Books through the eyes of children

Over Christmas I read ‘Through A Child’s Eyes’ – a paper from a 1992 seminar at the British Film Institute led by the writer and mythographer Marina Warner.  Warner brings out the ways in which adults project their concerns  onto children, and through the idea of the child. Children are fascinating to readers alternately because they are innocent – the idea of a child at risk calls on our  determination to kill the witches that threaten them (Hansel and Gretel); or otherwise because they are disobedient, irrational, not yet socialised, and live (perhaps) in a world where reality and fantasy rub up against each other – children are Where the Wild Things Are and Alice in Wonderland.

Reflecting on the essay, I realised that two of my favourite novels are seen through the eyes of displaced, off-centre children, children with losses, but they are real, or at least naturalistic children. These are ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson and the ‘Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson. In Oranges, the child has suffered the loss of her birth parents which is not compensated by her adopting parents, who are a neutral, distant father and a fiercely engaged, religiously fanatical, abusive mother. The tone of the Summer Book is much less traumatic – the book is comprised of a series of scenes of a child playing with her grandmother on their summer island in the Gulf of Bothnia, off the coast of Finland. But the child’s mother has died and the father is again a distant figure. The grandmother is a compensatory giver of love, fun, and moral education.

Oranges is the only novel I have ever read in a single sitting and then immediately turned back to page 1 and started again. I devoured my first reading in the hope that I would get to a happy ending, and then revelled in the second reading as with a delicious sweet. The language is extraordinary – it spills tonal and stylistic features of all the best literature in English, like a child who shows all the most interesting features of all its grandparents. It was like reading a new language – English, but more vivid. At the beginning of this year, I also read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ Published 27 years after Oranges, it treads the same story, but as an account of the real childhood she remembers rather than the fictionalised one in Oranges. The book, although wonderfully written, cannot match the sheer literary brilliance of Oranges, because nothing can, but Why by Happy…? is gripping for being truer. It is horribly sad to find out that in describing her childhood in Oranges, Winterson had pulled her punches – her real childhood was much more painful even than the childhood in Oranges, and the abuse she received from most adults who should have cared for her, especially when they discovered that she was lesbian, is terrifying. The memoir illuminates interesting corners both of British social life (the racism and sexism she saw at Oxford) and a traumatic psychological journey (meeting her birth mother). In Oranges, the novel ends in triumphant mode as she comes back from Oxford to see her mother (Mrs Winterson) and there appears to be some kind of resolution at least, if not reconciliation. But In Why by Happy…? you read with real concern as the mature writer reaches, struggling, far into herself to describe the confusion of meeting her birth mother, and the psychological tearing she experiences from the loyalty she feels profoundly to Mrs Winterson, who betrayed her, but who was always there – as every child wants their parent, however bad, to be. The two books read wonderfully alongside each other as different windows into the mind and heart of a brilliant young girl in a poor Northern town – where as Winterson points out, there were mental and emotional escapes from poverty through friendships, libraries, allotments,  evening classes. A good teacher helped her get to Oxford, which for all its faults, opened up a very different life for her.  Books gave Jeanette Winterson a lifeline once and I am sure in turn her books have been lifelines to many of her readers.  Winterson’s prose is thick with line and colour, it’s like being surrounded by an El Greco painting, as the language of the King James Bible dances with the dark and the light of human passion, and kept engorged with hope by the narrator’s dogged belief that love would come to her, that belief saving the girl even before books did.

The Summer Book is a completely different kettle of fish. It  is more like a drink of water from a well – cool and sweet, close to nature. The clear and unsentimental narratives of the child Sophia and her grandmother are as understated as a line illustration, and confirmatory of the ways in which normally happy children become normally socialised.  It is minature in scope – set on a tiny Finnish island with the scenes peopled mostly only by the child and her grandmother (at most there is a visitor on a small boat or another tiny island in the waters around it).  The Summer Book creates a perfectly realised experience for the reader of a long childhood summer holiday; of Sophia’s impetuousness, of the grandmother thinking through how to balance the child’s needs with her own, their physical enjoyment of the tiny world of their island. The child has a moral education through her passions. She detests her first cat, Moppy, for  being wild and for not being  cuddling silkily in her lap, and she trades it for a lapcat, Fluff. After a week she is in despair, missing her hunting cat, which of course has been imprinted on her heart as the essence of cat, even though books or the culture around her had led her to think she wanted something different. ‘Hunt! Do something! Be a cat!’ she rages at the impassive Fluff. Similarly, she is besotted with a friend from school who has perfect ringlets of hair, but when she brings her friend to her island, she finds her terribly boring, and the friend’s departure is a relief in a way that I remember from my own Finnish childhood – perhaps it was an echo of leaving school and smelling the fir trees growing on the edges of the small town, being able to hunt down some lingonberries without a social convention breathing down my neck. Sophia learns that her passions must be acknowledged and understood, but also that she must behave in civilised ways, and treat people decently. She learns through freedom, but also through the consciousness that she is observed by the loving, boundary-setting, consistent gaze of her grandmother. I’m sure most Finnish expats have a copy of the Summer Book. It expresses many things from Finland but that evocation of the tension of being torn between the wild and the domesticated moods is the claw with which it sticks to my skull.

Marina Warner refers to What Maisie Knew by Henry James as paradigmatic, as one of the first novels to tell a story focalised through a child. What Maisie Knew is an incredibly sad novel from the 1890s about a child whose divorcing parents fight over her custody in order to punish one another. Like so much of Henry James, it feels written for today, not 120 years ago. But there is another earlier novel which I think focalises through a child, and that is the first section of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Another displaced child, Fanny Price, is taken away from her poor family to the house of her rich relations, in order to be useful to her Aunts. The family congratulate themselves on their benevolence, but in fact her experience is of emotional and sometimes physical neglect, and some cruelty from her Aunt Norris, who in one episode leads Fanny to become physically ill. The emotional coldness of the family is given expression in the way in which she is socially isolated and left to herself in the unheated nursery that the bullying and self-centred children of the family no longer use. She sits in her quiet space, not much loved but at least not tortured by unappealing conventions, and reads herself into adulthood – as Sophia perhaps might have been required to do, had she not had an excellent grandmother.

Fanny Price has not been a popular Jane Austen heroine. She is not a transgressive heroine and therefore gives little pleasure to many of her readers. Marina Warner references this (p44) – the tendency of adult readers to enjoy reading about rebellious children (whether they were rebellious children or goody two-shoes themselves). Books about rebellious children satisfy the wishes of unsatisfied adults to read about rebellion. Many adult readers do not empathise with Fanny’s loss, or her anxiety about her new home. However if Fanny’s life is seen through the lens of a physically frail child who experiences neglect and who is constantly undermined by her Aunt Norris and cousins Julia and Maria and yet survives: emotionally, physically and morally intact; then her life is one of achievement. Her good cousin Edmund takes an interest in her, and vitally, gives her both books to stimulate her mind; and pen and paper to enable her to correspond with her beloved brother William, consoling her heart. Fanny builds a morally well developed world view as a result, and when that is challenged, as it is when even Edmund is half-seduced by the attractive but selfish Crawford siblings, Fanny remains true to her principles, even though a return to poverty is threatened for her. Like Jeanette Winterson, Fanny is morally saved both by books and by recognising what she loves – first her brother William and later, Edmund.

These novels do more than work along the curve of the archetypes of children in literature identified by Marina Warner. They give the experience of children the weight of humans, not toys or plot props, or  adults-in-waiting. The children are complex and sensitive in their own right. Through the eyes of an individuated child character, the novelists do indeed illuminate something about our concerns, but the gaze comes from the child and looks at the world, rather than the child’s eyes being a mirror for adult anxieties.

Cinema and the Realms of Enchantment, Lectures, Seminars and Essays by Marina Warner and Others. Edited by Duncan Petrie. BFI working papers, 1993

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson, 1985

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson, 2012

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson, 1972

What Maisie Knew, Henry James, 1897

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814



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