Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Childlike writers who escape reality

Writing is a solitary activity. Not all, but many writers are shy, retiring people who best express themselves through the written word.

A lot of children’s authors have used their stories as a way of insulating themselves against the real world. Many never really grow up, despite their seemingly sober, grownup outer appearances.

Perhaps this is the main quality that connects our greatest children's writers. 

J M Barrie
For many, J M Barrie is the epitome of the children's author who never wanted to leave childhood behind. He, after all, created Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Perhaps Barrie's psyche was scarred when his older brother David died aged 14 and he tried - in vain - to replace him in his mother's affections. Was it from this tragedy that sprang the idea for the boy who never grew up?

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was another childlike and naive man. He never married and was uncomfortable around women. He was essentially a child in an adult's body.

Kenneth Grahame
Kenneth Grahame wanted life always to be like his childhood growing up close to the river in Cookham, Berkshire, where he had first learned to escape the harshness of the real world (his mother died young and Grahame and his siblings were sent to live with their grandmother). He became a bank worker, rising to become Governor of the Bank of England, a respectable and, dare I say, dull post? Was this an act of escape for the man who based the timid Mole upon himself? Despite dramatic and tragic incidents in his life - he survived a shooting incident at the bank and his son committed suicide - Grahame did not seek adventure, forever wanting to inhabit the cosy, safe world of Mr Toad, Ratty and Mole in the Wind in the Willows.

Lewis Carroll
Some authors – Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss – seek refuge further by hiding behind pseudonyms. For them, does the creation of this extra layer, a protective skin, provide another way of keeping reality at bay?

Dr Seuss – Theodor Seuss Geisel to give him his real name – was certainly very bashful, with a pathological fear of speaking in public. On the rare occasions he did give public addresses, he resorted to reading a comical rhyme – albeit touched by Seussian magic – in place of a speech. There is a short, but very revealing video clip on YouTube of Seuss smiling at, but saying nothing to, an interviewer late in his life in San Diego.

He never lost his childlike playfulness. Many stories abound of his childlike naughtiness, recounted in the excellent book by Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel. One particular favourite of mine was the time he went into a shoe shop and switched all the stickers indicating what size of shoes were on display.

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a brilliant, reserved and reticent Oxford mathematics don. He was a man with two sides. On one hand he was Dodgson, the quiet, shy, reserved Victorian gentleman bachelor, a genius in his field. On the other he was Carroll, the dazzlingly creative author of Alice in Wonderland, possessed of a quicksilver wit shot through with a bizarre and darkly comic imagination. The pen name Lewis Carroll clearly allowed the mild mannered mathematician and logician from Cheshire to release his wild and childlike side while offering him the ability to return to the quiet, dusty world of academia when it all became a bit too crazy.

Roald Dahl's writing hut
One could never describe Roald Dahl as shy and retiring. He was the opposite - belligerent, opinionated, domineering. Yet he never lost the ability to recall what it was like to be a child and this is evident in what he wrote.

Nevertheless, like these other authors, he had the desire to escape into his writing. How else do you explain his desire each morning to seek refuge in his little whitewashed, yellow-doored shed at the bottom of his garden where he would sit in an old armchair and swaddle himself in an old sleeping bag so that he had created for himself a womb-like workspace?

There are other authors, of course, not all children's writers - here I'm thinking of P G Wodehouse and Charles Schulz - who escaped into their own childlike fantasy worlds.

So, who would you include in the list?

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