Chambers of Being

Secret Space and the Child in English Children’s Literature of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

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Jessie Willcox Smith, 1905.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.56.02 PMRobert Louis Stevenson, “My Kingdom,” 1885

I. Kindergarten

A little girl, looking for a place to hide in a game with her siblings, steps into a wardrobe and stumbles into another world. A child wandering about before tea finds a hidden dell and transforms it into a secret kingdom. A displaced orphan discovers a buried key and a hidden door which lead her into a place all her own. Children spending their summer holidays in the Lake District make a secret camp on a deserted island. And a lonely boy in a big house builds himself a miniature city and disappears into it every night, escaping a nasty nurse. Space is explored, hidden, and discovered; tumbled into, transformed, claimed, and rescaled. Imagination is power as it rewrites the world for its wielders; children become kings and queens, explorers and gardeners, saviors and gods—never simply “children,” never only themselves. And yet, through their imaginative interactions with space—their transformations of their surroundings, their discoveries and creations of secret spaces all their own—literary children discover and become themselves, throwing off the strictures that limited the Victorian child (and child protagonist) to become people—and selves—in their own right. 

For most of literary history, there has been no such thing as children’s literature. Children were told stories (often religious ones) and fairy-tales; they learned songs, ballads, and rhymes,  but if they learned to read, they did it not through texts designed or aimed at children, but through the Bible or a universal primer. Not until the eighteenth century, with the spread of education and access to printing did literature conceived expressly for children begin to appear in any regular way (Grenby). The child in early children’s literature (and indeed in almost any literature) was little more than a symbol—of purity, innocence, or their opposite, and very seldom bore any resemblance to a real child. Stories for children taught lessons, usually moral ones, which sought to instruct—and often terrify—the child. It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century and the revolution that occurred in attitudes towards children, their rearing, and their education that children in literature attained anything more complicated than symbolic status, eventually becoming “beings in their own right: imaginative, free, and distinct from adults” (Gavin & Humphries).

Even the idea of “child development” itself is a recent one, for children were for milennia not viewed as anything but “incipient adults” and thus childhood was not treated or understood as a separate category of experience at all (Gavin & Humphries). Juliet Dusinberre, in her Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art, locates the sea-change in the Western view of children and their education in the advent of the Enlightenment, and particularly in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Dusinberre, 28). P. Woodham-Smith credits the work of individual educators dating back to the Renaissance, and particularly the theoretical curriculum of the seventeenth century thinker Comenius, with laying the groundwork for the shift which he also locates in the late eighteenth century (Woodham-Smith, 15). However, while the Enlightenment may have been the crucible for modern ideas about the education of children, both Dusinberre and Woodham-Smith figure the German educator and pedagog Friedrich Froebel as the catalyst for the revolution in attitudes towards childrearing and education which occurred in the nineteenth century. The child ceased to be a miniature adult and became, to borrow Max Beerbohm’s phrase, “an adult in the making” and a complex figure in his own right (Dusinberre, 5). Froebel viewed education as “a process of growth and development,” rather than as a thing to be imposed on the child from outside. He emphasized a child-centric approach to education, wherein the child would “freely develop,” discovering himself and his capabilities gradually over time, with the aid of well-educated adults and space dedicated to his development, rather than through unbending and impersonal instruction from without (Woodham-Smith, 22-23). Out of these beliefs came Froebel’s concept of the kindergarten, a space dedicated to children and designed to aid in their development, for Froebel believed that just as “we give room and time to young plants and animals” so too should we allow children space to develop on their own. “Man must open his mind, and… listen to the lesson which nature silently teaches,” for the child is as a plant that needs space to grow, as an animal that needs space to roam (Dusinberre, 10). Froebel’s child, though, is a plant grown in a sheltered, well-tended garden, with easy access to the nutrients, care, and protection they need to allow nature to take its course.

The impact of Froebel’s ideas on children and their education—and the larger cultural shift in attitudes towards children—is evident in the changes that began to occur in children’s literature by the latter half of the nineteenth century as the culture moved away from the moralizing and didacticism of Victorian children’s literature. By the turn of the century, the pre-adolescent children of Edwardian literature had become real people with developing psyches, sometimes willful, stubborn, unpleasant—neither figures for perfect innocence, nor Struwwelpeterian naughtiness. The child became human and he came into the possession—by fits and starts—of a self. One of the earliest instances of the developing child hero—Lewis Carroll’s Alice—connects this new emphasis on the child’s development, individuality, and humanity directly to his experience of place, for Carroll’s Wonderland is very much tied to Froebel’s idea of the Kindergarten. However, the budding connection between the development of the child’s self in literature and the experience of place is perhaps best encapsulated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “My Kingdom” from The Child’s Garden of Verses (1885, a title which in itself evidences Froebel’s impact). Written in the voice of a pre-adolescent child, the poem recounts its speaker’s experience of a secret dell, which becomes an entire world in the child’s imagination, as he plays alone out of doors, away from his mother. The dell, like Froebel’s garden, is a space which he can think of as his own. It engages his imaginative capacities and allows him the feeling of independence he needs to grow, without actually separating him from his mother and his house—for we learn at the poem’s end that the dell is within hearing of his house and his mother’s call to tea.

II. Omnipotence

Perhaps what stands out most in Stevenson’s poem, though, is the child’s emphasis on his ownership of the place. He imagines the little pool a sea and makes a little boat and a little town “and named them one and all,” staking his claim on them in the renaming so that “all about was [his].” In the dell, the child is king, all-powerful ruler of the world he has created; in him, we see the Froebellian kindergarten from the child’s perspective. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, in her The Development of a Child, argues that since children are fundamentally helpless, to avoid feelings of impotence, they will engage in fantasies of omnipotence, creating imaginary worlds in which power rests with children and often in which adults—and particularly parents—are weak, “bad,” or absent (Lapierre, 26-27). In order to grow and to reconcile himself with his reality, the child needs these fantasies and the space—both physical and psychological—in which to develop them.

Catherine Beck, in her thesis on the evolution of the garden image in children’s literature, finds evidence of this need for omnipotence in the common “miniaturization” of worlds, by which the child gains a disproportionate sense of his own scale. Beck examines the case of Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books, who, as a result of the Hundred Acre Wood’s miniaturization “takes on the role of a god-like figure, while the toys represent children” (Beck, 169). In the real world, of course, Christopher Robin is a small boy like any other, powerless in a world ruled by adults; in Sherwood Forest, however, he not only physically towers over all the world’s other inhabitants (which is emphasized in the stories’ illustrations), but is wiser and more powerful than they are as well. The Hundred Acre Wood—as Stevenson’s child’s dell—is a kindergarten. Even its name expresses its function as, to a child, 100 acres may sound enormous, but in reality the wood doesn’t even cover a fifth of a square mile. The world is a space small, enclosed, safe, but imaginatively immense, in which Christopher Robin can satisfy his fantasies of omnipotence and develop safely away from adults. Stevenson’s child engages in a similar imaginative re-scaling, fantasizing his omnipotence by transforming the “little dell” into a miniature—but complete—world over which he rules. If the “little pool” he finds becomes a sea, the child becomes a giant, having not himself changed sizes. In his Froebellian kindergarten he has the space to allow his imagination to transform himself into the antidote for the “very big” nurse that awaits him at home in the “great and cool” rooms.

The Secret Garden, Charles Robinson, 1911.


Both the child’s experience of the world around him and the spatial expression of his fantasies of omnipotence are explored in perhaps the most famous literary instance of a Froebellian garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) in which Mary Lennox discovers a garden which provides an alternative to and an escape from the rigid notions of Victorian education symbolized by Mrs. Medlock, Misselthwaite Manor, and its “near a hundred… gloomy” rooms, dimly lit and so huge they make Mary feel “small and lost,” just as Stevenson’s child does when he returns to the “great and cool” rooms of his house (Burnett, 10, 11). In the garden, Mary discovers a “world all her own,” “a secret kingdom” into which she could go “every day and shut the door… and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because no one would ever know where she was” (Burnett, 47, 41). The world and the play Mary discovers in the garden, though, are not the imaginative ones of Stevenson’s child, but rather the direct product of Froebel’s idea of the child as growing plant.¹ In Mrs. Sowerby, the mother of Martha and Dickon, Burnett has a natural opposing force to the old-fashioned notions of Misselthwaite, and it is Mrs. Sowerby who suggests a literalization of the Froebellian kindergarten for Mary: “a bit [o’ room] for herself” in the gardens, where she’d be able to “dig an’ rake away an’ be right down happy over it”—which is precisely what Mary does in the secret garden (Burnett, 50, 48). In the image of the plants growing in the garden, Burnett provides a Froebellian analogue for Mary herself as she uses language reminiscent of child-rearing to describe the flowers. “[The flowers] won’t just grow in a night,” Ben Weatherstaff tells Mary, “tha’ll have to wait for them. They’ll poke a bit higher here, an’ push out a spike more there, an’ uncurl a leaf this day and another that” (Burnett, 39). In tending the secret garden, Mary learns patience and the value of her own work, but she also experiences the importance of a space of her own where she, like the flowers, can slowly grow, leaf by leaf unfurling, without being prodded by governesses (Burnett, 42). Upon her first visit to the garden, Mary clears space around as many little budding flowers as she can and, admiring her work, comments “Now they look as if they could breathe,” a comment which both establishes a connection between the plant and the human and which follows directly on Froebellian ideas of the necessity of space for growth. In the garden’s “stillness” and secret seclusion, Mary is finally able to breathe—she, like the flowers, has been given space enough to “help [herself]” (Burnett, 49).

III. Secrecy and the Second World

To reduce Stevenson’s child’s dell or Burnett’s garden simply to literary representations of Froebel’s kindergarten, though, would be to do them a great disservice, for in applying his ideas, they do much more than simply provide children with spaces of their own. Though on a basic, extra-textual level, these are spaces, as the kindergarten, designed by adults (authors) for the use of child protagonists and readers, within the worlds of the stories they actively stimulate the development of the self and the imagination through aspects absent from Froebel’s kindergarten. The secret garden is walled and locked, grown about with ivy. The dell is “very little,” bordered by blooming heather and gorse, which might obscure its existence from a distance. Both spaces are small (particularly by contrast to the realm of adults in the texts—the “great and cool” rooms of Stevenson, the imposing, “dreary grandeur” of Misselthwaite Manor), enclosed, self-contained, safe in their proximity to the house, but above all, secret.

Sissela Bok, in Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1983), writes that the essence of secrecy is in its presupposition of separation, evident in its derivation from the Latin secernere, “to sift apart, to separate as with a sieve.” Bok emphasizes that inherent in the concept of secrecy is “the separation between insider and outsider,” between those in the know and those not (Bok, 6). Her formulation of those in possession of a secret as being on the “inside” turns the secret itself into a place: the secret becomes a psychological space where one can enjoy one’s knowledge and the power and superiority it brings. Bok’s ideas on secrecy dovetail with Klein’s analysis of the childhood need for fantasies of omnipotency as Bok expresses the attraction of secrets practically in Kleinian terms, citing “the desire to gain control, to feel superior to those not in possession of the secrets” (Bok, 34). Bok’s understanding of the secret as space builds on Georg Simmel’s work in “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies” (1906), in which he argues that “secrecy secures… the possibility of a second world alongside of the obvious world” and that the real, obvious world is “most strenuously affected” by the presence of the second world (Simmel, 462). Thus, in having a secret, one already has a secret place, a “second world” privy only to those in the know and it is these secret worlds—and their literalizations in children’s literature—which act as crucibles for the child’s self. Carl Jung, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, despite taking a much more negative view of secrets and secrecy, nevertheless admits that the possession of secrets “saves [man] from dissolving in the unconsciousness of mere community life, and thus from fatal psychic injury”; secrets and secrecy are the building blocks of the individual self (Jung, 35-36).

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The Secret Garden, Charles Robinson, 1911.
IV. Refuge from Immensity

The physical characteristics of the secret space—the spatial expression of secrecy—point towards a dialectic not present in Froebel between open immensity and enclosed miniature. In his “Wuthering Immensity” (a title which itself references The Secret Garden), John Stilgoe explores the implications of our instinctual aversion to the experience of space which beleaguers the framework through which we have learned to view the world, teasing out the relation between the small and the immense. Quoting twentieth-century journalist Julian Tennyson on the Suffolk Breckland, Stilgoe pursues the notion of space that makes “you feel that you are loose in some vast, flat, limitless arena, that all about you, beyond your sight, there is something which you most desperately want, and that if you run all your life and in any direction you will never reach it” (Stilgoe, 14). It is exactly this experience of geographic immensity that Mary Lennox undergoes upon arriving in Yorkshire. Mary does not understand Mrs. Medlock’s comment that “there’s nothing else” beyond the house and its gardens until she experiences that nothing herself crossing the moor at night, listening to the “hollow shuddering… roar” of the “wuthering” wind on the moor and wondering at the nothingness which is so vast, wild, and empty (Burnett, 11, 30). As much as Mary’s walled garden is a symbolic space of development, restoration, and budding autonomy in The Secret Garden, Stilgoe points out that it is also an enclosed refuge from the “wuthering” wind of the moorland, a “stretch of land which seemed to have no trees on it, and to look rather like an endless, dull, purplish sea” (Stilgoe, 14). Mary’s first thought on entering the secret garden is to wonder at its “stillness,” so surprising in contrast to the roar of the wind outside its walls. Inside the garden, Mary is safe from the immensity of the moor, which finds its analogue in the immensity of the adult world of Misselthwaite. The miniature, the enclosed is refuge from the experience of immensity—whether geographic immensity of the type described by Tennyson or a more intangible sort, the immensity that is the adult world, symbolized by those “great and cool rooms” which Stevenson’s child reenters upon leaving the little dell.

V. Imagination

While the application of Stilgoe’s framework of immensity and enclosure to Burnett’s secret garden does much to explicate the extra-Froebellian importance of the physicality of secret, enclosed spaces for the development of the child, it does not approach the psychological aspects of imaginative engagement with the secret space which are so evident in Stevenson and which Burnett traces in the “awakening” of Mary’s imagination by her solitude and interaction with the space around her (Burnett, 41). Stilgoe’s dialectic and Mary’s imaginative development can be reconciled through the lens of phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which traces the impact of spaces on the development of the child’s imagination. In Bachelard’s system, the imagination—“the capacity to dream”—is central to the discovery and development of the self and it is places which stimulate the imagination and dreaming which are the “chambers of being” of a self (Burnett, 138).

Whereas for Stilgoe the movement toward enclosure in response to the vastness of physical geography is an attempt to take refuge from the experience of immensity, Bachelard reconciles the experience of enclosure with the experience of immensity by figuring small, enclosed spaces as access points to the inner immensity of the imagination, building on Burnett’s insistence that Mary’s engagement with the immensity of the moor aids in her development. “She did not know that [going outside] was the best thing she could have done … that she was … making herself stronger by fighting with the wind” Burnett says of Mary’s initial forays into Yorkshire’s immensity (Burnett, 27). Burnett knows that Mary must always rejoin the wild, immense world that the garden provides shelter from; the refuge Stilgoe identifies can only be a temporary one. Thus for Burnett and Bachelard, the garden is a place of stability, security, and secrecy in which the self is constructed through the inner immensity of the imagination in order to once again venture out into the immensity of the outer world.² “Immensity is within ourselves,” Bachelard writes, “it is the philosophical category of daydream” activated by small space (Bachelard, 183, 184). Thus, the enclosure within the miniature world of the garden or the dell is not merely a walling-off as Stilgoe figures it, but a symbolic and creative turn to the inner immensity of the imagination by which the self is built.

In exploring this capacity of the small space to reconcile outward immensity and inward immensity towards the development of a self, Bachelard cites a passage examined by Sartre from Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica in which a little girl “had been playing houses in a nook right in the bows” of a ship at sea “and tiring of it [she] was walking rather aimlessly aft. . . when it suddenly flashed into her mind that she was she” (Bachelard, 138). The little girl’s “nook” is what Bachelard terms a “corner”: a small, enclosed, and secluded space in which we “withdraw into ourselves”—a haven where we feel secure and “at peace”—and which is the “symbol of solitude for the imagination (Bachelard, 136-7). Hughes’ little girl, aboard a ship that has been “aimless[ly] wandering” for weeks in the vastness of the open sea—a vastness which recalls Mary Lennox’s experience of the Yorkshire moors, retreats from the experience of the physical immensity all around her into a secluded space that she transforms from “a nook. . . behind the windlass” into a “house” belonging to her through the power of her imagination, turning the devil’s-claw she has hung upon the windlass into a door-knocker and performing the same imaginative transformation and claiming that Stevenson’s child did (Hughes, 135-6). The girl’s imagination, activated by her “corner,” causes “the universe itself. . . [to] withdraw into [the] corner with the daydreamer” so that, and Bachelard quotes the Lithuanian poet O.V. de Milosz, “all infinity can be contained” there (Bachelard, 139, 142). However, as Bachelard points out, it is not in the nook, but when she leaves it, leaves her “house,” that the girl discovers her self in a flash. The moment of re-entry into the physical immensity of reality from the world of the imagination’s inner infinity produces a realization of her being, an understanding of her place in the “vast universe,” recalling Burnett’s insistence on Mary’s engagement with the wuthering wind (Bachelard, 139).

And yet, it is the corner itself which is the “chamber of being”—the crucible of self—for it is the corner which engages the imaginative capacities of children and which allows them to find themselves, like Hughes’ girl, suddenly in the presence of their own selves, without having consciously sought them. Looking again at Stevenson through the lens of Bachelard, the role of the small, secret, solitary place in the engagement of the imagination becomes apparent. The dell, like Bachelard’s corner, is a “symbol of solitude” for the imagination: the child is alone there, hidden from view by the heather and gorse. We know that upon his return home to tea, he will not speak of his dell nor his kingdom, for to tell of their existence would be to jeopardize their very nature.

VI. (Good) Faith

Martin Jan Langeveld, in his “The Secret Place in the Life of the Child,” writes that “the secret place has its own life—the intruder destroys it as if it were a soap bubble”—an image which emphasizes its essential delicacy (Langeveld, 181, 183). The corner, the child’s kingdom, is balanced between the familiarity and safety of the home and the edge of the unknown, within hearing of the mother, but out of her sight, its imaginative existence safe in its secrecy and in the child’s wholehearted belief in its reality. This last aspect Langeveld explores in calling the secret space a “true illusion” which must be experienced by the denizen of the secret space “with an honesty of immediacy” and “with no bad conscience” (Langeveld, 183). Like Sartre’s waiter, the child must be king in his kingdom—he cannot playact the part of king. For the secret place, the corner, to successfully engage the intimate imagination of the child and reveal himself to himself, it must be a place “where one finds oneself at home, a place where one is with oneself” and thus one cannot enter into it as into a game of make-believe, a tenet which necessitates the exclusion of even the gamest parent (Langeveld, 183). Just as Hughes’ girl turns her “nook” into a “house,” Stevenson’s child transforms the dell into an entire world; both are illusions conjured by the imagination and wholeheartedly believed as long as the child inhabits them.

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Pauline Baynes, 1950.
VII. Kings and Queens Foretold

Bachelard’s analysis of corners does not address an aspect of the child’s secret space which Langeveld hints at and which is so apparent in Burnett’s The Secret Garden: the secret space needs the child just as much as the child needs the secret space. The relation of the garden to the gardener is a symbiotic one—as Burnett demonstrates in the mutual cultivation of the garden and the girl—and it is just this relation which characterizes the interaction of children with their secret spaces and imaginative kingdoms. Whereas Froebel’s kindergarten exists only to nurture and Bachelard’s corner only to stimulate the imagination, while the child is required to give nothing in return, the secret garden provides Mary—a child born to a mother who had “not wanted” her and who has spent all of her life neglected—with the experience of being needed (Burnett, 1). In her Remembrance and the Design of Place, Frances Downing examines the places and spaces of childhood which remain significant in our memories, noting that the “unfinished nature” of many of the secret spaces of youth remembered by the architects and designers she interviewed “provided a sense of ownership through an ability to complete the place with one’s presence,” recalling again Klein’s analysis of the child’s desire for omnipotence—a feeling which the experience of ownership confers (Downing, 28). Though Downing refers mainly to literally unfinished components of the house—the root cellar, the cupboard under the stairs, the attic (the last of which Langeveld takes a his example of the quintessential secret space of childhood)—her idea of completion by virtue of habitation, of presence, speaks to the child’s desire to be needed, as Mary Lennox is by her garden, which she restores to its “complete” state through care and cultivation.

This symbiotic relation between children and space is particularly evident in looking at children’s fantasy literature, in which Kleinian, Bachelardian, and Froebellian ideas about the  child’s development are taken to their absolute extreme: the secret dell Stevenson’s child imagined into a world becomes a real and separate world, contained, for instance, in a wardrobe; the secret garden’s need for a gardener becomes a kingdom’s need for a king. Such is the case in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, in whose first book (by date of publication) ordinary English children, evacuated from London during the air raids (and thus in a position of powerlessness far beyond the usual childhood helplessness), stumble upon a world called Narnia which needs them desperately and which they can affect—unlike their own world. Accessed through an unfinished space straight out of Downing—a wardrobe in a spare room—Narnia itself is “unfinished,” stuck in a terrible stasis of incompletion, which itself echoes the state Mary finds the frost-bound garden in. In Narnia, the White Witch has stopped the seasons, making it “always winter and never Christmas,” doing everything in her power to prevent the prophecy which foretells the rule of the four Pevensie children and the end of winter from coming to pass (Lewis, 20).

Narnia is everything the Pevensies need: a Bachelardian corner (Lewis, in pushing Bachelard’s ideas to the extreme, literalizes them, placing the immensity of an entire world within the physically small and enclosed space of a wardrobe—Narnia symbolizing the children’s inner immensities of imagination) away from adults and the powerlessness of their situation in the real world, which needs them and over which they can exert the power they so lack in reality, indulging their Kleinian fantasies of omnipotence. While the fact of the secret garden’s need for Mary is tacitly understood, Lewis signposts it in creating a prophecy which makes explicitly clear the degree to which Narnia relies on the Pevensies for its “completion” (Lewis, 89). That Lewis intends the secret world of Narnia as a sort of kindergarten to aid in the development of the children’s selves and their maturity is evident enough from the children’s development throughout the books, but, to underline the point—as he had done earlier with the prophecy—Lewis prevents the children from returning to Narnia once they grow “too old.” Once they have reached maturity and are no longer caught in the confusion of puberty, Narnia has served its purpose for them.³ They have done what they could for it and it for them.◊

VII. The Language of the Conqueror

Lewis’ Narnia is useful, also, in that it demonstrates that “corners” in children’s literature are not limited to the physicality of a single enclosed space. Much larger spaces—literally or figuratively enclosed and many far less extreme than Narnia—fulfill the functions of the Bachelardian Downing-inflected “corner.” A perhaps more interesting case is that of Arthur Ransome’s non-fantasy Swallows and Amazons series, set in England’s Lake District, but a Lake District “disguised,” to use Ransome’s own word, so that “the Swallows and Amazons had a country of their own” (Hunt, 33).♠ Catherine Beck argues for an understanding of Ransome’s Lake District and the lake which the Swallows and Amazons explore as a garden writ large, an “open countryside treated by child protagonists as virtually private property” (Beck, 7). In Ransome’s world, parents are only ever peripherally present; fathers are away at sea or dead, and mothers are “natives” who supply provisions from the mainland, occasionally worrying about the effects of the damp on intrepid explorers, but in the end content with their status as native “other.”

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Map of the lake from Swallows and Amazons‘ endpapers.

Naming, in Ransome, proves as essential an element of the imaginative transformation of the corner as it is in Stevenson’s poem. Not only do the children exclude the adults from their world by renaming them, but they claim everything on and about the lake through renaming. In these names, the children exert imaginative power over the landscape, transforming it to their desires, playing out their fantasies of omnipotence, and imaginatively bringing the immense into the miniature world of their garden-lake. The little village becomes sprawling Rio, a lakeland peak grows into Kanchenjunga, a little beck expands to become the grand Amazon. Through the power of naming, the children claim and control a world overlaid on the real one, a secret world known only to themselves, who are not the world’s rulers, but its “explorers”—a role which performs an analogous function to that of Mary’s gardener. In the Walkers’ imagination, none of this lake has been mapped or named. In discovering, charting, and particularly naming the islands, the towns, the hills, and the fells the Swallows and Amazons complete their Lake District, becoming the explorers it lacks.

The “corner,” then, is not merely a place of enclosure, a safe haven from the immensity of the physical and adult world, but it is a place which needs and nurtures the child, who, drowning in the immensity of the world—those “great and cool” rooms—feels adrift, placeless, unneeded, and powerless. As Ransome makes clear, one need not have lost one’s parents and been shipped halfway across the world or been evacuated from an air raid to experience the longing for control that Mary and the Pevensies do. Even the Walkers, who are only on their summer holidays, express an immediate need for space of their own and a feeling of autonomy. When we first meet them, they are camped out in a little clearing on a promontory overlooking the lake, a thick pine wood hiding them from view on all sides save that facing the lake. We learn that “on the very evening of their first coming [to the lake] … the children had found their way through the trees to the far end of the promontory … And it was then, when they first stood on the cliff and looked out over mile upon mile of water, that Titty had given the place its name” (Ransome, 17). The Walkers’ first action at the lake is to explore, name, conquer, and imaginatively rescale Darien. Even if their father had forbidden the expedition to the island, they had planned to camp on the mainland, away from the house. In this, the Walkers display the desire of all children to differentiate and distance themselves from their parents, to find a space of their own in which to define and develop themselves, combatting their natural experience of helplessness.

Nothing better exemplifies the Walkers’ urge to separate themselves from their parents (and all adults) than their invention of the designation “native.” When the Walker children first set up camp on Wild Cat Island, their mother (accompanied by the “powerful native” Mr. Jackson) is permitted to visit their camp, peek into their tents, and deliver the odds and ends that hadn’t fit in the Swallow. As the Swallows watch “the native” from Holly Howe row their mother over to the island the evening of their first day as true explorers, Titty verbalizes the change in their mother’s status. No longer is she “mother” or Queen Elizabeth—she “is a native too” and, accordingly, she must be spoken to in the “native” language, not the English of the explorers (Ransome, 60). Titty’s opening “allawallacallacacuklacaowlaculla” immediately signals to their mother her status as an outsider in the explorers’ camp—a role which she gamely inhabits, allowing her children their space by allowing them to keep their secret (Ransome, 61).♣

It is not, however, the explorers’ camp that is the immediate figure for the secrecy and privacy of the children’s new world, but the hidden harbor John discovers for Swallow. When the Swallows first sail to Wild Cat, they circle the island looking for a place to land and eventually settle on an open bit of beach near their eventual camp. John is unsatisfied by the place—not first because it is unsheltered from the wind, but because “everybody can see it from the mainland” (Ransome, 50). In search of something better, John happens upon a hidden harbor, enclosed between two steep outcroppings of rock and practically invisible from the water. Not only will Swallow be safe in this harbor, but “no one will find her”—secrecy which is made even more complete by the Amazons’ esoteric system of marks, which must be known to be recognized and understood to be used, fulfilling another of Downing’s criteria for secret spaces, that the “mechanism for entry . . . be complex” (Ransome, 55; Downing, 28). When their mother visits the first night, she is not allowed to know the location of Swallow because she is a native (“a nice native, of course” [Ransome, 61]). The harbor, which houses the vehicle of their freedom and autonomy, becomes the immediate symbol of their new, secret world—a world which adults may not have access to. The secret harbor is their Bachelardian corner, symbol for the larger metaphorical corner that is their Lake District world.

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The Hidden Harbor, Arthur Ransome, 1930.
X. Miniature

All of these spaces—Ransome’s Lake District, Burnett’s secret garden, Lewis’ Narnia, Stevenson’s dell—are real physical spaces which can be inhabited by the child and which exist—in the world of the story, at least—whether or not the child is present. In E. Nesbit’s The Magic City, the power of the child in the secret space and the secret space’s dependence upon the child become absolute, for the magic, miniature city which Philip and Lucy explore and deliver from the machinations of the Pretenderette (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the nurse who terrorizes Philip, recalling Klein’s inclusion of the “bad” adult in the child’s fantasy of omnipotence) could not exist had Philip not built it. In this, Nesbit’s magic city proves something of an apotheosis of the imaginative relation of the child’s budding self to his interaction with secret space, for in it inside and outside become one and the same as inner immensity manifests itself as physical miniature which is then transformed via the immense imagination into physical immensity and back again.

In grappling with Nesbit’s city, we must turn again to Bachelard, pursuing his notion of smallness beyond “corners” and into the concept of the “miniature” itself. Bachelard believes that it is not merely small spaces which activate the imagination, but smallness itself—smallness which the “corner” simply channels. In his image of “the minuscule” as “a narrow gate” which “opens up an entire world,” one is reminded of an illustration in Book III of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Books of Magic, in which the main character, Tim Hunter, must pass through a little wicket to reach the world of faerie (Bachelard, 155; Gaiman, Book III). The miniature, for Bachelard, is exactly that wicket opening into faerie wherein “the details of a thing can be a sign of a new world” because the miniature teaches us to see the world differently, to experience what we see anew, and thus engages the imagination (Bachelard, 155). Taking these ideas on the miniature in conjunction with Downing’s positing of the privileged relation to the “unfinished” space, a place becomes possible for the most fundamental of a child’s experiences with the creation of secret space; that is, the literal construction of a world of sand, of blocks, of twigs, or, as Philip’s city, of whatever is to hand. In building a miniature world, the child constructs an emblem of the imagined world, where secret space is the space of the miniature world or city which is at once the immense space of the imagination. The child sitting on the floor surrounded by simple wooden blocks is as much in possession of a secret space as Stevenson’s child in his dell or Mary Lennox in her garden. This child, though, is not ruler, as Stevenson’s child, nor explorer, as Ransome’s, but all-powerful creator—a god in reality, not merely in stature as Milne’s Christopher Robin is in the Hundred Acre Wood.

XI. The Demiurge

In his Mythologies, Roland Barthes, writing on toys, denigrates the French toys “based on imitation” which “always mean something” and “are meant to produce children who are users, not creators” (Barthes, 53-4). Echoing the thinking that led Froebel to develop his simple wooden and cloth toys, his “gifts” (which included sets of plain wooden blocks), Barthes insists that the only toy which allows the child to become a creator is “the merest set of blocks,” which avoid the potential for children to create objects with any meaning beyond that which they attach to them (Barthes, 54). With blocks, “the actions [the child] performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge” Barthes writes, praising the power and feeling of omnipotence creation lends the child (Barthes, 54). Barthes’ idea that the act of building is the only “play” activity which allows the child to transcend his status as passive user and become an active creator dovetails perfectly with Bachelard’s and Downing’s ideas about the discovery and the creation of the self occurring through the interaction with space. For what is building but the creation of space—and space in the miniature? Barthes perhaps is too stringent in decrying any building material besides plain blocks, for the power he ascribes the child who constructs a world from objects without signification is present also in Nesbit’s Philip and his building of the magic city.

In her Wings and the Child, a book written to aid young people in constructing miniature cities in the manner of Philip’s, E. Nesbit takes the opposite view from Barthes, writing of the plain sets of blocks available in stores that “they are lacking both in quality and quantity. No box of bricks that can […] be bought for money will build anything that can satisfy an imaginative child” (Nesbit, Wings and the Child, 55). Though Bachelard wrote long after Nesbit, she would likely have agreed with his idea that “the magnifying glass […] bars the everyday world,” by which he meant that looking at objects with the focus on the miniature, on the details which become “the sign of a new world”—“the enlarging gaze of a child”—the extraordinary becomes inevitable and a whole new world opens up (Bachelard, 155). For Nesbit, the silver ink stands and chessmen Philip borrows to make his city are at once themselves and wholly alien. In the magic city, things once small become enormous and once tiny details become visible as if they were blown up under a microscope. Any child worth his salt to Nesbit would be able to imagine these effects, even if his city never came to life to make the image real.

Philip walks a domino floor amidst candelabra columns. Spencer Pryse, 1906.


XII. Where Immensity and the Miniature Meet

Of course, Philip’s city does become real and in so doing it becomes the perfect symbol for Bachelard’s concept of the compatibility of the tiny and the immense (Bachelard, 172). What Philip builds in the miniature as a conglomeration of household objects reconfigured to suit his tastes, becomes, once it is alive, immense. He approaches the city from a “vast, flat plain” with “no trees, no houses, no hedges or fences to break the expanse of grass … It reminded him of the illimitable prairie of which he had read in books of adventure” (Nesbit, The Magic City, 15). Immediately, we recall Julian Tennyson’s Breckland and Mary Lennox’s moor. Here, finally, in Nesbit’s magic city is the marriage of physical immensity with inner immensity which Burnett pushed Mary towards, achieved through Bachelard’s synthesis of the tiny and the immense. For, Philip’s prairie is, of course, the dining room carpet and “the giddy height” he climbs to reach the city is only the distance from the floor to the lip of the table (TMC, 16). The immensity of Philip’s imagination has merged with physical immensity through the conduit of the miniature—and the result is “vast,” a word Nesbit sprinkles generously throughout her descriptions of the city. From the “vast, flat plain,” Philip sees “one vast dark cave.” In front of him “tower[s] […] a vast building” behind which is the  castle, “a vast rough structure.” He is led along a vast corridor and through vast arches, he encounters a dragon with a vast head and experiences vast silences (TMC, 15, 16, 57, 119, 29, 60, 77, 181).

Nesbit’s use of the word “vast” is beautifully explained by Bachelard’s discussion of the poet Baudelaire’s use of the same word as “a metaphysical argument by means of which the vast world and vast thoughts are united” (Bachelard, 191-2). Baudelaire’s “vast,” Bachelard argues, is a synthesis, “reconcil[ing] contraries” (Bachelard, 192). Reading the coming to life of Philip’s city as the marriage of the immensity of his imagination with physical immensity via the contradictory miniature, Nesbit’s “vast” functions similarly, marking the way in which immense and miniature collapse into one another as the imagination moves them from one state to another. Bachelard sums the paradoxical non-contradiction up saying, “if a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing” (Bachelard, 172).

XIII. Building the Self

Philip’s journey in The Magic City is one towards emotional maturity, towards growing up, and towards discovering his self. As in Swallows and Amazons, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, and “My Kingdom,” the journey towards selfhood is accomplished through the discovery or creation of a “corner”—an enclosed, relatively secure space in which the children can safely explore their abilities, challenge their beliefs, experience autonomy and power, and experience responsibility so that they can begin the process of growing up. Philip’s magic city is just such a space, though it is perhaps the most perfect emblem of the space because it is entirely and directly a product of his imagination—physically, in its built reality, and imaginatively, in its magical growth—and thus it most satisfyingly fulfills the child’s desire for omnipotence in allowing Philip to become Barthes’ demiurge, defeating in his created world the “bad” adult.

Philip building his city. Spencer Pryse, 1906.


In building and saving the city and playing out his fantasies of omnipotence Philip is—just as all the other child protagonists examined—building himself, constructing his interior through his imagination, in preparation for his return to the real world. In her “Building a New World: Gender and Modernism in E. Nesbit’s The Magic City,” Madelyn Travis argues that Philip’s construction of the city should be understood as directly paralleling the construction of his soul (Travis, 137-8). The acceptance with which he views his older sister Helen’s marriage (the event which sends him spiraling into despair and loneliness) at the end of the book is a direct result of the power of his imagination to synthesize the miniature and the immense and create a secret space to serve as a “chamber of being” even in the midst of his new brother-in-law’s sprawling, unfamiliar, and unwelcoming house. Nesbit reminds us in Wings and the Child that “the only magic in the city is the magic of the imagination,” emphasizing—just as Bachelard, Klein, Froebel, and Downing—the importance of the child’s capacity to imagine in the struggle of becoming a self (WatC, 143). And, like Bachelard and Langeveld, Nesbit locates the catalyst for the imagination in the child’s intimate engagement with secret space. Secret space does indeed create a “second world”—to use Simmel’s phrase—as real to the child as the first. As long as “nothing interferes with the multiplicity of relations the objects of this world have to ‘reality,’” Langeveld writes, a “box can be a box, but it can also be a cave […] or a fortress, a cliff, a boat, an airplane, or a building block” (Langevelde, 183). Through the imagination, a secret space can be anything, the child inhabiting it can be anyone, and through his choices in this multiplicity, the child, like Hughes’ girl on the deck of the ship, comes face to face with himself upon reentering “reality.”

  1. The Pan-like guiding figure of Dickon even serves as an analogue of Froebel’s highly-educated and knowledgeable kindergarten educator as he teaches Mary to restore the garden, prompting her to better understand herself and to develop.

  2. This trajectory, from immensity of the house to immensity of the moor to enclosed garden to immensity once more is also followed by Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin and the son of the master of Misselthwaite, and in whom its affects appear even more extremely. The garden engages Mary’s imagination, curiosity, and empathy, but it heals Colin, bringing him back to life just as Mary and Dickon revivify the garden, and making it possible for him to contend with the immensity of the outside world.
  3. That by the publication of The Last Battle Lewis has decided to have the Pevensies die in the real world and return to Narnia complicates this claim for in this Lewis figures Narnia not as a space in which to represent the complicated process of growing up, but as an allegory for Heaven. However, I think it likely that in the writing of the first few books, Lewis had not yet intended to figure Narnia as Heaven and thus my point stands.

◊ Countless other fantasy novels can be fit to the same pattern, including the Harry Potter books, which pluck their hero from his miserable existence in the Muggle world and throw him into a secret world, symbolically small and enclosed like the world in the wardrobe (Diagon Alley takes up no real space in London; Hogwarts is surrounded by an invisible line of protection, which keeps it secure), immediately providing him with the feeling of belonging and being needed he has never experienced. Like Lewis, Rowling is not subtle in her reversal of Harry’s fortune once he has entered the Wizarding World; he does not merely find a sense of belonging through having discovered his identity as a wizard, nor through his admission to Hogwarts and sorting into Gryffindor, nor even in acquiring friends for the first time, but through discovering that he is “the chosen one,” destined, like the Pevensies, by a prophecy to save the world he has suddenly entered and thereby complete it.

♠ Some of the books in Ransome’s series are not set in the Lake District, but like Peter Duck (1932) and Missee Lee (1941) place the children on the high seas aboard the schooner Wild Cat. These are interesting because they turn out to be stories told by the children to one another during the long winters between summer holidays spent sailing out on the lake, providing examples on an even larger scale of the imaginative immensity of the small space—in this case the cozy fireside at Holly Howe or Beckfoot, wherein the children huddle and spin their yarns.

♣ Langeveld and Bok both examine the experience of the shared “intimacy of aloneness,” made possible through the sharing of a secret—or a secret world. “Company is only thinkable [in the secret space] in the experience of a commonly felt joy” writes Langeveld, for in “this commonly held enjoyment of the secret intimacy of aloneness” the experience of solitude so central to Bachelard is maintained, even if one is not actually alone, for you are “inside” your secret, alone together in its seclusion (Langeveld 183, Bok 34).


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Barthes, Roland. “Toys.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 53-55.

Beck, Catherine. The Enchanted Garden: A Changing Image in Children’s Literature. 2002. University of Nottingham, PhD thesis.

Bok, Sissela. Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
Downing, Frances. Remembrance and the Design of Place. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art. London: Macmillan, 1999.

Gaiman, Neil. The Books of Magic. New York: DC Comics, 2001.

Gavin, Adrienne E. and Andrew F. Humphries. “Worlds Enough and Time: The Cult of Childhood in Edwardian Fiction.” Childhood in Edwardian Fiction: Worlds Enough and Time, ed. Adrienne E. Gavin and Andrew F. Humphries, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 1-20.

Grenby, M.O. “The origins of children’s literature.” British Library. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Hughes, Richard. A High Wind in Jamaica. New York: New York Review of Books, 1999.

Hunt, Peter. “Unstable Metaphors: Symbolic Spaces and Specific Places.” Space and Place in Children’s Literature, 1789 to the Present, ed. Maria Sachiko Cecire, et al. Farnham, UK, Ashgate, 2015.

Jung, Carl. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1948.

Lapierre, Laurent. “Mourning, Potency, and Power in Management.” The Psychodynamics of Organizations, ed. Larry Hirschhorn and Carole K. Barnett. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Langeveld, Martin Jan. “The Secret Place in the Life of the Child.” Phenomenology + Pedagogy, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Lewis, C.S. Prince Caspian. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Nesbit, Edith. The Magic City. New York: Sea Star Books, 2000.
Nesbit, Edith. Wings and the Child. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.

Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. London: Jonathan Cape, 1931.

Simmel, Georg. “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies.” American Journal of Sociology, vol.11, no. 4, Jan.1906, pp. 441-498.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “My Kingdom,” A Child’s Garden of Verses. New York: Scribner’s, 1955, pp. 61-62.

Stilgoe, John R. “Wuthering Immensity.” Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism, vol.1, Fall 2013, pp. 12-18.

Travis, Madelyn. “Building a New World: Gender and modernism in E. Nesbit’s The Magic City.The Sands of Time: Children’s Literature, Culture, Politics, and Identity, ed. Jenny Plastow and Margaret Hillel. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010, pp. 131-139.

Woodham-Smith, P. “The Origin of the Kindergarten.” Friedrich Froebel and English Education, ed. Evelyn Lawrence. New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 15-33.


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