Children’s Books: Fantasy, Gothics & Happy Endings
A young girl moves to a lonely house in the desolate countryside, and finds her surroundings utterly alien, and increasingly mysterious.
The really big mystery is that she keeps hearing someone making alarming sounds. The girl, becoming understandably upset, starts asking some questions.
GIRL: Mabel, did you hear something?
MABEL: Ahahaha, no, nothing, nothing at all!
GIRL: I definitely just heard a creepy noise.
CREEPY NOISE: creepily noises.
GIRL: That creepy noise.
MABEL: Oh, that creepy noise? Um. Probably a servitor!
GIRL: A servitor?
MABEL: Could be rats!
GIRL: Screaming rats?
MABEL: I’ll go call the exterminator.
The girl feels perhaps people are not being entirely honest with her.
Then the revelation is made, the Gothic heart of the house is opened, and we see inside to the secret of the manor – the mad Mrs Rochester.
Or, of course, the invalid Colin Craven.
I read Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden at about the same time, and I was almost uncomfortably aware of how similar they were. Since the Gothic tradition dictates that the secret room has something monstrous in it – bits of Bluebeard’s wives, don’t look behind the veil in Castle Udolpho. Probably best not to go near the castle and to spend the night at a holiday inn.
Spending the night at a holiday inn does not make for a good story.
Nor does the hundredth re-tread of ‘Oh my God behind the door how horrible I fear I just soiled my pantalettes!’
Now Mrs Rochester and Colin both count as monsters. One has inherited (and drunk her way faster to) madness from her mother, and has in consequence of her madness become physically grotesque and murderous. Colin, while a much more milquetoast monster, thinks he’s inherited his father’s hunchback, and is legitimately a very sickly kid. Plus he’s deranged enough by physical weakness and a truly morbid imagination to have become a shrunken Gollum-like creature brooding over his dead mother’s portrait and peering around his dark little world with his dead mother’s eyes huge in his ashen face. And he’s got a house full of adults, including the doctor who is Colin’s social equal (and indeed his cousin), in his power. Because he’s psychologically tormented, his instinct is to torment, which for me is a pretty good working definition of a monster.
We get plenty of sympathy for the monsters in adult fiction. In Frankenstein and Interview with the Vampire put out a bucket because it’s raining Authorial Sympathy. But in the more static world of adult fiction, that doesn’t change anything. Sympathetic or not, the monster is doomed. Frankenstein’s creation goes into the ice. Bertha Rochester leaps into the fire. The monster often actually commits suicide or at least sows the seed for its eventual destruction by its very nature.
And Colin is on course. He’s practically willing himself to death, death is his secret and his one obsession. He’s killing himself like the other monsters.
It doesn’t happen. The monster is reformed. The monster is reclaimed, and the monstrous energies (largely Colin’s imagination) are not destroyed but used in positive rather than negative ways. (Claiming the monster also, and more literally, happens in Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.)
Horrible things often happen in children’s fiction. Parents have about the same life expectancy as a little piggy in a straw house. But children’s fiction is a genre with a lot of hope in it, a promise of resilience, and in the end, I hold with neither fire nor ice. I am a sucker for a happy ending.
There’s a line of a poem (The City In Which I Love You) which goes ‘We were diminished. We were not spared. There was no pity.’ A lot of adult novels have this problem, particularly Gothicky ones: they have Manderley or Thornfield burn. And this lack of hope diminishes a novel, which is sad since Gothic-themed novels are otherwise immensely good reads. I really like the abundance of hope in children’s fiction, where Misselthwaite does not burn, where perhaps Dr. Jekyll can stop taking the potion and suggest that Mr Hyde, you know, get laid more often. And take salsa lessons.
Children’s fiction also features the Good Strong Cliche. Of course it does, it’s closely linked with fairytales. Children’s fiction is always giving us the Perfect Dead Mother (Mrs Craven, Lily Potter) and the Mother of The World Figure (Mrs Sowerby, Mrs Weasley) and the Aged Sage (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Professor Ketterley). It’s also always giving us the Wicked Temptress. If an adult woman’s around being hot and Not A Good Mother, she is bad, bad news. Oh, her implication of sexuality brings all the boys to the yard. Damn right, it’s more evil than yours. We haven’t just got the White Witch and her faux seduction of Edmund, possibly excusable because C.S. Lewis was a Nutbar Christian.
I also read The Neverending Story the other day because my roommate kindly brought it home for me, and literally the only humanish female in the book (aside from Bastian’s Perfect Dead Mother) is Xayide.
Q: Is Xayide an evil sorceress who pretends affection for our Child Hero in order to corrupt and betray him? By the way, is she also super fine with a phone sex voice, plus one red and one green eye like sexy evil Christmas?
A: You’re not wrong!
Our Archetypal Evil Temptresses include the White Witch, Xayide and His Dark Materials’ Mrs Coulter. (Mrs Coulter’s a little redeemed by turning out to have some All Mother in her DNA. Personally, I don’t think that’s a particularly powerful feminist statement. Be redeemed by motherhood, you nasty wenches! Bear and care for your children, wipe out the sin of Eve! But then, I think Pullman is the Anti-Christian Nutbar, and he and Lewis go so far in opposite directions they end up looking extremely alike.)
The prevalence of these Strong Archetypes in children’s fiction, though, makes it that much more subversive – more of a lovely revelatory surprise – when an archetype is turned on its head. And two examples of this are the hero and heroine of The Secret Garden. (Any claims that Dickon is the hero will be scoffed at. Aslan isn’t the hero of the Narnia Chronicles. Dickon lies down with the lion and the lamb, he’s Jesus Christ and he’s only twelve years old. Where’s the journey there? There are no promotion opportunities for Jesus. Call it the Celestial Glass Ceiling.)
So we have one main character. The more worldly and experienced one, the one described as aggressively plain rather than delicate, the sturdier one, the proactive one. Basically, we have Mr Rochester. Or Mary Lennox.
And we have the hysterical, imaginative, sickly one, the one with the eerie resemblance to mother and the fetching long lashes, the 1900s Character Voted Most Likely To Copy Richardson’s Clarissa And Commit Suicide With the Power of His Mind, Colin.
I’m not saying that Mary is manly. She’s not, and Colin isn’t particularly feminine, though he may have been experimenting with the old mascara too much. (It was a long ten years in that one room waiting for Mary to get there, okay?) But Mary’s filling a traditionally masculine role, and Colin’s filling a traditionally femininised one. These roles don’t have much to do with actual men and women: there’s no reason why the boy shouldn’t be the more imaginative and emotional one. Mary’s chill about her mother dying. Mary doesn’t fling herself at Dickon’s mother and say she wishes Mrs Sowerby was her mumsy as well. Let us face it, if one of the characters is going to succumb to a fit of the vapours on the chaise longue, it ain’t gonna be Mary.
And that’s rare, it’s very cool, and it is more common to children’s fiction than any other kind of fiction. And it makes both the characters enormously interesting. (See the title of this essaylet. All this talk of swooning and monsters should not obscure the fact that my nine-year-old self? Totally hot for Colin Craven.) Other characters from the school of Archetypes Standing On Their Heads include but are not limited to McKinley’s heroine Aeryn, C.S. Lewis’ Eustace Scrubb, and Lorna Hill’s hero Sebastian Scott (a knight errant whose weapon of choice is an old ballet shoe).
The Other can be sinister in children’s fiction, just as sinister as in adult, but the Other in children’s stories is much less likely to be regarded with suspicion. The windows are flung wide for Peter Pan. Letting the Other in on purpose is something that happens much more in children’s fiction, and it’s another thing I really like.
Not that it’s always the right thing to do. Actions have consequences in all good fiction, and letting in Luke in Diana Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke, Lia in Lois Duncan’s Stranger With My Face and Peter Pan himself is as dangerous as letting in the vampire.
(The basic plot of Stranger With My Face)
LAURIE: Oooh I have a twin, just like Sweet Valley High!
LIA: Well, you know how fiction works. Sometimes you have a humorous Shakespearean twin, sometimes you have a Wakefield twin, and sometimes you have an evil twin.
LAURIE: … Which kind are you?
LIA: I’ve taken over your body and am using it for my own nefarious purposes.
LAURIE: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Sweet Valley anymore.
But children’s fiction is much more open to welcoming in the Other, and having this be the right choice. Will Stanton’s decision to trust Bran in The Grey King helps save the world. Gair’s decision to go talk to the giants in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Power of Three averts a war. It’s generally agreed that Beauty picked the right manbeast, and Holly Black’s Valiant goes a step further by having the heroine Val not overcoming her repulsion to, but rather attracted by the Other, the hero Ravus. (Also generally considered a good move – or in other words, what a troll, what a troll, what a honey, boo yeah.)
Stepping back a little from fantastical fiction for the young, FHB (Frances, Hodgson, Blah blah blah) gives us the Other in the form of a foreigner, a reverse colonist on British soil, and in every one of her books she represents the Other as an overwhelmingly positive influence. There’s the American Cedric in Little Lord Fauntleroy, so sweet he may induce fictional diabetes, half-French Sara from India in A Little Princess and Marco the world traveller and linguist in The Lost Prince, who all arrive and drastically improve their new environments.
(The plot of The Lost Prince, FHB’s least-known kids’ book)
MARCO: I am a strapping, handsone foreign lad and I have come to teach you London street rats better ways.
THE RAT: I am a cripple ruling an army of London street rats who I may use to kill you.
MARCO: Let’s be best friends.
THE RAT: … I really don’t know why you thought it was okay to say that.
MARCO: Do you want to go on a quest to restore the prince of Incredibly Fictional Made-Up Land?
THE RAT: Maybe. I do enjoy war. War, war, war!
MARCO: Ah, peace, beautiful peace.
THE RAT: … I’m glad we’re best friends, Marco.
But it’s in The Secret Garden that FHB most interestingly portrays the Other: as initially unpleasant, but both giving and receiving a lot from the normal world, in this case Yorkshire. Without the garden and Dickon, Mary would have remained a warped character. Without Mary, Colin, the heir to the throne of Misselthwaite, would certainly have died. Having the Other both influence and be influenced by the course of events is the most interesting way to go: portraying letting the Other in as a risk that you probably should take is part and parcel of the freedom provided by the genre of youth fiction.
Fantasy blends in really well with children’s fiction. I mean, The Lord of the Rings is the most famous fantasy of all time, and it’s the sequel to the children’s book The Hobbit. People expect children to be more open to the idea of the impossible, expect children to go more naturally into the strange land, and I think that’s why a lot of the best fantasy is for young readers and starring young protagonists. There are no adults in the wardrobe looking for Narnia.
That’s why The Secret Garden is my FHB favourite. It has the strongest supernatural element: there’s not only the coincidences that lead to the discovery of the garden, but what appears to be bona fide communication with the dead.
Archibald Craven pretty much gets briefed as follows:
DEAR ARCHIE STOP. GO HOME TO OUR SON STOP. HE HAS A FEVERED IMAGINATION AND MUST BE CONTROLLED BEFORE HE STARTS WRITING BYRONIC POETRY STOP. ALSO I FIND HIS BROCADE DRESSING GOWNS EFFEMINATE STOP. YOUR LOVING WIFE (DECEASED) STOP.
No ‘it was all the doing of the rich eccentric on the other side of the wall’ for this book. Either Archibald Craven is having a florid hallucination or this is a message from beyond the grave.
And because children’s fiction goes so well with the fantastic, I always want a side of the fantastic with it. Which rounds up my reasons for giving The Secret Garden top billing.
That really was a lot of words to say that I find children’s and YA fantastical fiction the most exciting genre to read and write in. I could have just said that I loved its offering of hope to the monstrous, subversion of archetypes, acceptance of the Other as an individual and acceptance of the Other as a fantasy world. But what can I say? I got carried away.