I once wrote a (failed) treatment for a screenplay where Peter Pan, Alice, and Winnie the Pooh’s Christopher Robin all join forces to defeat a band of grown-ups who threaten the end of childhood.
Today, childhood has never been under greater threat. Modern culture seems to accelerate young people into adults; children are a key target audience for commercial products, and recently this has all been quickened by lockdowns that have deprived children of their freedom and their right to play.
Two of the greatest children’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, were written by Charles Dodgson, under his pen name Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was a Maths lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford. His face also appears on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album (between Marlene Dietrich and T.E. Lawrence).
The undoubted inspiration for the stories was a girl called Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Adventures in Wonderland is in fact set on 4 May (Liddell's birthday), and the book was dedicated to her.
Dodgson entertained Alice and her sisters on boating trips and picnics, telling them stories to pass the time. It was on one particular boating trip, a ‘golden afternoon’ that Dodgson told the girls the fantastic story of a girl named Alice, and her adventures after she fell down a rabbit hole.
He also used the Liddell children as subjects for his hobby, photography. Dodgson’s favourite subject was young girls, sometimes undressed. In one photo, Alice is seen kissing Dodgson on the lips, in another holding his hand on the street.
Dodgson and Liddell’s father shared adjoining offices at Oxford. An unexplained break with the Liddell family took place in June 1863. The relevant entries in Dodgson’s diary were torn out, fuelling speculation that something inappropriate had taken place, possibly involving a marriage proposal.
Alice grew up, eventually married at the age of 28, and had three sons, two of whom – Alan and Leopold – were killed in action in World War I - a tragic counterpoint to the supposed innocence of the childhood stories she inspired.
At the age of 80, on a visit to the United States, Alice met for the first and only time Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the brothers who inspired J.M. Barrie's story Peter Pan. Alice died at the age of 82 in 1934.
Like Alice’s, Peter Pan’s origins are similarly problematic. J.M. Barrie forged perhaps an unnaturally close relation with Peter Llewelyn Davies.
The idealisation of youth enshrined in Peter Pan perhaps articulates a fear for the end of innocence, and expresses a longing for children not to grow up.
‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then,’ writes Lewis Carroll in his Adventures. ‘But mother, I don't want to grow up,’ writes Barrie in Peter Pan.
The fear of growing up is a common concern (and one of the reasons often ascribed to children with anorexia), a common wish, for which the characters of Alice and Peter have become the poster girl and boy, each of them enduring as symbols of eternal youth.
Eternal youth requires a special place, of course. Lewis Carroll called it Wonderland and located it down a rabbit hole and on the far side of a looking glass. J.M. Barrie called it Neverland, identifying it as lying ‘second star to the right and straight on till morning’.
In Italy, Gianni Rodari claimed that fantasyland is all around us, and can be located by anyone with imagination, a sense of wonder, or an ability to look at things upside down.
We may wish to question the motives behind J.M. Barrie’s and Charles Dodgson’s close attachment to young children. Our safeguarding protocols would not have allowed either of them a teaching post at the BSM.
But if we can set those concerns aside for a moment, we can see in the texts (rather than their authors) a belief that childhood represents the best of times in one’s life and is something that needs to be protected, if not preserved.
It is a natural and healthy thing to grow up. It is part of the human condition, and a large part of understanding what it means to be alive. Life becomes messier and more complex as one gets older, but also richer and more varied in many ways.
One of the key roles of a school is to prepare students safely for growing up, to equip them for that difficult and exciting journey. It is also the role of a school to see that children have the time of their lives and enjoy their youth, ensuring they are happy, making them ‘curiouser and curiouser’, never rushing the road to adulthood, even if ‘we’re all mad here’.
This has never been more important than at this present moment as children mature perhaps too quickly, deprived of routine freedoms, all too conscious of disease, and with accelerated access to addictive technology.
We need to encourage children to learn, of course, and make academic progress. If they are to experience joy, however, we must also let them play - not just alone, but together. And let us hope that this fundamental activity is allowed sooner rather than later, in 2021.
Principal & CEO