. S. Lewis; and discussions of a genre, e.g. Volksmärchen. Carpenter’s work takes as its subject a “period,” the “Golden Age,” an unusually fertile time (1860-1930) when England, in particular, produced an extraordinary number of writers for children.

For the most part, Carpenter interprets the major authors and works of the period in a biographical fashion, with some acknowledged but, nonetheless, notable omissions–including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Frances Hodgson Burnett (from whom, of course, this book takes its title). The book has a familiar thesis: that a recurrent theme of children’s literature of the Golden Age is Arcadia, the Enchanted Place, Never Never Land, the Secret Garden. The prologue summarizes previous scholarship and outlines the tradition of juvenile literature up to what Carpenter believes to be the start of the Golden Age in 1860; the epilogue traces modifications of Arcadian motifs after 1930 in the work of such authors as Tolkien, Lewis, Salinger, Hoban, Norton, Pearce, and Garner.

In the first third of the book, “Arrears of Destruction,” Carpenter’s intention is to discuss authors who suffered from misgivings about Christianity and whose writings reveal a wish to destroy the old order. Carpenter often forgets his intention; his digressions, nonetheless, are most interesting. More than any previous author, Charles Kingsley, he argues, made children’s literature a vehicle of  private obsessions; The Water-Babies, for example, combined Kingsley’s odd aquatic notion of sexuality with that liberal Episcopalian movement known as “Muscular Christianity.” Lewis Carroll’s nonsense, Carpenter shows, is not just silly or clever, but reveals a fundamental negativity and wholesale destructiveness. (Carpenter also digresses to point out that, no matter how others have side-stepped the issue or soft-pedaled it, Carroll was unusually fascinated by little girls.) George MacDonald, Carpenter argues, was always searching for something to replace the heaven of Christianity in which he had ceased to believe; in his “phantasies” he finally created a home for his transient souls. In the chapter on Alcott (largely a redaction of Martha Saxton’s biography Louisa May), Carpenter points out the muddle of Little Women: Louisa, wrestling with Bronson, turns Jo into a father after Marmee departs and refuses to let her character marry Laurie because they are the same person and Jo wishes to marry her sister.

The middle third of the book, titled “The Arcadians,” treats authors whose disenchantment with Christianity led not to destructiveness but to the construction of Arcadian alternatives. Richard Jeffries, for instance, gave the cherubs of Kate Greenaway a prelapsarian consciousness (the ability to understand animals) and created his Bevis, a pagan Pan whose offspring would be Mowgli and Christopher Robin (at this point, a reader may lament that Carpenter did not include a discussion of The Secret Garden since Dickon is surely the apotheosis of this figure). Kenneth Grahame’s aptly titled Dream Days and The Golden Age reveal his preoccupation with the vision of the “Good Place” which he dreamily associated with childhood and with the “rediscovery” of something which had no existence, prior or otherwise. E. Nesbit was a lovable hack whose exotic life style prompts Carpenter to view her as the Isadora Duncan of children’s literature. Finally, Beatrix Potter was not the timid creature she seemed but someone who emphasized the victory of the victim over the predator and sympathized with the two bad mice who smash middle-class life.

In the last and weakest section of the book, Carpenter makes predictable observations about three representative Arcadian novels. The major issues of The Wind in the Willows are noted: the desire to escape responsibility versus the desire for stability, the ambiguous appeal of Toad, and so on. Peter Pan is the life story of an author who wished “never to grow up” and who cast this desire in an amalgam of fairy literature and Ballantyne’s Coral Island. With the help of Christopher Milne’s portrait of his father, The Enchanted Places, Carpenter reads Winnie-the-Pooh as the story of a distant man who was better able to deal with childhood in his characters than in real life.

The shortcomings of this book are obvious. Carpenter is a biographer (W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien) whose most recent work (with Mari Prichard) appears in the capsules of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; and this book is best in short biographical stretches. Even here, however, he is far too interested in National Enquirer-like “curiosities”; for example, “Charles Kingsley and Louisa May Alcott were among those overdosed with [the medicine calomel].” But this kind of discursive book is now, regrettably, out of style and it appears some editor advised Carpenter that his work required some comprehensive argument; so, often, near the end of a chapter—after a series of short, interesting, delightful, anecdotal passages—out of the corner, like some lame and nearly forgotten family servant, hobbles The Thesis.

Carpenter is far too quick to make dubious assertions: for instance, “In writing Little Women [Alcott] gave birth to a new genre, the American Family novel.” And too often, he lets the part stand for the whole and makes his argument by repetition instead of evidence: “Louisa [Alcott] was on much closer terms . . . with her mother, whose rather pugnacious, masculine looks she had inherited” (88); “[Louisa’s mother] managed to find the emotional energy to help and stimulate her second daughter—largely, no doubt, because she and Louisa were of the same physical and emotional type: dark, mannish looking” (90); “In the family plays . . . , Louisa always took the male roles. . . . It was natural: she had inherited her mother’s masculine features” (92).

Finally, Carpenter deliberately takes the contrary position whenever the opportunity affords itself: for example, “Many commentators, following Peter Green, have regarded Grahame’s apparent desire to escape, in his writings, from the conventional late Victorian society as a natural result of his having been pressed, in this fashion into an alien mould [where he was obliged to take a clerkship in the Bank of England]. Yet the facts do not accord with this interpretation. . . . [The Bank of England] was in Grahame’s day notable, even notorious, for its tolerance and even encouragement of eccentricity.” “The standard picture” of Beatrix Potter (derived from Margaret Lane’s Tale of Beatrix Potter) is of a shy child who was stifled by her parents during her early womanhood, and who late in life broke free and became someone entirely different, Mrs. William Heelis, an endearing and formidable personality. Instead, Carpenter asserts, Potter’s journal “shows that the young Miss Potter and the old Mrs. Heelis were really one and the same person: that from her earliest years she was a determined, self-confident person.”

Despite these shortcomings, Secret Gardens remains delightful because of its tone and manner: willful, cranky, wrongheaded. It is that kind of work for which the English are famous: the curmudgeonly book. And throughout its unblinking examination of the sordid underbelly of what the public still believes is the innocent and fey world of children’s literature, I was reminded of Randall Jarrell’s comment about the perdurability of curmudgeons: “Even in the Golden Age there was probably someone who complained about how yellow everything looked.”

This is a deliberately provoking book. By often taking the very same evidence upon which others have based their views and interpreting it in the completely opposite fashion, Carpenter challenges scholars to reexamine their conclusions. This is useful; and for this reason, what at first seem its shortcomings must be discounted and viewed as a part of the book’s eccentric strengths.


Originally appeared in Children’s Literature (1987).

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21. September 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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