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Peter Hunt States In The World English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2173 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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If, as was discussed in Tma 03, we are to accept that literary depictions of childhood are a social construction and the widely hypothesised view that this was as much for the benefit of adults, who wanted to recreate or invent an idealised childhood into which they could retreat, as [it was] for children (Montgomery,2009, p31) then it becomes crucial to interpret these texts within the social instability of their time. The twentieth century -a time of inter and post-war volatility, increasing industrialisation and radical change 'made nostalgia and retreat even more attractive and urgent than before' (Hunt,1995,p195.) It is these depictions of 'essentially backward looking' (Hunt, 2009, p80) childhoods and how they interact with their physical landscapes that these texts have been chosen and that this essay will begin by analysing.

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Both Swallows and Amazons and Tom's Midnight Garden create childhoods that are myth-like and reminiscent of a Romantic, Victorian golden age. Key to both of these depictions are the importance of a particular setting; 'the autonomy of a felicitous space set apart from the rest of the world' (Nikolajeva in Sell, p115;) a general sense of harmony; the special significance of home and an absence of some of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as law, money, government and corruption; all of which consequently serve to invoke the 'innocence of Eden before the fall and the innocence of childhood' (Montgmery & Watson, 2009, p6)

Ransome's retreat from inter-war reality was back into the nineteenth century, 'a nineteenth century glorified by rose-tinted hindsight' (Alston, 2009 p49) into an ideal of Empire, domestic order and patriarchal dominance all safely contained in and insulated by a strict Christian framework (Hunt, 2009.) Hunt has argued that the family structure and moral codes that are adhered to in the Swallows and Amazons series are 'essentially late Victorian' (1992, p164). This Victorian attitude is evident in the portrayal of the father for, unlike the portrayal of the weak father in Peter Pan or The Secret Garden, or the children spiritually restoring the adults as seen in Tom's Midnight Garden, Ransome portrays a structured, ordered family, with a strong dependable father, an obedient mother, and children who, reminiscent of the March sisters in Little Women, work together to be true to their father's maxims.

The father has two important roles to play in the creation of the sense of place found in Swallows and Amazons: as 'Daddy' he is protector of the family, while as Commander Walker he is protector of country and Empire. The father, though physically absent, maintains emotional and physical control of the children; the literal and imaginative freedom they experience cannot begin until it is sanctioned by his 'Duffers' telegram (p11) - the back of which they symbolically fill with a list of essential provisions (p19)- could not stay harmonious without his naval hierarchy, and cannot continue without the security of their Mother's practical support, in the form of food, tents, and occasional visits to make sure that all is well. Their support offered even goes so far as to engage in imaginative play with the children, offering Mother's approval as 'Queen Elizabeth' (p25) of their imaginative freedom and demonstrating the child that remains within her.

This 'known and reliable domestic structure provides a secure backdrop for the children's imaginative games' (Montgomery & Watson, 2009, p165,) and their economic and emotional stability provides child and adult readers (and author) with a secure sense of place with which the story of exploration begins and ends it's reassuring, 'notably circular' (Hunt, 2009, p178) structural patterns that 'are integral with the freedom that Ransome gives his children and the limits that he imposes'(Hunt, 2009,p178). This secure sense of metaphorical place is mirrored and further highlighted in Ransome's depiction of the physical landscape as a place in which the child is protected from the outside world.

Although Ransome's Swallows and Amazons roam apparently freely about the Lake District, the 'almost scientific' (Bogen,2009, p194) realistic depiction of the countryside is not recognisable as the dangerous and unpredictable environment it really is (Carpenter & Prichard, 1984, p508). His physical setting is clearly a romantic, pastoral one, with a dominant imagery of trees, hills and meadows on which 'the skies smiled' (p515) and the emphasis is placed on the characters literal and imaginative closeness and interaction with nature. Ransome's maps not only add to this interaction with, and realism of, the location but also very precisely cage it. Wild Cat Island is shown to be 'safely enclosed in inland water' and the 'unexplored Arctic' can be seen to be within safety's reach of the Dixon's Farm (Montgomery & Watson, 2009, p164.) The security that Ransome shows the landscape to offer however is not limited to a physical one. The permanence of the surrounds are also a source of emotional stability, the implicit layers of history embedded in the landscape and the children's frequent reference to the past and future 'hundreds of years' (p66) serve to reassure and connect them to childhoods both past and present.

'But the big hills far up the lake helped to make him feel that the houseboat man did not matter. The hills had been there before Captain Flint. They would be there forever.' (p253)

Ransome's blend of omniscient narrator and focalisation through the free indirect discourse of the children for their imaginary episodes, specialist maritime vocabulary and high level of realism all serve to highlight the close connection between the imaginative play of childhood, and the landscape. It is as the children develop the ability to deal with their environment through a 'pattern of discovery, practice and mastery' (Bogen, 2009, p196) that the children gain self-confidence and learn instead to change it, resulting in not only the intermingling of fantasy and reality to save the day; 'I owe a great deal to all of you' (p498) but the creation of a interdependent, imaginative relationship with an adult (Captain Flint). Here the importance of the retention of childhood imagination is shown most clearly as it effects real agency upon adults in reality in the finding of the Captain's trunk. It is the setting of Wild Cat Island that enables the joining of the fantasy and reality, and it is the setting of Wild Cat Island where the characters and reader feel the physical and metaphorical sense of place so crucial in Ransome's depiction of childhood freedom and its universality across time in their intentions to return ' Every year. For ever and ever' (p539)

The landscape then, is an extension of the home; it is a protected, enclosed place out of doors, where the opposites of nature/civilisation, known/unknown, childhood/adulthood and home/away, may meet. Important to this definition is the notion that the safety and enclosure are as much emotional and cultural as physical. In these terms, The Swallows' and Amazons' Lake District is as much a garden as Tom Long's midnight garden (Pearce, 1958). These 'gardens' while accurately described in terms of topography are, unlike their real equivalents, entirely safe.

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Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, published 28 years after Swallows and Amazons shares its pastoral imagery and effect. Although Pearce's vision is not patriarchal, it shares the 'sense of the idyllic pastoral; the garden illuminated as an almost heightened reality in contrast to daily life and its limitations'(Natov, 2009, p221.) Like Ransome, Pearce emphasises the power of children's imagination particularly in relation to nature, but the 'time-slip fantasy' (Montgomery and Watson, 2009, p170) structure means the garden here is also dramatically contrasted and 'linked inextricably to the past, to rural life,' (ibid) one that is superficially Arcadian yet at the same time' not especially glorified'(ibid) as, unlike Ransome, Pearce seems to hint at the darker, more threatening concerns of childhood and mirror them in the fantastical, pastoral setting: Tom's perceived invisibility to his mother is actualised and Hatty's loss of her parents and her childhood is seen. Here in this garden, much like that of Wild Cat Island, the imaginary and real meet. It is a place where, for fleeting moments, the Late Victorian and post-war Worlds collide, a place where an otherwise unlikely bond is formed between 'two alienated children' (Natov, 2009, p221.)

The garden crucially is created from lonely Mrs Bartholomew's dreams of her childhood but Tom and his shared longing for a "sense of place" means he too is able to seek refuge in her garden world. Like in Swallows and Amazons, it is the adult who creates the world in which the children can play and without her regular winding of the clock (p32) it would not remain. The world is accessible to Tom only on Hatty's terms and then he is never fully formed, remaining a ghostly hallucination. However it also cannot be fully controlled by Hatty as is seen in her frustration when months pass between Tom's visits suggesting the intimate relationship between adult and child.

Similar to Ransome's Lake District, Tom and Hatty's garden is a secure, safe, and enclosed location closely connected to the rural and whilst portraying childhood as a time of innocence, like 'Eden before the fall' (Montgomery & Watson, 2009, p6) it also displays insecurities (and forbidden fruit); the displaced Tom does not really fit into -have a sense of place in- either the flat or the garden, His fears that he may be a ghost and inability to understand or explain the connection between the two worlds- not knowing to where he belongs -leads to the only heated emotional exchange in the book. 'You're a ghost!' (p107) it is only when the true world is established through recognition of Hatty's identity that Tom can accept leaving behind the garden, emotionally mature and safe in the knowledge of his importance in the world. That he is not, in fact 'invisible' and that 'time [is] no longer' (p164) still and he must continue along the continuous, symbolic - and no longer clear- river (p158) to Ely (adulthood) which does not necessarily mean that he must leave behind his childhood imagination, in fact Pearce points to 'the universality of childhood across time' (Montgomery & Watson, 2009, p6) and how childhood's innocent ability to look beyond superficial differences can bridge the loss of identity and damage 'that the successive world wars have wreaked' (ibid) upon the house, landscape and significantly, the nation.

This emphasis by Pearce on childhood gaining agency through an understanding of the landscape and the relationships of the people in it is made clear. By doing that-which nearly drives Tom to hysteria- he understands that childhood is something which will change and also end. Despite the falling of the 'towering fir tree' (p53) in disjointed kairos chaos around him, Tom realizes that the "real" world can be made magical through welcoming and attempting to understand it rather than accepting his own position as a temporary outsider.

The use of the Arcadian landscape as a setting in Tom's Midnight Garden has been shown to provide the place in which Tom's longing for adventure and child companionship (the irony of which is inescapable) can be explored, and it is, like the Walkers, through his otherwise impossible encounters in this adult-facilitated landscape that he (emotionally) matures and his 'longing is transformed into empathy' (Montgomery & Watson, p223). Pearce seems to be suggesting, like Ransome, the innocence of childhood is a time to explore and question the adult world  and, as is shown by the existence of the time-spanning ice-skates; not that the past is necessarily preferable, but highlighting 'the need to remain connected to it in memory and relationship' '(Rustins, 2009, p212.) Demonstrating her belief that the power of childhood imagination -even in adulthood- can indeed, effect real change in the world and 'rework the adult-child relationship' (Bogen, 2009, p167.)

As has been shown, through engagement with these texts, their awareness of physical and metaphorical place, as well as their embedded history, children have the chance to form a richer relationship with the world around them. Linking past events, whether from recent or ancient history, to a specific location can give them a relevance that pictures and dates in books cannot. Places, and the stories tied to them, can allow children to explore the past and future through imagination and curiosity through a safe and comfortable setting, to tell their own stories and to ultimately make sense of their own place in the world, a lesson not easily taught.

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