- A Notable Irrelevance:Class and Children's Fiction
"Class," Fred Inglis says, "is at once too obvious and too irrelevant a term to apply to children's fiction. Its undoubted presence (whatever it is) has to be faced and grasped. But I think that children's reading, whatever class messages may be carried to the necessarily class-conscious adult, is always and endlessly capable of being relocated in the classless paradise" (50). This is a remarkable comment coming from a critic as aware of the interrelation of the literary and the social as is Fred Inglis. Class is, we notice, at once obvious and irrelevant—that is, so blatant as to need no critic to draw a reader's attention to it, and of no relevance anyway. It is beside the point.
What is it that moves Inglis here? Since he is concerned only with the child's reading, Inglis feels licensed to ignore a potentially disruptive adult interpretation and to concern himself instead with what he assumes to be the child's ability to "relocate" what she or he reads, to respond to the "undoubted presence" of class in such a way as to erase it. This confident certainty about how children interpret texts, and that the responses of adult and child can be distinguished unproblematically, effaces two major issues in the criticism of children's books. First, it is no easy matter to assess the response of any reader, adult or child, and it is therefore implausible to imagine that children's reading will necessarily "relocate" any aspect of a text, including class.1 Second, Inglis forgets that the books children read are, generally speaking, written, published, and provided by adults and that the sleight of pen by which they then become the child's possession—children's fiction—obscures the fact that these books are the creations of the "necessarily class-conscious adult."2
What seems to be at stake here, then, is not children's reading as such, but an adult's desire to think of children as reading in a certain way. To put it in Jacqueline Rose's terms, we can suggest that this is the result of an investment made by the adult in the child and a "demand made by the adult on the child as the effect of that investment, a demand which fixes the child and then holds it in place."3 As a result, children's fiction "draws in the child, it secures, places and frames the child . . . sets up a world in [End Page 195] which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between" (2). It is surely criticism's task to attempt to enter the space between, for in it lies much that makes the study of children's literature so fascinating and important. It is precisely in the space between that questions can be posed such as: what do texts represent about the world and how do they respond to the social and institutional frameworks from which they spring? It is also the place where we can ask of the text what it is expecting from its readers.
With this in view, I want to turn to a text by Philippa Pearce who is, according to Inglis, a "great children's novelist" (the others included by him in "an uncertain list" are Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, and William Mayne). Pearce's first published novel, Minnow on the Say, appears to be devoid of class interest and to represent the sort of classless paradise that Inglis has in mind. However, hers is an English book, the product of a culture peculiarly formed by ideas of class, modern and ancient. The English, unlike many of their European cousins, have retained their monarchy and, along with it, a substantial hierarchical class system supported by institutional frameworks such as schools, universities, and the legislature.4 It is also a region in which distinctions in speech between classes are marked: not only do dialect patterns persist, so do distinct class vocabularies (Jones). Seen from these perspectives...