This series is an interesting look at the “Golden Age” of British children’s literature. That’s obviously an extremely subjective topic, but the twelve authors specifically mentioned were J M Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Erskine Childers (the only one with whose books I’m not really familiar), Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne, E Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and J R R Tolkien. The idea was to cover the 71-year-period from the publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1866 to the publication of Lord of the Rings in 1937. You can argue at length about who should and shouldn’t have been included: a four-part series can only cover so many authors. And they’d chosen quite a range of authors, meaning that most of what was said only applied to some of them: you can’t really compare Ballet Shoes with The Hobbit, or Toad of Toad Hall with Swallows and Amazons. But a lot of thought-provoking comments were made.
The starting point was chosen as being when children’s books moved from moralising to entertainment; and they had to choose an end point somewhere … even though it meant excluding both Enid Blyton and C S Lewis. The fact that the authors were all so different inevitably made the programme rather bitty – Ransome’s dealings with Lenin and Trotsky one minute, AA Milne’s differences with his son Christopher Robin the next – but I don’t know how else they could have done it. Carroll, Ransome and Milne were discussed at some length in the first episode: presumably it’ll be three authors apiece in the three remaining episodes.
For a few awful moments, I thought that the whole thing was going to consist of the woke brigade slagging off all the old favourites, BBC 2-style – but one of the speakers made a point about how annoying it is when people do that, and how it’d be better to discuss any class or racial issues which people may find in the books, without just slagging the books off and saying that kids shouldn’t read them. Hooray for a bit of common sense! Another point made was that there are now abridged versions of classic books available for younger children, and how those tend to miss out the “nasty” bits – because all these books have difficult bits, and don’t just set out to create idylls for children to enjoy.
It was suggested that some authors saw childhood as a “protected area”, but others thought that children deserved more respect than they often got. And a lot of comments were made about how many of the featured authors had suffered tragedies in their own lives, often involving children or their own childhoods- was that why they chose to write children’s books?
A good point was that rural locations are, in most cases, preferred to urban locations – Streatfeild’s books being an obvious exception. It’s sometimes suggested that that was part of the mentality brought about by trying to recover from the Great War, but even the books written pre-1914 tend to be set in rural areas. Are the books meant to be a safe space, and is that connection with rural settings? Or are they meant to be challenging? Well, probably a bit of both. Beatrix Potter’s books, with their sweet little illustrations, can be very scary!
There was certainly quite a lot to think about. My preferred childhood books were the “Girls’ Own” books of the mid-20th century, but I read most of the children’s classics as well, and I like hearing them being the subject of in-depth and serious discussion. I know that some people don’t like detailed analysis of childhood favourites: each to their own, but I do like to talk about them, and I like to think that the authors would be very flattered to know that their books are still were being discussed so many years after they were published. Thank you to Sky Arts for this: we get a lot of adaptations of children’s books, but not that much talk about them. Well, there’s plenty of talk about them in our lovely fora and Facebook groups, but it was nice to have some on TV for a change!
ETA – I’ve gone bang off this since the second episode said that Frances Hodgson Burnett grew up in Leeds. She grew up in Manchester! How on earth did they get that wrong?