Children’s Literature and the Return to Rose

David Rudd

University of Bolton

In discussing the impossibility of children’s fiction, Jacqueline Rose (1984) bases her case on “Peter Pan,” for, as she puts it, this “is the text for children which has made that claim most boldly” – the claim being that “Peter Pan … speaks to and for children, addresses them as a group which is knowable and exists for the book, much as the book (so the claim runs) exists for them” (Rose 1984: 1). But, as she also says, “Peter Pan is that text which most clearly reveals it [the claim] as a fraud … Peter Pan has never … been a book for children at all” (Rose 1984: 1), and goes on to suggest, famously, “the impossibility” of all children’s fiction.  Whilst I agree with much of her thinking – namely, that the child of children’s fiction is a construct; that it is presented as innocent, pure and asexual, as a fetish for adults to disavow their own lack of completeness; that it is also seen standing outside the general slipperiness of language and problems of identity; and, consequently, that it is impossible for any children’s book to speak to and for children as a group – her next step, that children’s fiction is thereby impossible, seems a non sequitur.

In this article I want to return to Rose’s work (which continues to be one of the most quoted texts in children’s literature criticism) for two reasons.  First, to get behind that rallying cry of her subtitle – “the impossibility of children’s fiction” – which tends to be treated either as a truth to be universally acknowledged or else as refutable simply by gesturing to the humanist child (e.g. Chapleau (2004); Hollindale (1991; 1995)[1]; Lesnik-Oberstein (1994; 1998); Rustin (1985); Walsh (2002); Watson (1992)).  To do this I shall begin by re-examining the evidence on which Rose bases her case, noting its own historical positioning.  In particular I shall suggest that she herself, ironically, holds on to a residual notion of the Romantic child, in that children’s fiction is only really impossible if we see children as distinct from adults, standing outside society and language, rather than being actively involved in negotiating meaning.  Secondly, I will suggest that children’s fiction is more viable if we adopt a Bakhtinian inflected approach, which sees the area’s whole development, including “possible” readers, in dialogical terms (Bakhtin 1981).

Let me start, then, by examining some of the evidence on which Rose draws to make her claim.  She uses “Peter Pan” for reasons given at the opening of this paper, claiming that it “has been almost unreservedly acclaimed as a children’s classic for the greater part of this century” (Rose 1984: 4).  However, although she repeatedly refers to it in italics, as though it were a single text, as “the text for children” (quoted above) and as “a children’s book” (1984: 7), she also likes to keep its precise signification vague, and often seems to refer to a whole body of texts, some of them not even by Barrie (for this reason, I have used the more common convention of quotation marks unless mentioning specific titles).  This said, the title of Rose’s monograph suggests that she is not generally alluding to the play as such (which, like most pantomimes, is ostensibly addressed to the whole family), but the “book for children” (1984: 1) which, she says, “has been almost unreservedly acclaimed as a children’s classic” (1984: 4).[2]  Yet this unsubstantiated claim is actually often challenged; thus John Rowe Townsend’s standard history of children’s literature, which Rose quotes elsewhere, says that it is “not a very good book” (Townsend 1976: 107), noting that “the idea of a boy who never grows up” is probably not “as appealing to children as it is to parents,” and accusing Barrie of “winking over the children’s heads to the adults” (106).  So the notion that Barrie’s text “most boldly” makes the claim that it “speaks to and for children” – indeed, that it “exists for them” – has itself been contested.  Earlier criticism may not have taken Rose’s poststructuralist line, but it has certainly not gone unrecognised “that there might be a problem of writing, of address, and of language, in the history of Peter Pan” (Rose 1984: 6).  Her declaration that the novel is “virtually impossible to read,” (1984: 6) then, is not especially new, but does undermine that initial bold claim of hers.

In fact, it is difficult from what Rose says in her book to be sure precisely why “Peter Pan” is such an exemplary “case”; especially if we agree with her statement that it is actually “one of the most fragmented and troubled works in the history of children’s fiction.”  How, then, is it representative?  Rose explains it this way: “Peter Pan is peculiar, and yet not peculiar, in so far as it recapitulates a whole history of children’s fiction” (1984: 11).  Such a seeming contradiction might become clearer when Rose goes on to liken Barrie’s text to a Freudian symptom, “which speaks what it intends, and exactly the opposite, at one and the same time” (1984: 38-9).  “Peter Pan” can therefore be seen to draw attention to the difficulty of taking up “a position of identity in language,” on the one hand, while also standing

for its denial.  The hesitancies of both language and sexuality which have appeared throughout its history cannot be separated from the very force of its image as purity itself, embodied by the eternal child.  Peter Pan seems to have operated constantly on this edge, as if liable at any one moment to offer its disturbance to view but choosing instead to turn the other face of innocence. (1984: 141)

While I would endorse the liminal nature of “Peter Pan” (and we need to realise that she is actually talking about a character here, not a particular text), in no way does this figure seem to be the sole occupant of this no man’s land (or Neverland, perhaps).  Rose herself seems to recognise this at certain points.  For example, elsewhere she draws attention to other children’s works that indulge in “[p]laying with language – in this sense of undercutting its transparency and ease,” but argues that these have “for the most part, been pushed to the outer limits of children’s writing [sic]” (1984: 40).  Here she names Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as key “nineteenth century exceptions.” While Lear might fit this marginalisation – he is seen to be “covered by the fact that he wrote poetry (specifically designated as nonsense)” (1984: 40) – it is certainly not true of Lewis Carroll, whose “Alice” books are seen as central to modern children’s fiction; indeed, numerous histories see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a landmark text; as Harvey Darton (1982: 260) puts it in his standard work, “it was the coming to the surface, powerfully and permanently, the first un‑apologetic appearance in print, for readers who sorely needed it, of liberty of thought in children’s books”, and as originating the “golden age” of children’s literature (Carpenter 1985).  Rose, though, suggests that “Carroll’s multiple use of the pun in Alice is generally recognised as something unique which tended to be related more to the eccentricity, or even madness, of the author” (1984: 40-1), picking up on her earlier, unsupported remark: “it is argued, Dodgson was a ‘schizophrenic’” (1984: 3). [3] Of course, it also needs emphasising that Rose carefully limits herself to children’s fiction and not children’s literature per se. So, apart from removing individual authors that don’t fit her scheme, Rose also sets aside “the order of folklore, nursery rhyme and nonsense which,” as she admits, she has “barely touched” upon (1984: 139). This “whole domain,” she says, is “normally placed in opposition to the canons of narrative fiction in the name of rhythm and play.” She continues:

For as long as the first (rhythm and play) is seen as melody or archaic lore which stretches back in time, and the second (narrative fiction) as the forward progression of advancing literary form, then the challenge of the one to the other, the idea that one might actually erupt inside the other, forcing open the issue of what constitutes continuity in speech, is effectively denied. … Classifying “otherness” in language as infantile or child-like reduces it to a stage which we have outgrown, even if that stage is imbued with the value of something cherished as well as lost. (1984: 139)

As with her claim about “Peter Pan” supposedly speaking to and for children, the “classifying” seems to be Rose’s own.  The notion of language having both symbolic and semiotic aspects (to use Kristeva’s terms (Kristeva 1984), perhaps most famously explored in Dodgson/Carroll’s “Alice”, is part of a tradition that has certainly not been relegated to the nursery; in fact, it is often seen as for more sophisticated readers (e.g. Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding (1918); Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (1945); Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre).  So the idea that “this other side of language,” which is “an explicit challenge or threat to adult forms of speech, has largely been kept out of children’s fiction” (41), once again depends on Rose herself keeping it out (and sticking closely to prose fiction).  She agrees that her account “does not claim to be a general history,” yet it is meant to be “symptomatic and typical” (Rose 1984: 139), whereas to me it seems more partial, often tackling straw figures – a body of people, indeed, that sometimes seems as mythical as the pure and innocent child. 

So, on the one hand we are presented with a grand narrative in which all children’s fiction is seen to be singing the same tune (“Peter Pan … recapitulates a whole history of children’s fiction” (1984: 11)), namely that the child is celebrated as a point of origin and stability, concealing our more fractured and fragmented existence as linguistic beings; yet, on the other hand, we are carefully steered round any “children’s writing” or, indeed, any criticism that might complicate this picture. 

Let me now move away from “Peter Pan” itself in order to consider Rose’s more general claim about what children’s fiction does, before introducing an alternative view, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s work (Bakhtin 1984; Vološinov 1973), [4] in order to reconsider the question of how far children’s fiction should be seen in isolation, let alone as all of a piece.

Rose’s opening claim, that “[c]hildren’s fiction sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child in” (1984: 2), is a good place to start.  In what sense, we might enquire, can the child have “its own process”?  Where, in other words, is the “outside” of its textual representation?  Where, precisely, is this child before it is taken in?   This is where Rose seems to grant the child special status; and not only that: books, too, are privileged.  Yet surely, before any book starts its “soliciting … chase, or … seduction” (1984: 2) of the child, doesn’t all language supposedly addressed to the child address it, specifically, as a child (linguistically constructed though such utterances are bound to be)?  In fact, how is the book’s attempt different from the initial “interpellation” or “hailing” of a subject of which Althusser (1971) speaks (apart from the fact that children must initiate the former, unless the book is read to them)?  In a shift from Rose’s initial vocabulary (of “soliciting” etc), she later describes this difference as follows:

All subjects – adults and children – have finally to take up a position of identity in language; they have to recognise themselves in the first-person pronoun and cohere themselves to the accepted register of words and signs.  But it is the shift of that ‘have to’ from a necessity, which is shared by both adult and child, to something more like a command, which passes from one to the other, that seems to find one of its favourite territories in and around the writing of children’s books. (1984: 141)

It is of particular note that Rose mentions adults here, somewhat misleadingly, in that the process of taking up a position of identity in language occurs in childhood – and, it should be emphasised, under the aegis of adults.  In light of this, the distinction that Rose seeks to draw with the children’s book (“which passes from one to the other”) seems invalid, for both processes involve a similar adult-child interaction.  So, returning to my earlier point, it could be said that the child, as child, is “solicited” from the outset; books simply continue the process in a more formal manner. On this basis, one could legitimately claim that children’s fiction is impossible only in the way that the child itself is; that is, as “an outsider to its own process,” subjected by an alien language. And in this sense, we all are – as, indeed, Lacan’s theory has it (Lacan 1977), from our initial “misrecognition” of ourselves in a mirror image to the empty significations of the Symbolic order.  But equally, there is nowhere else to be.  Yet Rose, for some reason, makes the child a special being, particularly so when it comes to fictional works which, in an ironic echo of Rousseau (1993), she sees as singularly failing to reach them properly.

There are, however, other ways of conceiving children’s fiction which are less insular and discrete than this stereotypical depiction by Rose: “Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter [sic] the space in between” (1984: 1-2).  A Bakhtinian reading of the process, for example, would point to “the space in between” as precisely where things happen (in what he terms “the border zone”), instead of conceiving isolated authors (adults) in “command”, with passive readers (children) in danger of “seduction,” and insular texts waiting to trap readers with their baited “image of the child” (1984: 2).  Bakhtin’s model is far more interactive, with words as the common currency, permitting – indeed, being unable to prohibit – border dialogue.  As Bakhtin expresses it, “A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another.  If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee” (Vološinov 1973: 86).  One cannot, in other words, predict who will use that bridge or for what purposes; adults simply do not have that control.  But, from first taking “verbal shape” as a person, one is eligible to respond, regardless of whether it is to another person, to a fiction, a rhyme, a drama, or whatever.   More precisely, Bakhtin’s dialogism (Bakhtin 1981) argues that: (a) we are forever in dialogue with texts from our own particular historical and social location (e.g. as a child, male, middle-class, Northerner, fan of science fiction, etc); and (b) these different discursive affiliations interact with a text that is itself made up of different discursive elements; in Bakhtin’s terms it has “multiaccentuality” (Vološinov 1973) or “heteroglossia” (Bakhtin 1981), such that a work is always dynamic, always subject to struggles over its signification.[5]  In this model children’s fiction is always and forever possible, though its effectivity can never be fully gauged. 

With this in mind, let me return to my point about Rose artificially separating out a particular version of children’s fiction from the historical landscape of children’s literature.  Some areas, such as poetry and nonsense (alongside nursery rhyme and folklore), have already been mentioned.  Rose is also largely silent about dramatic productions of “Peter Pan” – which would complicate her narrative, especially as drama involves far more overt collusion between adults and children, and frequently quite sexualised children at that (see, for example, Steedman’s (1995) work on Goethe’s Mignon and her real-life progeny; or the “Pantomime Waifs” discussed by Walkowitz (1992)).  And what she does write is often misleading; for instance, her claim that “Barrie … did not write the play until twenty-four years after its first production” – as though the acting scripts (of which there were many!) were not written, hence do not count.  Rose actually means published rather than written.  Moreover, she then pronounces that, as its publication appeared in a volume of collected plays, Peter Pan (the play) “had nothing to do with children” – before declaring, significantly in a parenthesis, that “this was the main publication although in the same year it was printed on its own” (1984: 6).[6]  In both cases, versions more for oral use – stagings of the play – are conveniently erased.

The neglect of a more oral, plebeian tradition in histories of children’s literature has been quite common, so in some ways Rose might be forgiven, but less so when they involve “Peter Pan” itself.   She certainly follows the standard line of tracing the origins of children’s fiction back to Rousseau, Locke and the (male) Romantic child, which, in a Whiggish way, tends to produce its own truth effects; namely, that “Peter Pan comes at the end of a long history, one which can be traced back to the beginnings of children’s fiction” (1984: 8) – although this end is rather premature, given that children’s fiction is still being written (and Rose does discuss some more recent work).  Given this genealogy (to use Foucault’s helpful term (Foucault 1977)), the child can easily be read as being at one with nature, beginning as a blank slate outside the complexities of language, hence requiring vocabulary that is simple and transparent.  But as I’ve already hinted, such a history neglects many other discourses and their allied forms, which can also inform the development of children’s literature:[7] folktales and chapbooks (Lynn and Preston 1996; Neuberg 1977; Spufford 1987), jokes and games (Thomas 1989), Bible stories (Bottigheimer 1996), penny dreadfuls (Turner 1957), comics (Barker 1989), and so forth – some of which, as Rose herself notes (but does not challenge), might tell a different story (see, for example, Cox 1996; Hilton 1997; Leeson 1985; Myers 1995; O’Malley 2003, Ruwe 2005). 

Andrew O’Malley (2003), for instance, has recently detailed some of the countervailing tendencies involved in the attempt of an emergent middle class to appropriate and redefine the child as part of its struggle to consolidate its own class position, and to distance itself (and, in the process, the child too) from older, plebeian interests; that is, in terms of communal pleasures, bawdiness, the scatological, the supernatural, romance and the like – all of which were common chapbook material.  O’Malley particularly reacts to earlier oversimplifications of this narrative which “tend to draw attention away from the material conditions in which children’s books were (and continue to be) produced” (2003: 20).

His argument is subtly nuanced, showing how notions of self-improvement and self-regulation, of deferred gratification, of accepting one’s place in the scheme of things, being deferential to one’s superiors (and to adults in general) were all themes of this burgeoning literature; but he also notes that such notions were never fully secured.  For instance, in what he terms “hybrid” or “transitional” books, like those of Newbery or Marshall, he draws attention to the “residual” chapbook elements.  A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), for example, still features the chapbook hero Jack the Giant-Killer, albeit in more sanitised form (23). The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, aside from championing middle-class virtues also has its fantastic, fairy tale elements.  We see Little Goody teach some birds to read, then gradually extend her power over the non-human world to other animals, which carry out chores for her at her school.  As O’Malley (2003: 25) comments on these developments:

Her powers of instruction have by now reached supernatural proportions, and her magical empathy towards animals coincides much more closely with popular chapbook constructions of reality than with either those of novelistic realism, of [sic] the level-headed, practical, middle-class figure Goody originally embodied.

Goody ends up “a hero of almost mythical proportions to the underprivileged of her community, receiving the sort of adoration reserved for such chapbook figures as Robin Hood or King Arthur” (2003: 25).  In his conclusion O’Malley notes that “[c]hapbooks, and the plebeian culture they articulated, continued to thrive throughout the nineteenth century, even within the middle-class nursery” (2003: 135).  

While he is certainly right to embed the development of children’s literature in these material circumstances as part of larger social and economic trends, I would not want to lose sight of other discourses that were also contesting the figure of the child both at this time and later into the nineteenth century (to invite it in, and to secure it, to use Rose’s terms): discourses of religion, pedagogy, gender, biology, evolution, anthropology, and so on.  So while the English middle class was to become relatively secure under Victoria, the threat to the child (and the threat of the child) would continue to surface in various guises, with equally fervent attempts to “normalize” this figure (to use O’Malley’s Foucauldian terminology).  Harry Hendrick (1990), for example (who usefully details the range of versions of “the child” circulating in nineteenth century Britain), quotes a telling instance from 1855, where a certain M.D. Hill comments on a troublesome youth who “knows much and a great deal too much of what is called life,” concluding: “He has consequently much to unlearn – he has to be turned again into a child” (cited in Hendrick 1990: 43).  It is a curious comment, mixing notions of there being a “natural” childhood with a simultaneous recognition that it is a socially constructed state, one which, given the right circumstances, can be engineered.

So, following the lead of O’Malley and others, it is suggested that rather than continue to rehearse grand narratives about the origins of children’s fiction/ literature, we need to probe more carefully the materiality of texts and their often conflicting and unstable discourses.  In broad terms these can be reduced to, on the one hand, an attempt to make children’s texts more sober, realistic, class specific, gendered and moral (“monological,” in Bakhtin’s terms) while, on the other, celebrating behaviour that disrupts such seriousness: in nonsense, fantasy, the oral, the plebeian, the feminine – in short, in anything “other” (i.e. more overtly “dialogical” texts). 

While we can talk about the early construction of a children’s literature only in broad terms, our knowledge becomes increasingly detailed in more recent times, where an oral dimension persists.  On the composing side there are both the amateur improvisations by parents, especially at bedtime (often a time of carnivalesque licence – see Tucker 1990), and the more polished, professionally produced texts that have developed out of such personal storytelling.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865; Carroll 2003), of course, and The Wind in the Willows (1908; Grahame 2007) are two famous examples, but there are others, although their background is often lost sight of.  Thus it is of particular note that Rose can claim that “Peter Pan was not originally intended for children” because “[i]t first appeared inside a novel for adults … The Little White Bird” (1984: 5).  In other words, Rose prioritises a written, published text (1902), making this the defining moment, rather than Barrie’s earlier oral storytelling to the Llewellyn Davies’ children, in which children’s pre-birth existence as birds featured.  The privately published photo-story, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island (1901), also featuring the children, is likewise neglected in her statement above, albeit Rose later – and rather contradictorily – concedes that it “almost constitutes a second source book for Peter Pan” (1984: 29).

On the consumption side there is the continual process of adults (parents, teachers, and so on) customising and editing their readings to children (again, in which extracts from The Little White Bird could well feature), let alone children themselves reworking stories.  Mention of the latter moves us from what might be termed the more top-down oral elements to those more peer generated: initiation and insult rituals, riddles, jokes, playground rhymes and the like (as recorded by the Opies and others (e.g. Opie and Opie 1959; Schwartz 1989; Sutton-Smith 1995; Turner 1969) which, in line with the increasing separation of children from adult culture and the development of a state education system, became consolidated as children’s own.

So, while Rose is eloquent in writing about how different classes of child were addressed in different published versions of “Peter Pan”, she has little to say about the dialogical influence of more oral, “lowly” elements in the work’s gestation – as noted above and detailed by Andrew Birkin (1979).  For instance, in Barrie’s own dedication to the play, “To the Five [i.e. Llewellyn Davies’ children],” he declares that “[t]he play of Peter is streaky with you still,” claiming that it was written “by rubbing the five of you violently together” (Barrie 1995: 75).  Aside from these there are other oral, plebeian influences that helped shape the play, tapping into folklore and popular tale, and the carnivalesque tradition of pantomime, with its outlandish costumes, its profanities, its celebration of the body and sexuality in innuendo and cross-dressing, and its collective (rather than individual) authorship/production, many of which qualities survive in Barrie’s novelisation. 

More generally, then, I am suggesting that there are competing discourses at work in any text, some of which might be more conventionally accented towards “adults”, some towards “children”, but that this is always open to contestation (as I’ve suggested with The Little White Bird).  What might be suggested is that, given children’s frequent association with “the other,” with the colonised rather than the coloniser, sympathies are more likely to lie with the underdog, with that which subverts authority.  How individual children respond is a different matter again – but the process cannot be ruled “impossible” on principle. 

There are other implications of viewing children’s literature in this way, which help explain another matter that Rose addresses; namely, why modernism had such little impact on children’s fiction:

When Peter Pan was being written, this concept of language had been challenged not just by Freud, but also by a shift in the adult novel which started to turn its attention to the throes of the written word. Meanwhile, children’s fiction held out, and Peter Pan passed through unscathed (the most innocent object of all). (1984: 65)

Before considering this issue in detail, it is worth noting that when Rose speaks of the “adult novel” she, too, means not simply “adult” but, specifically, that of the middle-class intelligentsia; in other words, it is the modernist literary novel to which she refers – not novels for adults in general (which we might also claim are an “impossibility”).  The latter were in the main either more middle- or low-brow (and, it should be noted, far more popular, extending from authors like H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, to which Virginia Woolf took special exception, down to the more ephemeral works, such as those of Ethel M. Dell and Sax Rohmer – see Bloom, 2002).  For most “adult” novel readers, modernism (as an aesthetic movement – not modernity itself) passed them by, just as had earlier movements, only percolating through by osmosis.  But it would be wrong to see this as simply ignorance on the part of the masses; for, as John Carey (1992) has argued, in celebrating their elitism the proponents of modernism positively dismissed the masses; and, of course, children were part of this great excluded.  The pointed manifestoes of Henry James (1884/ 1963) and others, such as George Moore (1885), are key moments in this process of producing aesthetically crafted fictional works which were seen as specifically beyond the reach of women and children; as the latter puts it,

all I ask is that some means may be devised by which the novelist will be allowed to describe the moral and religious feelings of his day as he perceives it [sic] to exist, and to be forced no longer to write with a view of helping parents and guardians to bring up their charges in all the traditional beliefs. (Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals (1885), quoted in Hughes 1978: 547-8).

Thus it was not so much that “children’s fiction held out”, as Rose put it, as that modernism deliberately distanced itself from what it saw as the restrictive world of children’s writing – itself linked to earlier notions of family reading and strongly plotted stories, as celebrated by R. L. Stevenson and others.[8]  However, there is an irony here, in that the adult novel, in turning its attention “to the throes of the written word,” found some inspiration in the work of children’s writers, particularly Carroll/Dodgson (once again) and, as Juliet Dusinberre (1987) has argued, especially in Virginia Woolf’s case.  From Carroll Woolf learnt how events could be presented imagistically, how language itself could become the story rather than a transparent window on an underlying reality – again, contrary to Rose’s pronouncement, above, that children’s writing “held out … unscathed.”  Once again, a dialogical notion of literary influence is likely to make these connections more apparent, instead of seeing adult and children’s literature operating in separate spheres (and, of course, adults did write them all).

As is clear from the above quotation, Rose’s brings in modernism as a stick to beat what she saw as reactionary writing for children (although Barrie would seem a poor choice, with his playful, almost post-modern approach to literary creation – see Jack 1991).  And this is why it is important to position Rose’s own work, which chimed with many concurrent concerns about language that modernism seemed to address.  The 1970s and early 1980s were a time when French theory was having its first major impact on English literary studies, with many British academics themselves going to study in France (Rose being one).  Many of their emergent ideas first appeared in the film theory journal, Screen, which combined the psychoanalytic work of Lacan with Althusser’s Marxism and Brecht’s notion of Verfremdungseffekt (i.e. “alienation effect” – the process of disrupting notions of verisimilitude).  The series under which Rose’s book was launched, “Language Discourse, Society,” pointedly declared:

Working from recent advances in linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis and theory of ideology, this series is committed to forwarding an adequate account of the effective reality of meaning, sign, subject in the relations of signifying practices and formations. (quoting the dust-jacket)

It was edited by Stephen Heath and Colin MacCabe, the latter being particularly famous for his 1974 essay criticising the “classic realist” text, wherein the narrator effectively controls the story and its interpretation through “telling” rather than “showing,” suturing all the discourses into a unified hierarchy that is particularly evident in a story’s ideological closure (often the “happy ending”); and where characters and their actions are seen as reflecting reality – rather than as linguistic constructs – especially in the way that they are depicted as having stable and knowable selves.  All this was seen to help endorse the reader’s/ viewer’s own sense of agency and autonomous selfhood.  As Tony Pinkney (1989: 21) puts it (albeit rather facetiously):

The “classic realist” text confirmed the subject in a position of ideological plenitude, papering over social and psychic contradictions; the avant-garde text, packed chock-a-block with alienation-effects, would disrupt and disseminate such fixities. … Ideology in its Althusserian version expanded to devour the entire terrain of lived experience – which only the dessicating [sic] algorithms of Theory or the “internally distantiating” violence of the Modernist work could break free of.

Catherine Belsey (1980), following Barthes’ categorisation of “readerly” and “writerly” texts, also talks of the “classic realist” text against which she juxtaposes the “interrogative” text, which foregrounds exactly the issues of language and identity that concern Rose.  And, for many, a new hierarchy (or canon) of texts was established, with James Joyce’s linguistic experiments being seen at the pinnacle – as Colin MacCabe (1978) argues in his James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word, which also appeared in the “Language, Discourse, Society” series, and was itself dismissive of earlier, realist readings of Joyce (it is also worth noting, of course, that Carroll’s “Alice” books are some of the commonest intertexts in Finnegans Wake).

For the attentive reader of Rose, much of this should sound familiar – particularly the call for a fiction that draws attention to the written word (rather than seeing it as transparent); that recognises language’s constitutive role in constructing reality, conferring a gendered sexuality and giving the illusion of a stable identity; and that rejects the notion of a closure wherein all discourses neatly cohere, providing readers with a sense of security in a solid world into which they can easily situate themselves.  Finally, and most importantly, all these writers are united in celebrating the modernist (i.e. interrogative) text as the one that achieves such disruptive, progressive effects.  The exclusivity of Rose’s position comes across at a number of points, but perhaps most overtly when she calls for a different reading of Freud.  Although she suggests a more open, poststructuralist interpretation of his work, her emphatic wording ironically hints at a more prescriptive agenda: “We have been reading the wrong Freud to children. … We have been reading the wrong Freud to children” (1984: 12-13; the repetition is hers) – as though Lacan’s polemical, linguistic “return to Freud” were the answer for literary critics, children’s writers and parents alike.

Since this time there have been a number of other developments, aside from those in children’s literature studies.  Modernism, for example, has itself been recognised as a far broader and more complex phenomenon (“modernisms,” as Peter Nicholls (1995) puts it).  Secondly, work in cultural studies especially, where theoretical insights have been melded to the experiences of groups of readers/ viewers, has involved a modification of the rather exclusive stance taken before; in particular, there has been more openness towards popular or “low culture.”[9] Lastly, as numerous studies in this area have shown, despite the conservative form of much “low” culture, it does not thereby follow that it is politically and ideologically moribund – any more than avant garde, interrogative texts are by definition progressive (those of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound come to mind).  Many, indeed, have argued for dissident and utopian qualities in the former, especially where account is taken of their modes of consumption (e.g. Bakhtin (1981; 1984); Bloch (1988); Bourdieu (1984); Dyer (1981); Jameson (1979); Modleski (1988); Radway (1987); Zipes (1983)).  Bakhtin’s work (some of whose key texts were not translated into English until the 1980s) has been especially influential and, following on from the above, it can be argued that his approach shows how texts are far more “interrogative” in the sense that they draw attention to their origins in conflicting and competing discourses, with readers abetting this by providing their own answering words, populating texts with their own intentions and accents.[10]

This seems to be the case regardless of how “monological” an author might intend a text to be, as this extract from “Symon’s Lesson of Wisdom for all Manner Children,” part of the fifteenth century The Babees’ Book, shows:

Child, climb not over house nor wall
For no fruit nor birds nor ball.
Child, over men’s houses no stones fling
Nor at glass windows no stones sling.
Nor make no crying, jokes nor plays
In holy Church on holy days.
And child, I warn thee of another thing,
Keep thee from many words and wrangling.

And but thou do, thou shalt fare worse
And thereto be beat on the bare erse. (Townsend 1976: 4-5)

While authority can be seen wagging its finger, the author simultaneously provides a list of pranks for a child’s delectation (in what Foucault (1981: 101-2) elsewhere terms a “reverse” discourse).  There also seems to be a recognition by the speaker that this might be a consequence, hence the physical deterrent is made explicit at the end – though the phrasing might undermine this message too.  So, though the child might be mute in this rhyme, the adult certainly writes in anticipation of a child response (as Bakhtin/Vološinov (1973) conceived it).  In fact, we might note similarities with more recent stories which end thus; that is, those in twentieth century comics, both American and British, where children regularly engaged in delinquent behaviour before finally being “upended and made to sparkle from behind,” as James Kincaid (1992: 365) colourfully expresses it.  Once again, while such ideological closure might be seen to re-establish parental authority (admittedly, in far more open, dialogical texts), it is unruliness that is celebrated for most of the strip (a time of carnivalesque license); moreover, the final, punitive frame is often itself ambivalent: on the one hand, authority triumphs over the humiliated child but, on the other, a pair of buttocks moons cheekily at such authority.

So while there are countless attempts to construct monological texts, they are always subject to rupture in the ways that I have suggested (if that is, one accepts Bakhtin’s pragmatic theory of humans being forever refracted through language, just as language is itself refracted, or inflected, by socially located beings).  Contra Rose, then, Barrie’s “Peter Pan” is by no means exceptional in its seeming failure to cohere, to achieve a mono-logic of address.

To conclude, I have argued that Rose’s work, revolutionary as it has been, needs to be examined more critically by children’s literature scholars, and situated within its own historical context.  It does not itself represent closure, the end of children’s literature and children’s literary criticism in some impossible, insurmountable aporia, as some have suggested.[11] To become fixated on the area’s impossible status is, in effect, to hold on to remnants of a Romantic child figure: a being that somehow stands apart from the general language community so that it either cannot be addressed (unlike more mature readers) or, if it can, its responses cannot be known.  To turn this round, children’s fiction thereby becomes peculiar as one of the few forms of communication unable to address the child.  Of course, a Bakhtinian approach does not presume to prejudge the success of any such communication (and they proffer very different versions of the child), any more than it outlaws texts that sometimes seem to migrate from one readership to another – as “Peter Pan” arguably has, or Gulliver’s Travels, or, indeed, “Harry Potter.”


[1] The complete omission of Rose’s work from Hollindale’s Signs of Childness in Children’s Books, which takes an essentialist view of childhood (in biological, psychological and emotional terms), is perhaps most indicative.

[2] Also, Rose elsewhere claims that the play in book form “had nothing to do with children” (1984: 6) – see later in essay.

[3] It might be such remarks that prompted Perry Nodelman’s criticism of Rose for her gullibility in accepting some of the “ridiculous comments that writers and critics make about children’s books” (Nodelman 1985: 99).  A later endnote, pertaining to Rose’s quotation about the nature of the pun (Rose 1984: 41), does mention three early psychoanalytical readings of Alice (1930s-40s), but schizophrenia is not mentioned.  She does, though, criticise them for being “psychobiographically” oriented (1984: 146); significantly, only one exception is mentioned, despite the wealth of material that prefers a textual to a biographical approach (e.g. Blake (1974), Flescher (1969), Massey (1976), Rackin (1966), Sewell (1952), Stewart (1978)).

[4]  I am following Bakhtin’s translator, Michael Holquist (1981), in presuming that Bakhtin also wrote Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, although it appeared under Vološinov’s name. However, this claim is disputed (see Clark and Holquist (1984); Holquist (2002); Dentith (1995)).

[5] What I have elsewhere termed ‘discursive threads’ – see Rudd (2000), especially pp. 13-18.

[6] This separate “printing” (which sounds more a separate publication) is, perhaps also significantly, not mentioned in her otherwise full bibliography of “Peter Pan” publications.

[7] Which is not to say that that this oral tradition should be seen “in the sense of some spontaneous and unspoilt form of expression which speaks for itself,” to borrow Rose’s apposite words (1984: 40).

[8] There were, then, comparatively few writers who wrote ‘modernist’ children’s texts, and those that were tended to be composed by writers pursuing a specifically modernist aesthetic, for example, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, and Eugene Ionesco (Reynolds 2007).  However, once again, it needs stating that this state of affairs was not true everywhere; for example, in Russian literature we find modernism far more in evidence in the children’s work of writers such as Daniil Kharms, Vladimir Lebedev and Samuil Marshak (Pankenier 2006).

[9] MacCabe himself was later to edit the collection High Theory/Low Culture (1986).  However, it still did not discuss popular literature, only television and film.

[10] I have given examples elsewhere of children’s “dissident” readings of texts, whether by accident or design (Rudd 2000; 2004).

[11] Towards the end of her critique of children’s literature criticism, Lesnik-Oberstein (1994: 167) writes: “We have now left children’s literature criticism behind us… arguing that it cannot be reformulated from its present position into taking account of the varying constructions of the ‘child’.  This is bound to raise two important questions: the first will be asked in a practical spirit by those people who now feel lost with respect to (their) children and books, and who will want to know how to deal with giving books to children if children’s literary criticism is disposed of… .”  This said, her more recently edited work, Children’s Literature: New Approaches (Lesnik-Oberstein 2004), does present more of an engagement with texts ostensibly for children.

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