AT THE start of his Cautionary Verses for Children, before the reader has had the fun of discovering what happened to Matilda who told dreadful lies, or Algernon who played with a loaded gun, Hilaire Belloc pertinently asks: “And is it True?” (Is this the way the world works?) To which the emphatic reply is:
It is not True
And if it were it wouldn’t do,
For people such as me and you
Who pretty nearly all day long
Are doing something rather wrong.
No, it’s not the way the world works — thank goodness. And that, broadly speaking, is the premise on which children’s literature is based. We don’t get our just deserts. Naughty heroes — Cinderella, the Railway Children, Tom Kitten — may come home late, or steal coal, or wander off and get caught by rats, but they are rescued and forgiven. In other words, they are saved.
Impossibly virtuous characters — Little Nell, obviously (with Heidi coming in second) — are usually resented for being, improbably, saved already. Not that, as a child, you put it like that; you just naturally side with the rebellious Jo in Little Women, and let Beth die and go to heaven, along with little Paul Dombey and other unlamented weeds.
In fact, the only virtuous character I can think of who has a spark of vitality is Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the curly-haired boy in Down with Skool!, who skips round the football field saying “Hullo clouds! Hullo sky!”’
And yet there is a truculence to young Basil — “I don’t care a row of beans! Nature alone is beautiful!” he says, as he fails to stop another ball slamming into the goal — that suggests he is not as innocent as he looks, and accounts for the grudging respect of his chronicler, Nigel Molesworth.
Children’s literature rings true only when it deals with fallen humanity and its redemption, because — actually — that’s the way things are. As Belloc says at the end of another cautionary verse:
The moral is (it is indeed!)
You mustn’t monkey with the Creed.
Sarah Lenton writes, broadcasts, and lectures on lyric theatre for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is studying for ordination at St Mellitus College.