- The Presence of the Past: Memory, Heritage, and Childhood in Postwar Britain
Valerie Krips' The Presence of the Past is among the most important books of children's literature criticism published in the past few years, a significance recognized by its designation as the Honor Book of 2000 by the Children's Literature Association. Its importance consists not only, and perhaps not primarily, in the new insights it brings to children's texts published in postwar Britain, the so-called second Golden Age of British children's literature. Rather, Krips' book is important for its exploration and modeling of a new method for studying children's texts as artifacts of the culture in which and by which they are produced.
Many critics claim an interest in the culture that surrounds the production and reception of children's literature. Indeed, the defining fact of children's literature—that it is written across the gap of adult author and child audience—seems to require that some attention be paid to its situation of enunciation. But such attention often amounts to an introductory sketch of the historical, social, or biographical background of the foregrounded book, a context in which the text is set and against which it is measured. Frequently, the most prized books of children's literature are shown to rise above their particular circumstances and to point to such widespread values—sometimes construed as timeless values—as tolerance, empathy, and growth.
For Krips, to the contrary, the culture of postwar Britain is as much her object of study as are the children's texts of the period, as the subtitle of her study, Memory, Heritage, and Childhood in Postwar Britain, suggests. While Krips speaks of "focusing [her] discussion upon novels for children"(xii), in fact foreground and background repeatedly change places as she focuses now on a particular book or group of books, now on a festival, now on the changing philosophy of museums. Also unlike historical critics who use context as setting for text, Krips rarely produces full readings of specific books. By this practice, she refutes the implicit claim of realistic fiction—including most children's fiction—to represent a coherent and complete version of the world.
The emphasis of Krips' study can be seen in the organization and titles of her chapters. In the first chapter, "Arrears of Memory," Krips defines the historical period she has chosen as her subject as one characterized by the turn to heritage and commemoration. The second chapter, "Lieux de Mémoire," identifies some of the theorists and theories of memory through which Krips reads postwar Britain, notably those of Pierre Nora and Raphael Samuel. Chapter 3, "The Trace of Old Characters," argues that adult remembering "intersects with, and in part attempts to constitute, the memory of the child reader" (32), and uses the response to the Ladybird 1987 re-issue of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a demonstration of such an attempt. In Chapter 4, "Forgetting the Past," Krips reads two novels by Philippa Pearce as illustrating the importance in postwar British children's books of "[achieving an appropriate orientation to the present in terms of the past"(52). In Chapter 5, "The Taint of History," Krips uses novels by Rosemary Sutcliff and Susan Cooper, as well as the nonfictional I-Spy books, to define the difference between "empirical, scientific historiography"(74) and the "epiphanic, atemporal" notion of "living history" (86). In "The Memory of Objects," the sixth chapter, Krips demonstrates how "the object becomes a prop in the processes of the mimetic formations of heritage"(193) and traces Alan Garner's "route to the everyday object"(99) through a number of his novels published between 1960 and 1976.
Krips' study does not so much conclude as stop at the end of Chapter 6. Her central contention—"that Britain's reckoning with the past is anatomized in fiction written for children postwar" (1)—has been stated on the first page of the introduction, and the rest of the study is given over...