The chroniclers of a golden age;Books

7th July 1995 at 01:00

There is no doubt at all that the five writers grouped together in Inventing Wonderland have a special place in the history of children's literature and exercise a perpetual fascination. As someone once said, they have something "to delight anyone from a maiden aunt to a Freudian analyst", quite apart from the children themselves.

Jackie WullschlAger's first book comes with a very pretty jacket (Sargent's "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose") and a blurb that promises "a captivating multiple biography, which sheds new light on our most popular children's writers." In fact, there is very little new in it at all. All writers use other people's books to help make their own - but this one is based entirely on published sources. Unlike a genuine "multiple biography", Inventing Wonderland hardly tackles the interesting inter-actions between its subjects. The book consists largely of five potted biographies, quick trots through lives that deserve proper attention.

WullschlAger correctly acknowledges her sources when she quotes a letter or diary entry from a particular biography. What she does not admit is how much else is dependent on books obtainable from any library. One could accept this easily enough, if she had added something valuable of her own. She might have examined the relationship between Barrie and Milne, which has not been fully explored, or, indeed, the influence of Carroll on Milne.

The introduction, "interlude" and epilogue are full of contradictions. Time and again I noted some strong statement only to find it later denied. She says early on that the Victorian writers who wrote for children "marked the start of the high cultural status children's books have held ever since". Towards the end, she admits that, far from enjoying high status, children's writers have become "marginal literary figures". At one moment, the worlds of her chosen writers are "bold and optimistic" - those "long summer days and golden ages of Wonderland and Neverland and the river bank". At another point, they are "chaotic, violent worlds, reflecting writers' pent-up anger and frustration".

There are many other things I dispute. Can Dickon in The Secret Garden really be described as "a rural wanderer with supernatural powers"? Is it true that his creator, Frances Hodgson Burnett, "never fully accepted adult responsibilities"? WullschlAger suggests the 20th century is more interested in adolescence than childhood, that "by the mid-20th century Holden Caulfield or Jimmy Porter were the favourite self-portraits of the reading class". WullschlAger does not seem to realise how ridiculous that is. She quotes a neat list of Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye and Sons and Lovers to show how adult concerns have shifted to adolescence, but an equally unconvincing list (The Go-Between, Lord of the Flies and Greene's The Fallen Idol) might have suggested a continued interest in childhood.

WullschlAger is particularly confused about Milne. He "bucks the trend", she thinks, and sees him at one point as an uninhibited post-Freudian, compared with his sad predecessors. Carroll and Lear are the "buttoned-up loners". But earlier she had quoted Christopher Milne's moving words: "My father's heart remained buttoned up all through his life". And surely Milne's imagination was "formed" not in the 1900s, as she suggests (wanting to label him an Edwardian), but before the turn of the century. He was born in 1882 -and it is she who quotes Barrie's statement: "Nothing that happens after 12 matters very much". She also says, inaccurately, that the Pooh books have "a backcloth of nannies and nurseries", when she is really talking about the poems.

I could go on about this maddening book, with its uncertain tone, its muddles and contradictions and slips ("EE" Nesbit, not once but several times). Humphrey Carpenter in his Secret Gardens, just 10 years ago, covered much of the same ground, and more besides. In his preface, Carpenter said how he hesitated to add "to the already appalling number of books about children's books", but very few of those books are meant for the general reader, as Inventing Wonderland surely is. If it sends some new readers to the books themselves, to Alice and Lear's nonsense poems, to The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books, then it will have been worth publishing. It may well do this, for the one endearing thing about Inventing Wonderland is WullschlAger's tremendous enthusiasm for the books themselves.

For anyone teaching children's literature courses, Inventing Wonderland will provide an endless supply of contentious quotations, useful perhaps for essay subjects and examinations. You could try: "The best modern children's writers, Roald Dahl and Janet and Allan Ahlberg (have) a cultural authenticity which most children's literature since the Edwardians has lacked." Discuss. Or "It is the post-war revolution in English society and culture that explains the decline of children's fantasies." Discuss again. My own suggestion is that fantasy of the quality WullschlAger is writing about depends on individual genius, not social conditions. I would prescribe for WullschlAger a weekend reading and thinking about Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child.

Ann Thwaite's biographies of Frances Hodgson Burnett and A A Milne are published by Faber. Her new children's book, The Ashton Affair (Scholastic), is reviewed in the Children's Books and Reading Extra.

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