Sunday, 11 February 2018

Notes from the Cellarage - Catherine Butler

People have been writing histories of children’s literature for many decades, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s only in the last forty years that it has taken off as a subject of literary criticism. The primary reason for the late start is, I suppose, the belief of people before our own enlightened age that children’s books are simple and self-explanatory; in any case, it meant that in 1963, when Frederick Crews decided to write a “casebook” of essays by fictional academics, parodying various critical approaches popular at the time, he was able to choose Winnie-the-Pooh as his central text, confident that the very idea of paying Pooh scholarly attention would warrant a chuckle.

The Pooh Perplex was an instant and deserved satirical classic, and remains a must for anyone who studied English at university, especially if they are of an age to have encountered old-school Leavisites (“Another Book to Cross Off Your List”), classical Marxists (“A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables”), Christian humanists (“O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh”) and the rest. What reader of Wayne C. Booth could forget “Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh”, with its invaluable coinages, the “Milnean Voice” and the “Christophoric Ear”?

The Pooh Perplex had one odd side effect. As the real-life study of children’s literature began in earnest in the decades after its publication, Winnie-the-Pooh itself was oddly neglected. No one wanted to sound like one of Crews’s professors, after all. It was as if The Pooh Perplex had salted the critical earth around the Hundred Acre Wood. One important early critic, John Rowe Townsend, suggested that the book was an appropriate site for parody because there was little to say about it: “for all his rotundity, Pooh … is one-dimensional”. But this is special pleading, surely?

The shadow of Frederick Crews looms over children’s literature criticism to this day. It was much on my mind a few years ago, when I made what seemed – momentarily – an amazing discovery in the opening paragraphs of The Wind in the Willows. Let me remind you how that book begins:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout.

I happened to read this passage shortly after reading Hamlet, and was struck by the fact that both texts use the unusual word “cellarage” – and in connection with moles, too! I’m sure you remember the battlement scene:

Ghost cries under the stage.
Ghost. Swear.
Ham. Aha boy, say’st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?
Come on! You hear this fellow in the cellarage.
Consent to swear.
Ham. Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer!

I can’t prove it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, when writing about a Mole, the word “cellarage” rose quite naturally to the top of Kenneth Grahame’s well-read mind, thanks to his familiarity with Hamlet. At that point I should no doubt have moved on; but fatally I lingered, and the longer I looked, the more the parallels rained down upon me. For a start, the Ghost of Old Hamlet commands the soldiers to swear; and the first thing we see Grahame’s Mole do is swear: “Bother!”, “O blow!” and “Hang spring-cleaning!”

Coincidence, perhaps? More importantly, spring-cleaning is a powerful metaphor for the torment old Hamlet is going through in Purgatory – a place where souls as black as a mole’s fur are forced to purify (or “whitewash”) themselves in torment, choking on dust and tortured with what Grahame so aptly calls “divine discontent”. As Crews’s C. J. L. Culpepper (author of “O Felix Culpa”) might have put it: ask not, what is the “Something Up Above” that calls to Mole so “imperiously”; ask rather, Who.

At this point I feel I have already made an unanswerable case, but for any stiff-necked readers out there, note what happens when the ghost of old Hamlet emerges onto the battlements of Elsinore. He is immediately questioned by Horatio:

Hor. What art thou that usurp’st this time of night
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!
Mar. It is offended.
Ber. See, it stalks away!
Hor. Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee speak!
Exit Ghost.
Mar. ‘Tis gone and will not answer.

Equally, when Mole emerges from his tunnel, he is at once challenged by a sentry in the form of an elderly rabbit, who demands sixpence for the use of the private road – only to get a very similar brush off:

He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about.

Truly, when two such inexhaustible texts lie down together, litter upon litter of dissertations and conference papers will surely follow. There are the travelling field-mice players, for example, whom the Mole attempts to engage for who knows what ulterior purposes of his own, but suffice it to say that their play is replete with lovers getting themselves to nunneries and misbegotten sea voyages, and is violently interrupted. Shades of “The Mousetrap”, indeed!

“They act plays too, these fellows,” the Mole explained to the Rat. “Make them up all by themselves, and act them afterwards. And very well they do it, too! They gave us a capital one last year, about a field-mouse who was captured at sea by a Barbary corsair, and made to row in a galley; and when he escaped and got home again, his lady-love had gone into a convent. Here, you! You were in it, I remember. Get up and recite a bit.”
The field-mouse addressed got up on his legs, giggled shyly, looked round the room, and remained absolutely tongue-tied. His comrades cheered him on, Mole coaxed and encouraged him, and the Rat went so far as to take him by the shoulders and shake him; but nothing could overcome his stage-fright.

Do I protest too much? Perhaps; but I’d be tempted to work this up into a proper academic article if I didn’t have Frederick Crews’s bevy of fictional academics always at the back of my mind, to fright me from such excursions.

Perhaps, after all, that’s just as well.


Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant - a compelling catalogue of comparison. Do write it up! It will probably be ABBA's first article in a scholarly journal — an article which has come out of writing for ABBA, rather than an ABBA post which has fallen out of genuine academic work.
I love it — thank you, Catherine.

Susan Price said...

I'm convinced, Catherine!

Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful! Me too!

Steve Gladwin said...

That's fabulous - and all the better for involving Mole theory. Thanks, Catherin.

Penny Dolan said...

Fascinating to hear your thoughts on the echoes within the words. Thanks!