The essential Alice

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Children's Literature: an Illustrated History Edited by Peter Hunt. Oxford University Press Pounds 22.50. 019 212 3203

William Feaver finds too much niceness in a new literary history. On 4 July 1862, a fine afternoon, children's literature lost its morals. That's an exaggeration, but if ever there was a turning point in literary history, a transformation of possibilities, it was then in the meadow outside Oxford where the Rev Charles Dodgson began telling the Liddell girls about Alice's adventures underground.

There had been parody before, and colourful l se-majeste (Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, 1855, ridiculed royal domesticity); nursery rhymes had always trotted out derisive riddles and tongue-twisters; but "Twinkle twinkle little bat" was such a rude improvement on the sacred verses of Isaac Watts, and the repainting of the roses was a telling skit on nursery history.

Before Alice in Wonderland there had been no extended fantasy especially written for children's amusement. Folk tales of one sort or another were available, for all ages, but because the bulk of the population before the mid-19th century was effectually illiterate and most children were unlikely to progress beyond the chapbook, there was no perception of "Children's literature" beyond the bounds of stories with morals. After "Alice" it became normal to address the reader through the child protagonist. Alice, that determinedly sceptical 10-year-old, heads a long line: Jim Hawkins, Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, Oswald Bastable, Mole, William Brown, Christopher Robin and Roald Dahl's bookloving Matilda.

Yet Alice had forebears, among them Lemuel Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe, also Aladdin and Childe Roland and the enterprising youngest sons who appeared to such advantage in Cruikshank's illustrations to Grimms' Fairy Tales, published in 1823. These characters were created for adults. Children adopted them.

A problem with Children's Literature: an Illustrated History is that it appears to have been compiled with librarians in mind. The contributors delve around in the origins, pre-origins even, because there, among the hornbooks, a sort of innocence lies. Gillian Avery is an excellent guide to the continuations of Aesop's Fables by many hands. But it is not until what Julia Briggs and Dennis Butts describe as "The Emergence of Form (1850-1890)" that the narrative livens up. This is because, more than any other genre, children's literature needs Alices.

Yet Charles Dodgson in his Lewis Carroll role addressed himself to his contemporaries, over the heads of children. Richmal Crompton wrote the William stories for adults, initially. Indeed all the best writing for children is done principally for the satisfaction of at least one adult: the author. "Adults do not normally read children's books", Geoffrey Trease wrote in Tales out of School, his survey of the field in the Forties, but in his autobiography Trease mentions that G M Trevelyan was a keen reader of his historical fiction. Children's books are books for readers who appreciate well defined characters and a firm pace. "School" editions of Robinson Crusoe cut down on the moralising (and the tedious sequels) leaving what counts - the discovery of self and the exploration of solitude - intact.

It follows that books written to impress children (Kingsley's The Water Babies, most of C S Lewis's Narnia saga) are little better than the Sunday School reward books (Jessica's First Prayer) distributed by the smug to the smug. Equally, the serial hazards of adventure series, from RM Ballantine's gorilla-hunting yarns to the Nazi-swatting escapades of WE Johns' Biggles, are no worse than their Homeric precedents, just hastier.

The historic narrative, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs to Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs falls apart, in this survey, where librarianship intrudes and booklisting replaces predilection. Chapters on "Colonial and Post-Colonial Children's Literature" are appended; it has to be said that the contributions of writers and illustrators in Australia, Canada and New Zealand do rather finish the book off. The impact of the computer age is alluded to: a potential alternative ending. The editor, Peter Hunt, however, logs off, sensibly enough, before the onset of the CD-ROM.

I regret the customary recommendation of arty illustrators (Maurice Sendak, Charles Keeping) and the tendency to boost books that appeal not so much to children (who vary, almost as much as adults) as to those who maintain the belief that nice books about nice children instil niceness.

The enemy in children's literature is that very niceness: the inability to perceive that what's vital, in both story and illustration, is Crusoe venturing into the cave, the Borrowers cringing behind the joists, snow falling in the Wild Wood, in the heart of The Wind in the Willows. Good to look at, useful to refer to, but too would-be-good encyclopaedic to inspire the growing reader, this is a work that Alice would have flipped through crossly before setting out on the trip down river.

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