Carpenter interprets the classic works for children from Lewis Carroll’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND to A.A. Milne’s WINNIE THE POOH by interweaving social history, biographical criticism, and textual analysis. He concludes that the works of Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and others share a dissatisfaction with contemporary social, moral, and religious values, a dissatisfaction transformed into a search for alternatives. These alternatives appear in imaginative landscapes: secret gardens, forests of humanized animals, timeless and obligation-free kingdoms.
Carpenter identifies two groups among the classic writers: the destroyers (Carroll, George MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott, and Charles Kingsley), who ridicule adult values, especially faith in institutional religion; and the Arcadians (Potter, Grahame, A. A. Milne, and James M. Barrie), who invent coherent, attractive alternate worlds.
Several factors connect these writers. They were dismayed by the social and economic upheavals caused by industrialization. They inherited Romanticism’s vision of the child as innate goodness fated to corruption by growing up. They rejected the Christian churches as reliable moral guides and dismissed theology as wish fulfillment.
Carpenter’s analysis shows the complex circumstances out of which even deceptively simple works such as PETER RABBIT grew. It suggests why children’s literature of the Golden Age remains beloved reading for adults as well as adolescents.
Inevitably in a study of this kind there are omissions. Carpenter fails to discuss works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN (how ironic!) which seem to fit its thesis. Nevertheless, SECRET GARDENS is an eminently readable survey which synthesizes much interesting information; it should appeal to the general reader as well as to the specialist.