Phallus in Wonderland

Richard Jenkyns pokes fun at a Freudian analysis of children's literature
January 20, 1999

What have the English done better than anyone else? Not opera or sculpture or cookery or tennis. But England has dominated children's literature as the German-speaking peoples have dominated the symphony. Lewis Carroll is the master, allegedly the most widely quoted and translated author in the western world after the Bible and Shakespeare; but the golden age comes a little after Carroll, from the late 19th century to about 1930. This was the era of Rudyard Kipling and Edith Nesbit, of Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. It also produced, in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, the best of all boys' books (a slightly different genre) as well as Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters, which remains unique in literature as the only masterpiece written by a child. The Alice books, the Beatrix Potter stories, Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Milne's Pooh books constitute the best of children's literature produced anywhere in the world. Since these, the only children's writer to have shown a touch of genius was Roald Dahl.

We were all children once (although in a few cases this is hard to believe) and the literature of childhood is of interest not just on its own merits, but for what it may tell us about ourselves. As UC Knoepflmacher says in Ventures into Childland, there is material in these books "that still shapes our changing assumptions about gender and generation." So, it is worth asking why this literature flourished where and when it did.

Oxford, as it happens, has had a prominent place in this story-perhaps we can indeed detect a childlikeness in this home of lost causes which may account for it. It may be an accident that The Wind in the Willows, like Alice in Wonderland, opens on the Thames close to Oxford, but we can see, not only in Carroll but also in Tolkien and the Narnia books of CS Lewis, different kinds of donnishness at play. In between the Wordsworthian discovery that the child's vision has a unique quality and Freud's intimations of immorality in early childhood, lies a space which was especially favourable to this kind of writing. Before, books for children were grimly didactic, designed to frighten them into the semblance of adult behaviour as soon as possible. Since Freud, it has been difficult to avoid a crippling self-consciousness.

Knoepflmacher's concern is with the mid-Victorian age, although his study extends into the late century. He takes seven authors: Ruskin, Thackeray, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, Jean Ingelow, Christina Rossetti and Juliana Horatia Ewing. He leaves out Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies-a puzzling omission, because not only has this been, after the Alice books, the most widely-read of mid-Victorian children's stories, but it has had an influence on several of the writers whom he does discuss. Nor is there a word about Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses-probably the best-known original collection of poems for children-or the verses of Struwelpeter.

Most of the works Knoepflmacher discusses are now rather obscure, and it is interesting to have them dragged back into the light. George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, for example, is probably more honoured than read: an intriguing blend of the supernatural with the harsh realities of Dickensian London. But it lacks any first-rate character, and the best children's books, however fantastical, always seem to have these characters, as we find them in naturalistic novels, vivid, individual and, however grotesque, with some element of reality: Humpty Dumpty and the White Knight, Mr Toad, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mr Jackson, Eeyore and Pooh. But MacDonald does create, in the goddess North Wind, a figure of authentic numinous power, both beneficent and destructive. Odd though it seems, the children's writer who comes closest to this dark side of life is Beatrix Potter. Despite the bonnets and brass-buttoned blue jackets of her apparent idyll, she does not forget that her animals are preying on one another, eating and being eaten.

Knoepflmacher's main argument is that most of the male authors in his survey are in one way or another engaging with the feminine side of themselves (or at least of their childhood selves). They display a "regressive hostility to growth," "resist the gender division that comes with sexual maturation," express "intense desire for an evanescent female self." The women writers, by contrast, create "counter-texts" that oppose these male-authored "constructs." If true, this would be an interesting thesis; but there does not seem to be anything in it. Perhaps this is just as well. One of the most curious things about Ventures into Childland is that it never occurs to Knoepflmacher that if he were right, the works of his male authors would surely be bad books-immature, false and mean-spirited. Jean Ingelow would be a giant, and Carroll a footnote.

The story-pattern which Lewis Carroll established involves a "real" child or children being carried into an imaginary world (and usually returning from it at the end). This is the pattern that we find in The Water Babies, published two years before Alice in Wonderland, in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, in The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and CS Lewis's Narnia books; and more recently in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Ingelow, the first of Knoepflmacher's women writers, adopted this model in Mopsa the Fairy (1869), which has usually been taken as following, competently if tamely, in Carroll's footsteps. Knoepflmacher claims instead that she is putting up an unnoticed resistance to Carroll, but he produces no evidence in support of this. His claim lacks historical sense and critical judgement. We would have to suppose both that Ingelow-Freudian avant la lettre-supposed herself to have detected a hostility to female maturation in Carroll and that she was also a writer of Jamesian subtlety. When Knoepflmacher comes to Christina Rossetti's stories (which she herself described as a "Christmas trifle, would-be in the Alice style"), his argument is even stranger. Rossetti, he suggests, strongly disliked the cruelty and violence that she supposedly found in the Alice books, and therefore chose to "deploy sadism" and exaggerate these characteristics in her own tales. In other words, disliking harshness in a book for children, she decided to put still more of it in a book for children.

Ventures for Childhood is riddled with absurdities. Knoepflmacher says that the nonsense word "mome" in Carroll's "Jabberwocky" poem suggests maternity through a play on the word "mom." Is this professor of Victorian literature unaware that "mom" is an Americanism, unknown on the other side of the Atlantic? He also applauds another scholar's proposal that Charles Dodgson chose his pseudonym, Carroll, to insinuate a surreptitious femininity, because Carol is often a female name. But Carol was not in currency as a female name at the time; Carroll or Carol, if found at all, would have been taken as a male name. (In fact, Dodgson took his two given names, Charles Lutwidge, Latinised them as Carolus Ludovicus, turned them round and put them back into English to make the name we all know him by.)

In Through the Looking-Glass Alice forgets her own name, except that it begins with an L. This is presumably an allusion to the real Alice's surname, Liddell, with perhaps a glance at the L in her Christian name. This is not enough for Knoepflmacher. L indicates God (the Hebrew Elohim), Wordsworth's Lucy, "the She who is 'Elle,'" Tweedledum and Tweedledee (who each have an L in their name), and wood and tree (timber is lignum in Latin). Alice herself, by the way, also represents not only Dodgson's dream-child but Dodgson himself and Jesus Christ (I am not making this up.)

Alice is also-versatile girl!-a sort of sex kitten who titillates the male member with talk of love bites. You may not be surprised to hear that Knoepflmacher is one of those who see the phallus everywhere-in heads, hats, swords, pencils, cats' tails, women (yes, the "phallic mother"). At least this sort of thing has a quaint old-fashionedness, although some of us thought it had been laughed out of court years ago.

Another oddity of Ventures into Childland is that it leaves out the children themselves: Knoepflmacher forgets the people for whom these books are meant. Yet good children's books are not turned obsessively inward; they look outward with generosity; they are affectionate towards their audience and reach for an understanding of the childish mind. It is no accident that many of the best children's stories originated as entertainments for real, individual children, often with no thought of publication. If Alice Liddell had not pressed Charles Dodgson to write down the story that he had told her on what ranks (with Shelley's last journey) as the most momentous boat trip in literary history, we should have no Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass. Grahame began The Wind in the Willows for his own son; Kipling wrote Just So Stories to amuse his two children; Christopher Robin Milne was embarrassed to have the private lives of his toys exposed to millions. It may be significant, too, that some of the best children's authors lost the knack. After Alice, Carroll turned to the awful sentimentalities of Sylvie and Bruno; Potter's later works are so deeply forgotten that few people know they exist; Grahame and Milne were wise enough not to try to repeat their success. Children's literature flourishes on spontaneity, when the author can forget for a while his adult being and recover his child's perception. But, like the centipede which tried to remember how it walked, the more self-conscious he becomes, the likelier he is to stumble.

True, even good writers have moments when they talk over the children to the grown-ups in the background. Such moments are the vision of the god Pan in The Wind in the Willows, or the approach of boarding school and the loss of childhood at the end of The House at Pooh Corner. For myself, I liked these passages better in boyhood than I do now: in those days they exuded a woozy mystery, all the better for resisting explication. In any event, such passages succeed-if they do succeed-by appealing to the child as well as the adult. Part of Carroll's supremacy is that, in him, the adult and the child are one. Plays with the nature of language, which have made him a favourite with philosophers, are the same puzzles which tease and amuse small boys and girls.

Knoepflmacher is by no means alone in thinking that Alice represents either the author himself or the author's dream-child. Still, both ideas seem inept. Carroll's triumph is to have created one of the most living heroines in fiction: she is very like a child and very like a girl, and not at all like a don or a doll. Whatever may be thought about Dodgson's psychology, no children's literature is less paedophilic than the two Alice books-the paedophile wants to imagine the child as she is not and Carroll presents the child realistically as she is. The psychological undercurrents which swirl through the books are those of a child's dream; the creatures Alice meets feel like transmogrified versions of puzzling, bossy, unpredictable grown-ups. But we should allow Carroll some indeterminacy. After all, we do not understand our own dreams, and he imitates nature in making Alice's dreams richly but elusively suggestive.

Knoepflmacher is right to insist that we should take children's books seriously as a form of literary art. But he disobeys his own injunction, because his way of taking such works seriously is to turn them into works for adults. The truth is that the 19th century, which discovered the otherness of the child, discovered the otherness of children's literature too. Besides, to take seriously is not necessarily to take solemnly. Knoepflmacher leaves humour out, yet the greatest works of children's literature are all comic masterpieces, whatever else they may be. The Alice books, on his account, are grim affairs, seething with "sentimentality and anger," haunted by madness, saturated in "the omnipresence of death." Should we really be feeding such stuff to the little ones? "Ah,well!" said Humpty Dumpty, "They may write such things in a book."

l A longer version of this review appeared in the New Republic (26th October). Illustrations from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Everyman's Library, 0171 287 0035)
Ventures into childland

UC Knoepflmacher

University of Chicago Press 1998, ?27.95