It is a measure of the success of Humphrey Carpenter’s entertaining and provocative book that the reviewer, having silently approved and disputed his arguments from Lear to Milne, sits down with half a dozen pages of notes and the thought that it would need another book, not a review, to tackle the issues raised. His thesis, put simply and crudely, is that the Victorian and Edwardian tradition of children’s literature can be seen as a form of escapism for those disenchanted with the social and intellectual climate of the times. The theme of Arcadia, Wonderland, and secret places pervades children’s books from Alice and The Water Babies through The Princess and the Goblin and Bevis to The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh. In addition, Humphrey Carpenter sees Carroll, Kingsley, Milne and Grahame as all closet rebels against conventional Christianity in search of a substitute mythology. The revulsion produced by the effects of an industrial society is responsible for the flight to ruralism – which is of course no new idea but one which Humphrey Carpenter sees as evasive rather than an act of social criticism. The general argument seems to me persuasive and the panache and ingenuity with which it is presented keeps the reader both absorbed and occasionally contentious.
The seriousness with which Humphrey Carpenter takes children’s books is demonstrated by his suggestion – however tongue in cheek – that the advocacy of heroism and condemnation of the coward in one strand of turn-of-the-century juvenile fiction may have contributed to the causes of the First World War. I’m sure