Childhood Bound: In Gardens, Maps, and Pictures

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This essay considers the ways that writers have territorialized childhood by creating fantasy worlds and friendly spaces for fictional children. It draws for the most part from children's literature, with bri ef references to "grown-up" works that further exemplify adult motives in constructing childhood spaces.

Peter Pan has Neverland; Mary Lennox, her secret garden; Laura Ingalls, her "magic circle"; Fern Arable, the barnyard; Harriet Welsch, her imaginary "town"; and Dorothy Gale has the Land of Oz. Fictional children (even Ingalls is "constructed" through the memory of Wilder) often have a magical place to go to, to inhabit, to define, even to control. All these friendly spaces, of course, are created by adult authors, not just for child characters and readers, but for their own nostalgic indulgence. The most common escapes are the garden or the remote island, but all these childhood spaces share one quality--they are clearly bound and inaccessible to adults. Peter Pan's Neverland bars parents; Mary's garden is walled and locked; Fern's barnyard is exclusive in that only she can talk with the animals; Harriet's "town" is her creative alternative to the adult spaces she spies on; and Dorothy's Land of Oz is surrounded by an "impassable desert." Yet these spaces invite adults, as Tim Morris recently wrote in You're Only Young Twice: "In each case, the text is an appropriation by an adult of a territory that is supposed to belong to a child. Each text proposes a place that belongs to children alone--the Garden, Neverland. It shows children who desperately want to invite adults into this place, and adults who take an unseemly interest in invading it" (89). Adults are childhood bound, in terms of constructing childhood as an ideal destination, but childhood itself is bound by borders that sustain the fantasy. In this essay, I examine some of the spaces that writers create to indulge in imaginary escapes from "real," civilized, urban (e), disconnected experience through fictional child-hosts.

Most friendly childhood spaces draw from and continue the pastoral tradition of modernity; which idealizes and romanticizes the wild (ironically) as a safe retreat for those weary of civilized constraints. Frances Hodgson Burnett created one of the most famous pastoral childhood landscapes in The Secret Garden. In "Digging Up The Secret Garden: Noble Innocents or Little Savages?" Christine Wilkie describes the novel's spatialization of Rousseauist oppositions: "The narrative events take place between the house and garden, which respectively carry all the negative and positive connotations embedded in primitive thought: the artifice of Civilization versus the Wild." But is a secret garden really "the Wild"? Wilkie's phrasing highlights the pastoral's romanticization of nature. Surely the civilized world is safer for children than true wilderness, but this idealized (and enclosed) wilderness is more likely the adult's refuge--an escape from the "artifice of civilization" (79).

Childhood landscapes, which are defined in contrast to and as an escape from civilized adult spaces, appear in adult literature as primitive and undeveloped. Joseph Conrad's Marlow associates unmapped territories with the fascination of his youth: "When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. [...]At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth" (5). The association of childhood with geographical exploration expresses not only adult envy of the child's greater opportunities for novelty but also adult feelings of entrapment in an increasingly industrialized and developed territory. This need for escape finds even more room for expression in books for children. Sylvia Patterson Iskander points out that "the first great age of writing for children took place in the United States in the 1870s, when [...] many Americans turned to the business of economic and geographic expansion. This great shift in the national culture, away from a largely rural and agricultural way of life, led inevitably to a kind of nostalgia for the past" (257). …