The figure of the child, and the nature of childhood, as seen in the works of Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter

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BA Childhood Studies yr. 2

The figure of the child, and the nature of childhood, as seen in the works of Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter

        Something detrimental happens to literary criticism when children's literature is separated into a wholly disconnected genre. It is detrimental because there is such richness, meaning, and insight in children's literature which mostly will go unnoticed. An unsurprisingly small amount has been written about children's books compared with the broader spectrum that constitutes 'grown-up literature'. This, perhaps, is because children's books are not seen as academically important, the works are not of scholarly interest. An ideology of childhood where literature pertaining to it would be considered important has not, perhaps, been in existence for sufficiently long.

Beatrix Potter's contribution to children's literature is unquestionable. She wrote about "feelings and adventures that are part of every child's imagination (Tucker, 1981, p.57). Her tales are timeless, whether detailing exciting escapades or "eventless catalogues of animal domesticity" (Ousby, 1988, p.740). Of equal importance and interest is Charles Dodgson (hereafter referred to by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll). Writing at a time when society's ideologies of childhood were realising the rights of children as individuals, Carroll opened the door to whimsical child literature; fun for fun's sake.

        When one analyses a children's book using adult concepts and rationalisations, there is the inherent risk of missing something vital. This is perhaps because adults are too far removed from the fantasy and imagination of their childhoods. One somewhat spurious reading of Through the Looking-Glass contends that

Perhaps realising that adults might frown on the idea of multiply

connected spaces, he wrote the book under a pseudonym and wrote

it for children…The Looking-Glass is in fact a wormhole. (Kaku, 1998, p.340)

This certainly detaches itself from the more popular convention of Wonderland as a metaphor for the imagination and fancy of childhood. However, there is something different about Looking-Glass, almost as if someone else wrote it. It is as though the enthusiasm and flair has gone, the writer has grown up. Charles Dodgson was, after all, a mathematician.

        In keeping with this mathematician side to Carroll, there are some elements of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which seem out of place. Alice is aware that she is existing in a fantasy; that Wonderland is not real. "When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened," she says, "and now here I am in the middle of one!" (Carroll, 1998, p.46) She goes on to say, rather abstractly, "There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!" (ibid.) Alice often thinks in a way perhaps too abstract for her age, at which times Carroll's mathematician is more in control than is his 'inner-child'. When Alice first shrinks, she ponders disappearing like a candle (ibid., p.11). This is unlikely lateral thinking for a child, but a simplistic metaphor for a grownup. And finally, Looking-Glass ends with a question, rather more philosophical than is fitting for a children's story. Whose dream was she in, her own or that of the Red King? This is a stunning contrast to the closing lines of Wonderland, which we will come to later.

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        There are stark differences between Wonderland and Looking-Glass. While both meander somewhere between ingenious fantasy and incoherent folly, the 'sequel' never quite follows the standards set by its predecessor. Wonderland is at times brilliantly witty and charged with a kind of energy that makes it all at once slowly paced but utterly manic. The chapter with the Mock Turtle (chapter nine) is marked particularly by some adept and thoroughly entertaining word play, the likes of which is attempted throughout Looking-Glass with nothing like the success. The characters in Looking-Glass are all essentially the same; there is none of the characterisation ...

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