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For children and adults/Sophisticated reading of children's classics

Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 235 pp. $16.95. Some English children's books written between 1860 and 1930 continue to give pleasure to both children and adults, sometimes for different reasons.

The nursery classics probed in Humphrey Carpenter's thoughtful study are, by and large, fantasies. As anyone who has explored the best of fantasy knows, the creators of such tales are wrestling with reality. Carpenter notes that from his selected authors one can glean ``profound observations about human character and contemporary society, and (strikingly often) about religion.''

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This exploration borrows its title from a frequently used image in children's books. (I would add that it virtually remains a secret that adults might enjoy reconsidering these gardens.) Carpenter's work is a competent and provocative guide to these seemingly innocent places.

Authors Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, and George MacDonald, all clergymen with keen interests in mathematical or scientific matters, embarked on their common avocation at almost the same moment. Carpenter speculates that their children's books reveal that they also shared doubts about Christianity.

In ``The Water-Babies,'' Kingsley, in trying to remedy his loss of faith, was ``fumbling towards the creation of some kind of alternative religion,'' Carpenter writes. Carroll's ``Alice in Wonderland,'' he contends, beyond dealing with violence, death, and nothingness, is a ``mockery of Christian belief.'' And he asserts that MacDonald, in ``The Princess and the Goblin,'' was searching for ``a positive religious experience that could replace Christianity.''

Carpenter weaves this thread of ``religious uncertainty'' into the lives and works of most of his subjects. In part, perhaps, the J. R. R. Tolkien scholar found in the children's books only what he sought, since he comments that in ``The Lord of the Rings'' an alternative religion was created. Nevertheless Carpenter's theory is skillfully argued, and it merits testing out.

Kenneth Grahame, unlike the other authors, is examined in two chapters particularly noteworthy for the thoroughness and astuteness of their analysis. In the first, Carpenter disputes biographer Peter Green's conclusion that Grahame's unhappy childhood prompted him to write ``The Golden Age'' and ``Dream Days.'' Between this chapter and the one about ``The Wind in the Willows,'' Grahame's book for children, Carpenter inserts chapters on E. Nesbit (``The Phoenix and the Carpet,'' ``The Five Children and It'') and Beatrix Potter, whose enduring works were conceived during Grahame's ``silent'' decade.

``The Wind in the Willows'' is inspected for its several layers of meaning, following documentation in the earlier chapter of the two poles of the author's personality: wanderer and home-lover. The polar symbols are brought together in the ``bachelor Arcadia,'' where there is both river and kitchen, escape and security. At another level, the work is a social drama. At an even higher level, Grahame ``is concerned with the artistic imagination and its delights and dangers.'' (That explication will surely send many a literate adult back to the little masterpiece!)

Carpenter, of Oxford, England, is a hospitable and worthy guide to the secrets of the gardens, whether leading one through Beatrix Potter's ``blackly comic themes,'' or around agnostic A. A. Milne's Arcadia to observe Christopher Robin's ``ruthless egotism.'' Points of view are convincingly developed and are related in an engaging style. At once biographical and critical, Carpenter carefully differentiates settings, times, and influences while looking closely at text, appropriately showing a

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marbled rather than fully blended mix. Cover-to-cover reading is essential to appreciate the many references and themes that link the authors of this golden age.

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