Reviewing UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s memoir, In The Blood (what a great title for a visceral meditation on family, no?), Richard Eder begins thus:
"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."The British novelist L .P. Hartley was referring to childhood or, more exactly, to the memory of childhood. It’s the foundation of any explored adult consciousness, of course, and particularly that of the poet and often the novelist. It is most particularly true of British writers, who have made a virtual genre of traveling back to that foreign country and treating it as Arcadia.(Read the whole review from the New York Times here.)
The quote is the famous opening of Hartley’s masterpiece, The Go Between. I’ve always been partial to novels that revolve around children’s mistakes, so Eder’s observation got me thinking: is it true that British writers tend to explore childhood more than, say, American writers? And the more interesting question is: if so, why? (I’m talking about writing that is for adults but about childhood, of course, not writing for children, which is a different subject entirely and obviously as popular in the US as it is in the UK.)
I’d always assumed that few of my examples in this “genre” were American because I’m less familiar with American literature, but I think of contemporary American novels and few are about children or from a child’s point of view. I even skimmed the lists of Pulitzer winners and National Book Award finalists. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; possibly The History of Love; can anyone think of others?
On the other side of the Atlantic -- for the purposes of this post I’m going to include Irish writers as well, though I know they’re not British -- childhood continues to be a popular subject not just among serious novelists (McEwan, Frayn, Roddy Doyle, Jeannette Winterson, Trezza Azzopardi, M.J. Hyland, and this is just off the top of my head -- I’m sure you can come up with lots more!) but among poets we well, as Eder says. One of my favourite Seamus Heaney (yes, Irish, I know) poems is Mid-Term Break, with its chilling closing rhyme.
What is that drives some writers, but not others, back to childhood for inspiration and insight? In Heaney’s case -- and Motion’s, too, as you’ll see if you read the whole review -- it’s a traumatic event that seems to need “processing,” to use the psychological term. But this isn’t always the case, and certainly not for writers of fiction. Is it cultural? Linked in some way to geography or history? I really shouldn’t attempt to draw grand conclusions when I have only two American examples, but I’m going to throw this final question out there anyway: is it possible to make any distinctions between American and British styles of writing about children? (I think it is, but I’m not going to say anything more because I’m curious to see what other people think!)