Today’s post is brought to you by a rather severe bout of insomnia last night. My apologies both for length and for any incoherence as a result; I got a little carried away. But I think you’ll love this book, so I’m posting it anyway.
The last time I was at the Library of Alexandria II– by which I mean, of course, The Children’s Book Shop, I had an interesting chat with the owner about the life of a bookseller and book shop owner. It sounded to me half exalted fun of the highest order, and half a life of such anxieties whereof a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist knows nothing. Our chat being concluded, I walked away with, among other treasures, this little book: The Golden Age, by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. I’m not linking you to anything, because you really do want to make sure you get a copy illustrated by Shepard, and I can’t find a decent link to that. Just promise me you’ll get a properly illustrated edition, not the first random result Amazon throws up for you. Go to a good independent bookstore and ask for their help finding the right thing. I mean, just look at this lovely cover:
Now, I first came across The Golden Age in a reference Neil Gaiman made to it years ago on his online journal– this is the entry in question. It’s not much, but it doesn’t take much to intrigue me. In particular, I was caught by the line: “[…] The Golden Age and Dream Days, Grahame’s beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood, are long forgotten.” Forgotten golden days of Victorian childhood? What an appealing vision! For several years, that was all I knew about it: I never ran into a copy at any book shop or library, and, I confess, busy with my work, I didn’t seek it out. And then, chatting with Terri at the Children’s Book Shop, I was saying something like, “I think I really need a collection of stories to read, not a novel, something I can put down easily while I’m writing, but can pick up and read a page or two here and there when I have time…” And then I glanced over, our eyes met, and The Golden Age whispered, “Here I am!”
So, I bought it, and I’ve been slowly reading it over the past few weeks, doling out paragraphs and pages and stories like particularly good chocolates you want to savour a bit at a time.
And what do I think of those “beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood”? Well, here’s the thing. I’d still like to read them, because I haven’t yet. I loved the book I read, and I adore and even revere Neil Gaiman, but I don’t think that he and I read the same book. In fact, I’d go so far as to ask whether the book I read was even a children’s book.
An aside here: Kenneth Grahame’s (currently) more famous book, The Wind in the Willows might be a children’s book (it is), but I think it’s a children’s book which should come with a requirement that it be re-read at least once after the child reader has grown to adulthood. I think the same thing is true of everything I’ve read by Eleanor Farjeon (author of The Little Bookroom, and, well, she’s the person I want to be when I grow up). So, it’s possible that a book require reading both as a child and an adult. But my question is whether The Golden Age even be a good read for a child, or at what age it becomes a good read. (Caveat as expressed in two old posts: Ages and Why I don’t mention them often; Too young, too old)
So, with all those asides tickling the corner of our minds, let’s return to the question: Is The Golden Age a children’s book? By the same token, and on a somewhat related note, are they “beautiful, gentle tales of Victorian childhood”? Let’s go through the reasons “yes” and “no” for each.
First of all, let’s have a think about the world our stories are set in. Here: think about Rey after leaving Jakku looking out of the Millennium Falcon at her first sight of Takodana: “I didn’t know there was so much green in all the galaxy,” she breathes, face filled with wonder. (Yes, I’m mixing my genres. I have my reasons. My reasons might possibly include affection both for children’s literature and Star Wars.) The Golden Age is like that: lush green, pastoral– I might go so far as to say idyllic. It’s the kind of world you think about as being purely English: the creeping green mist which fills the world of The Secret Garden in the spring, the greenery of which the Greenwitch is built in Greenwitch, and Mr. McGregor’s garden in Peter Rabbit all come to mind. Maybe J. J. Abrams was on a British literature kick when he wrote that line; I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ask him. But The Golden Age definitely belongs to a long line of lush, pastoral books set in the British countryside.
Of course, The Secret Garden also deals with everything from an outbreak of cholera to a neglected and overprotected boy-turned-invalid (and I haven’t even mentioned Mary); Greenwitch fights off the Dark with the overwhelming and impersonal powers of the natural world who care nothing for good or evil and threaten to overrun the entire human world; and Peter Rabbit narrowly escapes being baked into a pie.
Idyllic? Maybe not.
I mentioned Rey before. Young and relatively innocent, if no fool, she’s thrilled to see greenery in a new part of the galaxy. That is, the adventure is thrilling until, not long after, she touches Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, it calls to her, and she finds herself unwillingly propelled into a war she hadn’t thought was hers.
Idyllic? Definitely not. But then we don’t expect an idyll in Star Wars, you might remind me.
True enough. But then why do we expect an idyll, or gentleness, from the author of The Wind in the Willows? Is it the greenery, the livestock, the rabbits, the sweetness of an English spring? And is it really gentle?
Answer: No, not really. Don’t get me wrong: there is beauty, and there is some gentleness. There’s a darling story, for example, of the youngest girl out playing with her two dolls. She can’t get them to sit together quite right, and finally a dog springs out and seizes one of her dolls and runs away. But, we’re given to understand throughout, that doll had thoroughly deserved its fate: it was a most badly-behaved Japanese boy-doll who had been mercilessly, well, to be blunt, hitting on the proper English girl-doll, even harassing her by tumbling over face-first into her lap– the horror!
Or think of another story where the eldest of the brood, Edward, finds he has a passionate affection for a little girl who lives nearby. His brother, our narrator, is horrified by this crush and sets himself to seriously thinking through how to remedy matters. The situation, however, is taken out of his hands when his Aunt Eliza carelessly mentions in front of the little girl how Edward is rather ungentlemanly in his dislike for girls. The young object of Edward’s love takes the next opportunity to stick her tongue out at him in retaliation for his cruelty to her sex, thus shattering his love and causing him to break out into shenanigans such as smoking a deserted cigar he finds in the road.
Hilarious, yes, but gentle and beautiful? Neil, if you’re reading this, I’d absolutely love to hear you defend your position: tell me how you think these stories are gentle. (Also, if you’re reading this, Neil, I just want to tell you that I think your writing has made the world a better place, and I wish you continued success.) In my view, gentleness is raised only to be continually crushed: in fact, the entire premise of the work is bloodthirsty. There is continual combat between “the Olympians” (the grownups) and the children. The children are tricksy and clever, but the Olympians have the advantages of rule and order. Almost every story at some point revolves around disobeying the Olympians in another little battle over, say, the times tables or attending lessons. And the great overarching anxiety of the stories? Ah, well, that’s the onrushing of time… one day the children, too, will enter the realm of the Olympians.
All right, I think I’ve made my point that the stories aren’t so gentle. But I also said above that I wondered whether they were even for children. Why did I say that? And, no, I don’t think it’s the bloodthirstiness: kids love that sort of thing. But the end of childhood I mentioned above? That might prove a bit mysterious and obscure to them.
Here’s the thing: I’m used to reading stories which reveal more and more as you grow older and older, but which are still children’s stories at heart. The classic example is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), but I tend to think of the Moomin stories (quaint stories about cute creatures when you’re a kid, but dealing with issues like depression and hypochondria from an adult point of view) or, yes, The Secret Garden (where does Mary disappear to towards the end?) in that regard. So my question is whether The Golden Age fits into this category of story, or whether it’s altogether pitched to an older audience. And my answer is that I’m just not sure.
I think it takes us back to my conversation with Terri at the Children’s Book Shop: What’s the life of a bookseller or book shop owner like? Half joy at sharing books with others, with matching the right book to the right person; half anxiety upon the shoulders of other anxieties. The right kid at the right age will probably find a lot to enjoy in The Golden Age: the pranks and games the kids get up to are amusing– playing at being Argonauts, sneaking out to try to find a battle to watch, and scaring their new tutor in the night by re-enacting a murder as they look for biscuits in the night. And yet, so much of the humour of these stories lies either in obscure stories and Greek and Latin phrases, or else in the perspective of the adult in writing these stories: the inexorable motion of time in drawing the delights and dangers of childhood to an end, as the eldest boy, Edward, moves steadily closer to the day which will at last see him sent out to school.
So, what’s the final verdict on The Golden Age? In case I hadn’t made it clear, this is a delightful book of stories, and you should absolutely read it. What I’m not so sure of is whether it’s good bedtime reading for, say, a six-year-old. Try it, maybe, with an 8-10-year-old instead. Or just enjoy reading it by yourself first and make your own judgment. Or do what my parents did with books– leave them scattered around and see what attracts your nosy children. Kids have an almost unerring instinct for what book is right for them.
And if any of you do have a child who reads these stories, please tell me what they think. I’d be fascinated to know.