March 11, 2015

Who framed Peter Rabbit?

Charles Dickens wrote in 1853, “in a utilitarian age, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy Tales should be respected.”   Numerous writers and artists seemed to concur.

Miss Potter invented the beloved "Peter Rabbit" in an illustrated letter to a child, which shows how fine a line divided the real and imaginary in her delicate vision.

To justify small indulgences they feel silly about, parents often resort to an age-old ruse. They tell themselves that what they want is "for the children." No one can use this classic excuse for childlike pleasures more aptly than the writers and artists who produce illustrated books for young readers.

Thomas Bewick, England's greatest wood-engraver, invoked it when he turned out a charming natural history book for children late in the eighteenth century. "My principal object," he explained, "was directed to the mental pleasure and improvement of youth ... to lead them on till they become enamored of this innocent and delightful pursuit."  Finally, he confessed to the reader what had been in it for him: "the great pleasure I felt in imitating nature."

The latter half of the eighteenth century saw the first boom in children's books. It fired an ongoing debate about the nature of childhood and the kinds of images the young should see. On the one side were those who thought children should be coaxed and disciplined out of their playful fancies at every opportunity. 

On the other were such forebears of Romantic sensibility as William Blake, who saw imagination as an inborn gift to be cultivated. The moralizers wanted the young steeped in the illustrated edifying tales composed by well meaning gentlewomen like Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs.Trimmer, who had a huge following among parents.

The partisans of imagination thought it better to feed a child's fancy than starve it. Even Samuel Johnson joined the debate, as his biographer Boswell notes: "Lady Rothes spoke of the advantages children now derived from the little books published purposely for their instruction. Johnson controverted it, asserting that at an early age it was better to gratify curiosity with wonders than to attempt planting truth, before the mind was prepared to receive it." Johnson held the view, rather, that" 'Jack the Giant-Killer: 'Parismus and Parismenus: and 'The Seven Champions of Christendom' were fitter for them than Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Trimmer."

Johnson needn't have worried. The Romantic era brought a rage for the waking dreams of the imagination. The lovers of fantasy and fable in children's books won out.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went so far as to try to prove that fairies exist in nature. Meanwhile, more than a hundred artists, including Sir John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll himself, tried their hands at illustrating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps everyone who reads it secretly wants to illustrate it with his or her own imaginings. Here may be the mark of the great fable, ancient or modern.

While the writer of fantasy can advantageously develop an atmosphere of mystery or dream slowly, even suspense-fully, the illustrator must set a fantastic scene all at once in each image. One look into an Arthur Rackham drawing makes it clear: This is not everyday reality.

But a gnarled, almost lurid drawing style like Rackham's is not the only means to evoke another, parallel world. Beatrix Potter's illustrations couldn't have a lighter touch, yet they are completely transporting.

John Ruskin voiced a pleasure countless world-weary adults must feel on gazing into the charmed realm of art for children. His praise of Kate Greenaway fits as well the world of Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham, John Tenniel, Walter Crane, and others. "And more wonderful still-there are no gasworks! no waterworks, no mowing machines, no sewing machines, no telegraph poles, no vestige, in fact, of science, civilization, economical arrangements, or commercial enterprise!!!"  Let us dream on.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich