BMCR 2012.07.25

Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature

, Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature. London: LEGENDA, 2010. x, 139. ISBN 9781906540395. $89.50.

The importance of children’s literature in furnishing young minds with a vivid sense of the terrors and lessons of the Underworld has, to date, been a shamefully overlooked area of scholarship. While the children of today may not be turning to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, King Solomon’s Mines or The Golden Key as readily as the children of previous generations, they nevertheless find access to the ancient world through authors such as Penelope Lively, Rick Riordan, Adèle Geras or Rosemary Sutcliff. Vaclavik opens her rich and persuasive study by meditating upon the fate of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which has suffered from a lack of critical attention precisely because it has been branded ‘children’s literature’.

Vaclavik’s book gives us some measure of what we have been missing, as she analyses the role and significance of the Underworld in a range of children’s books written in French and English that were standard fare for generations of children. Her corpus includes de la Sale’s Le Paradis de la reine Sibylle, Fénelon’s Aventures de Télémaque, Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper, Sand’s ‘La Fée poussière’, Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre, Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her study is grounded in the work of Genette, in particular his Palimpsestes, which offers five models of trans-textual relationship and thus provides a highly flexible methodology with which to analyse children’s literature and its relationship with the foundation texts of Homer, Virgil and Dante. Vaclavik includes a careful account of the backgrounds of writers such as Sand and Carroll, thereby contextualising their works and demonstrating the cultural values governing children’s literature and the teaching of classics at the time at which they were writing. Nor is this painstaking contextualisation confined to educational practices – Vaclavik also analyses the ways in which her chosen authors reveal their interest in the theories of Taine or Darwin, for instance, and how this colours their writing. She also shows how industrial developments within the city, such as the construction of underground sewers and the advent of the railway, radically altered our relationship to underground and thus to our ideas about Underworld journeys.

Of course, no study of writers such as Carroll or Verne would be complete without acknowledging the importance of their illustrators. One of the pleasures of Vaclavik’s book is the range of well chosen images by the likes of Tenniel and Hughes, Bayard and Riou. Vaclavik includes an analysis of these pictures and reminds us of the role they play in destabilising the reader through manipulation of size and perspective, and thus enhancing our sense of insecurity and danger as we (re)visit these literary underworlds.

Many of Vaclavik’s readers will enjoy the pleasure of returning to personal Underworlds through revisiting books such as Through the Looking Glass or Voyage au centre de la terre via her study. That the allure of the Underworld to a child’s imagination is as potent as ever is indicated in her conclusion where she outlines contemporary versions of the underground experience, such as the interactive online narrative ‘Un souterrain d’enfer’, or the Underground Manchester exhibition which enables its visitors to walk through an underground sewer and uncover the story of the modern toilet. But by the end of the book it is clear that when we look at the role of the Underworld in children’s literature, we are in no way descending in status. Rather, we are reminded not only of the vital role played by children’s books in shaping the Homers, Virgils and Dantes of successive generations, but also of the fact that, to date, children’s literature has been a significant lacuna in the reception studies of these authors. Vaclavik’s elegant book plays an admirable role in filling that gap.