Nostalgia, Comfort and Risk in Young Children’s Literature

It would be over-ambitious to try and encapsulate a history of landscape or picturesque landscape painting into this short paper – even the origins of the term landscape have been queried – but following Cosgrove, it is “way of seeing the world,” with “an aspect of meaning that lies beyond science, the understanding of which cannot be reduced to formal processes.” In terms of landscape painting, this ca be seen as an attempt to grasp a “deeper meaning” or to imbue a scene with meaning – so that in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews we are presented with land as managed and ownable. Landscape painting emerges most powerfully in traditional Western Art, Cosgrove asserts, precisely at the point where the political change and tensions of the C18th require it. Prince is bolder: “One appeal of picturesque art was precisely its escape from the stresses and disturbances caused by Agrarian changes” and thus conversation-pieces like Mr and Mrs Andrews or even the considered landscape of Constable’s Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden (NB this link  is to a pencil sketch in the V&A) present visual evidence of human intervention into a natural world.

That there is a further element of the fantastic in the three images I want to discuss does not remove them from this painterly tradition – in fact, there is an interplay between this tradition and the intentions of the Ahlbergs and author and illustrator that I suggest is deliberate. There are, for example, visual borrowings – meandering rivers, church spires seen at a distance, that act as signifiers of location but also as a subtle joke. This is a fantasy land, but this is recognisable England. The same sort of visual reference is made in the illustrations Tolkein made, where the Shire, for all its round doors and houses in hillsides, quotes from a view of rural Englishness that has been recognisable since Gainsborough. To misquote Peter Porter, “this is not Athens, but it may be the woods of Warwickhire.” It is interesting to note, of course , as a sideline, that this is the same device by which Shakespeare’s own rural England becomes fantasy world, and that it is the very same region of Arden that encompasses Tolkein’s childhood. This nostalgia for the rural has an ancient lineage itself: the first-century Roman poet Horace (whose poetry constitutes part of the Classical tradition in English education) discusses his desire to return to his farm and its clear spring water , and the poem continues to have influences in the work of writers such as Wordsworth, Hopkins and Joyce

Here we come close to something like my main argument: in using English landscape, Janet Ahlberg is not only “collecting” – which was the modus operandi behind so much of the detail in her work – landscapes, and English ones were the most accessible but consciously drawing on the conventions –the “easy tricks” as Gombrich calls them of English landscape painting which are themselves echoed in books Janet relished as a child such as Rupert Bear . In the Jolly Postman we have wooden signposts, hills with small fields, the church spire on the horizon; the same landscape appears in the two other books I am considering. I should perhaps mention that I have excluded from my discussion the urban landscapes of any of Cops and Robbers and Burglar Bill, and that in any case this use of landscape is not unique to Janet Ahlberg – we might not only cite Tolkein, but poignantly closer in genre, Allan Ahlberg’s later collaborator, Andre Amstutz.

Siting the Ahlbergs within this tradition is one thing; in seeking to explore the three themes promised by my title, we need to move from this basic stance to look at the issue of why children’s book authors and illustrators set children’s books in the past, exploring why they do so and when that past might be located. I feel that the answer lies in the rise of landscape painting itself. If Prince is right that there is an escapist element to landscape painting, it might be possible to see an element of escapism in the nostalgic representations in the three works under consideration.

In a brief overview of ecocritcism Gifford’s Recent Critiques of Ecocriticism two contrasting models of criticism are put forward, in a context which the author freely admits is rather difficult to define: what has been called the “praise-song school,” in which the individual writers from Thoreau to Mabey are celebrated for their insights can be contrasted with a ‘second wave’ which, to give the briefest of overviews is more aware of its own cultural and political engagement. It is with this interpretative model in mind that we look at Nostalgia and Comfort.

One theory might be that the deliberate nostalgia of the characters in the three books draws on a continuing tradition of setting traditional tales in the past: in Each Peach Pear Plum, for example, the costumes seem to draw on C18th domestic clothing (Mother Hubbard in the cellar, Jack and Jill in the ditch) , and Edwardian hunting clothes of the three bears, with a nod to the mediaeval attire of Robin Hood. The appeal of the C18th and Edwardian periods for these characters/setting could be precisely because they represent possible Golden Ages, the “Good Old Days” to which the dinosaur refers in Jeremiah in the Dark Woods, or at least the eve of radical changes to society, the changes of from rural to urban life experiences in C19th, the societal changes brought about by the war(s) of the C20th. . The appeal of this desire for a return to a golden age in childhood might be, as Coe suggests, that “…it is not so much that the child itself, now an adult, has forever outgrown the splendors [sic] of the past, but rather than civilization and “progress” have annihilated, perhaps totally and irretrievably, an ancient way of life and replaced it with something crude, rootless and modern.” Certainly the use of a dinosaur to express the desire for “the good old days, them good old days as is gone forever” underlines the annihilation of the past.

Another way of seeing these is in terms of the comfort, the reassurance historical continuity can provide. This, again, is not isolated to the Ahlbergs, or to younger children’s literature, and is attested in other children’s writers, for example Rudyard Kipling and Lucy Boston. The latter is very clear:
“Readers of The Children of Green Knowe might suppose Green Knowe was my family home. This is not so. It came to me by accident… My passionate desire that it should have a future made me provide it in the books with such a firm lineage.”

Her description of finding an historical artefact – a beaver’s tooth – is very similar to that of Kipling’s workmen finding Roman remains when digging a new well at Bateman’s, where he claims the genius loci of the valley inspired his seeing key episodes of British history played out on the local scale: Kipling’s comments on his search for “roots” in writing Puck of Pook’s Hill:
I…began to ‘hatch’ in which state I was ‘a brother to dragons and a companion to owls’…The Old Things of our valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been – I saw it at last – in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass.

Both authors point to a need to connect with a past for sureness – and it is perhaps significant, to return to an earlier point, that they both have these experiences overshadowed within a few years by war.
“To all children, and particularly to small children, a love of the past is natural. It is the soil at their roots. They have but recently emerged from the stuff of it. It gives them comfort, security and a pattern”

Her use of land imagery is to be noted; Kipling and Boston share a sense of what Boston calls “racial memory” and represent it in their books. It is possible to see the nostalgic representations in the Ahlbergs in a similar vein – but this is a conjecture; so far the evidence is lacking.

Note that the text prepared for the conference paper was referenced.  Sources and further reading would include

Ahlberg, A. (1996). Janet’s Last Book, Printed for private circulation by the author.

Coe, R. (1984). When the Grass was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Cosgrove, D. (1982). Social formation and symbolic landscape. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Gifford, T (2008).  Recent Critiques of Ecocritcism, New Formations Spring 2006: 64: 15-24

Kipling, R (Library Ed., 1951) Something of Myself. London, MacMillan.

Mabey, R (2006). Nature Cure. London: Pimlico Books.

Prince, H. (1988). Art and Agrarian Change 1710-1815 In Denis Cosgrove, Stephen Daniels. The iconography of landscape. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 98-118.

Rosendale, S. ed (2002). The Greening of Literary Scholarship: literature, theory and the environment. Iowa, University of Iowa Press.

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