Fantasy and harsh reality

6th February 1998 at 00:00
An Awfully Big Adventure. BBC2, Saturdays to March 7, 6-6.50pm

Nothing is more tempting, when talking about writers for children, than to indulge in a little retrospective psychoanalysis: they chose this particular field in order to compensate for an unhappy childhood, or perhaps to recapture a happy one. They wrote to escape the miseries of adult life, or as a consolation for not having children of their own - if not as entertainment for the ones they did have. By the end of this six-part series, you may be wondering why we are not all at it, churning out tales of the wild wood or the forest elves.

Yet, in some cases, it is hard to resist a facile psychological explanation. Kenneth Grahame had a few years of childhood happiness, followed by a life so miserable that one might resort to anything to take one's mind off it. Since experience had convinced him that true joy was only to be found between the ages of four and seven, he had good reason to wish to return there. He so became, in his early books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, "the first writer to adopt a child's point of view".

This was good news for children's literature, no doubt, but did no favours to Grahame himself. A preference for the child's point of view allowed him to be seduced into marriage, late in life, to a woman who wrote him letters in baby talk and arrived for their wedding wearing a freshly-picked daisy chain (and, if the dramatisation in the programme is to be believed, not too much else).

The seven-year-old's outlook had a bad effect, too, on their momentary sexual relationship. One has to agree that the resulting misery is quite enough to account for the bachelor world of The Wind in the Willows.

Edith Nesbit (also, allegedly, the "first to write from a child's point of view") had an unhappy childhood and an unconven-tional marriage. Not many of these writers have biographies that can be recommended as suitable for children (could they have been compensating in their lives for the cosiness of their fantasies?). Nesbit had an open marriage and a succession of young lovers. She also blamed herself for the death of her only son after an operation; Grahame's son committed suicide.

The series omits Lewis Carroll (so missing an opportunity to nominate another "first writer to adopt the child's point of view"), as well as Beatrix Potter, J M Barrie and A A Milne. The third programme is devoted to Arthur Ransome, a man who, like Grahame, enjoyed messing around in boats, but had a rather more adventurous life before he settled down to writing about summer hols on the Lakes and Broads.

J R R Tolkien, the next subject, was a respectable and conservative Oxford don who, somewhat to his dismay, became the inspiration for hippies, greens and various kinds of New Age mystics. Judging by the fans who appear in the programme, earnestly conversing in his invented language, Elvish, he was not really a children's writer, except those whimsically described as being "of any age".

The last two parts are about Dr Seuss (Ted Giesel) and Roald Dahl. I have not been able to preview either of these, but it is possible there are dark sides to both men. Honestly, children, you do not want to know about the people who write these lovely stories. Just take it from a grown-up when he tells you to enjoy the safe and wonderful world of Rattie, Mole and Badger, the Bastables, and Swallows and Amazons while you can, because (as their creators knew only too well) real life is not like that.

Robin Buss

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