Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie's 'Lost Boys', in later life called Peter Pan 'that terrible masterpiece'. Brigid Brophy, having reread Little Women and its sequels, dried her eyes and blown her nose, resolved that 'the only honourable course was to come out into the open and admit that the dreadful books are masterpieces.' She did it, though, 'with some bad temper and hundreds of reservations'. It isn't an uncommon reaction. These works, and many others, are among the exasperating classics of children's literature which affect you at some level in the way the authors overtly intended, for all your rational revulsion or boredom or disapproval of the outworn ideologies they may sanction. The last dissenting emotion is perhaps the one most frequently aroused at present. Children's stories from the past are continually disparaged for being insufficiently egalitarian, or wide-ranging, or whatever. Robert Leeson, in Reading and Righting, is struck by the failure of children's authors before the 1960s to represent the working classes satisfactorily in their fiction. He claims a kind of 'cultural invisibility' overtook the proletariat, and traces this deplorable disappearance right back to the late 15th century and the start of printing. Along with the ancient folk tale, transmitted orally, went a proper respect, imaginatively expressed, for everyone's social role. Then the powerful middle classes, into whose clutches the rudimentary book trade fell, proceeded to impose their own view of things on the developing literature.
LRB 23 May 1985 | PDF Download