“I am not sure what is wrong with the other people who read this book who seem to think it is exceptionally good writing. At the end of the day the story is of a grown man who destroys a child’s innocence, leads a former lesbian wife to suicide and adopts two additional children to molest later in life. It is sickening. For all the grand words used to describe the book, it is nothing but a new twist on pedophelia [sic]. By explaining it through the eyes of man consumed by it, the author tries to perhaps makes him more human and makes the subject more palatable. Rubbish. I threw the book in the trash in the Orlando airport and poured my drink on top of it. That was the only time I had any delight related to this book! It does not even deserve one star”
It may seem perverse of me to have chosen a novel as the second of my ‘three essential paedo-reads’. A novel – a work of the imagination – can prove nothing, furnish no evidence or data, facts, arguments or experiences.
Fiction, however, mediates between ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ much as a landscape photograph mediates between a map and the experience of actually being physically present in the landscape the map and photograph represent.
Moreover, to extend the simile, a good landscape photograph will furnish the viewer with an experience not available even to someone stood at the very spot from which the photo was taken. The insight and artistry of the photographer and the peculiar genius of the medium add much that surpasses the unmediated experience.
And it may seem doubly perverse not to have chosen ‘Lolita’: that masterpiece of hebephilia, acclaimed by Kind and un-Kind alike as the great love novel of the twentieth century.
Maybe the reason ‘Lolita’ is considered a classic whilst ‘Dream Children’ is treated as ‘bin-fodder’ is because the public is not ready for a hero who is an active paedophile whose relationship with his loved-child is the most pure, beautiful, unsullied and noble thing in the book. Nor is the public ready for a paedophile who is left unpunished by the author, or a loved-child who is unharmed by, and grateful for, her paedophile’s love.
As a ‘paedo-read’ A.N. Wilson’s ‘Dream Children’ succeeds where ‘Lolita’ fails.
A(ndrew) N(orman) Wilson published “Dream Children” in 1998. Its publisher’s blurb reads as follows:
“Oliver Gold, the brilliant, ascetic writer and philosopher, has lived quietly and happily for eight years on the outskirts of London as a lodger in 12 Wagner Rise. His sudden decision to marry and move to America precipitates a crisis in this household of women, all of whom owe fierce, idiosyncratic allegiance to Oliver and want to save him and their world from an unsuitable, inexplicable match. Yet in the end it is only Bobs, the twelve-year-old [sic*] who is Oliver’s constant companion, who knows his dangerous secret: it is from her that Oliver attempts to flee. In a series of dramatic tableaux, unfolding over the course of many years, A. N. Wilson threads the dark labyrinths of Wagner Rise and illuminates the tragic consequences of these attachments. With this provocative novel about forbidden love, Wilson has produced a stunning, haunting literary work-a Lolita for our times.”
(* Bobs is actually ten years old when the main events of this novel take place)
The ‘dangerous secret’ mentioned in the blurb is that Oliver Gold and Bobs are lovers. They are the central, and most interesting, characters in the novel. The twists and turns of the novel really serve to establish and test this relationship.
Oliver Gold’s sexual history starts when, at the age of nine, he’s seduced by a step-mother. At the age of 14 he engages in sexual relations with an older boy at boarding school. At university he has a bad experience when he tries to prove himself as ‘normal’ with a fellow female undergraduate.
Gold goes on to have a successful career as a professor and public intellectual. However he becomes possessed by what he describes as ‘erotomania’: an obsession with little girls that means he can no longer focus on the creation of his philosophical masterwork. Gold, after reading Hegel, becomes increasingly blocked and disillusioned with his own intellectual capacities.
A kind, avuncular old colleague suggests that he takes a couple of years off and Gold decides to move to London to write a commentary on Dante, and ends up in a spare room (next to Bobs’s room) at n°12 Wagner Rise.
Bobs, the granddaughter of Janet, the doyenne of the house, has just had her third birthday. Her biological father has long vanished from her life.
Bobs and Gold become very close:
“..even though Bobs had lost a father, she had gained someone so much more interesting and sympathetic. Oliver was an uncle, a brother, a godfather, and a friend to Bobs. He had also taken over from Lotte many of the functions of a nurse or governess, collecting the child from school, preparing high tea, taking her to Brownies.”
In what must be one of the most moving vomiting scenes in all of literature Bobs is violently and repeatedly sick one night. Gold, who is ‘more than usually fastidious about the bodily functions’ hugs Bobs, ‘messy and stinking’ with vomit though she is, comforts her, strips ‘off her sodden pyjamas’, cleans her up in the bath and puts her to sleep in his bed. Once he’s finished cleaning her room, her bed and her toys, he snuggles ‘beside the sleeping form in his own bed’, and realises just how intensely he loves Bobs and ‘that he would be prepared to do anything for her, putting his own life in jeopardy for hers, should that be necessary.’
But as Bobs reaches double figures Gold starts to worry about her growing up. The only way out that Gold can see if for him to get married and emigrate:
“Bobs herself was changing. Soon she would grow away from him; and this was another reason for wishing to escape, to make a sweet wrench, rather than a gradual frigorification. From the day he first met her, as a very young child, there had been something bittersweet in their love […]”
The announcement of his engagement comes out of the blue. Bobs is heart-broken by this, though she refuses to show it, and the household of admiring women he lives with is thrown into turmoil.
And here start the events which the novel chronicles…
The Good vs the bad
There are actually two child-adult sexual relationships in this novel: the good one between Bobs and Gold and a genuinely abusive one. Through this opposition Wilson explores the nature and ethics of intimate relationships between adults and children.
Gold and Bobs’s relationship is based on mutual love and respect and is consensual and playful. Wilson gives no physical details, but when the Bobs, as an adult, recalls a moment of intimacy she remembers something involving ‘bananas and cream’. She also acknowledges that the case of sexual abuse:
“… and her own were different; that though certain things had passed between her and Oliver which a lawyer would have deemed unsavoury, she had never lost her virginity, and therefore never lost her power.”
There is a hint that their intimacy (presumably during the six months of heightened intimacy preceding the novel’s main events) may have involved orgasms, at least on Gold’s part:
“[Gold] was still visited, on a few days each month, by an undirected and overpowering lust. If Bobs could satisfy this, so much the better…”
The novel’s abusive relationship is coercive, the abuser starting to rape the girl when she is six years old.
Bobs and Gold keep their relationship secret throughout the novel. For its seven year duration both partners wished it to continue, and after it ends Bobs doesn’t feel bitter or regretful about it. However the abusive relationship makes national news after the daughter puts her abuser on trial (thus exemplifying the mechanism by which the world at large generally only gets to know of abusive relationships).
Whilst the victim of the abusive relationship is left damaged by her experiences, the emotional legacy of her relationship with Gold is more complex for Bobs.
The books last chapter takes place seventeen years after Bobs (now ‘Roberta’) and Gold had anything to do with one another. Roberta, now 27 years old, has made contact with Gold and is preparing to meet him.
She has grown into something that Gold (a Ruskinian socialist) probably would not have approved of: Armani-suited and something in Finance.
“Her childhood self had gone, like her childhood skin. She was a different person […]”
Roberta, preparing herself “for meeting the only man she had ever loved” reflects knows that she will never again fall in love:
“Love […] She had only felt if for a human being in this one instance, and she knew that on that level of intensity it was an unrepeatable experience.”
This hints that the real danger of a paedophile’s love is that life can never again live up to the ecstasy and exhilaration it brings to the child’s life. To quote the same passage from Margaux Fragoso’s ‘Tiger, Tiger’ in two consecutive posts:
“…time with a pedophile can be like a drug high. There was this girl who said it’s as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they’re children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don’t have. Their imaginations are stronger than kids’ and they can build realities that small kids would never be able to dream up. They can make the child’s world… ecstatic somehow…”
Gold’s moral failing isn’t his love for Bobs, which is profound, requited and beneficial. Nor that he allowed their love to eventually become physical. His culpability lies in that he abandoned Bobs and, in doing so, betrayed her.
Gold’s troubles, and those his entourage at n°12 Wagner Rise, start when he confronts the sorrowful prospect which many of us face – one’s loved-child is growing up, becoming less and less the child you loved, and growing away from you.
This is something many paedophiles have to confront: whilst the paedophile may still love the growing child, their preoccupations become those proper to adolescence: they increasingly turn to their peers for companionship and romance, and become increasingly preoccupied with ‘fitting in’.
This makes the novel particularly poignant for me since I feel that I once acted as did Gold – leaving a girl too soon because I felt she was growing away from me and I couldn’t face the slow drifting apart. Decades of reflection and regret have convinced me that this was an act of cowardice on my part. My loved-child’s reaction to my going showed that she was not ready for me to disappear out of her life.
Wilson also reserves a sting for the very last line of the book. He conjures the possibility that, whilst Bobs (now Roberta) has given up on love, Oliver Gold has moved on and, in his late 60s, found himself another ‘dream child’. This makes Roberta’s inability to fall in love again one-sided and more poignant: maybe Bobs, after all, wasn’t the love of Gold’s life.
It’s inevitable that on reading a book like ‘Dream Children’, a book that, against the grain of society, gets paedophilia so right, one should speculate as to why the author would wish to write such a book, and whence came his insights into this most misunderstood and misrepresented of loves.
At the age of seven Wilson was sent as a boarder to Hillstone Preparatory School in the Malvern hills. In 2011 Wilson wrote an article entitled “The paedophile headmaster, his sadistic wife and the schooldays that scarred me forever” about the abuse he experienced and witnessed there. At this boarding school Wilson and his fellow pupils experienced the worst form of paedophilia (though ‘paedosadism’ would be a more appropriate word: precious little ‘philia’ was displayed towards these poor little boys).
“Mr Barbour-Simpson was a paedophile, who was extremely skilful at hiding his proclivities from other grown-ups.
[…] But I am optimistic, not just in personal terms.
For not only can my life never, ever be as bad as it was during those six years of imprisonment in a madhouse, I also believe that however awful life might be for some unfortunate children in Britain today, there are surely no schools like that any more.
The public consciousness of the dangers and evil of child abuse is one of the best things that has happened in my lifetime.”
Note that while he describes the headmaster as a ‘paedophile’ it is ‘child abuse’ that he condemns. Wilson also wrote in the Financial Times:
“We are, rightly, much more vigilant than our parents were about paedophiles and much more aware of the lifelong damage they do to their victims.”
Here he seems to be condemning all paedophilia regardless, not just ‘sexual abuse’.
Could it be that the enlightened attitude in ‘Dream Children’ is just a device, a virtuoso act of impersonation in which he convincingly inhabits a position he has no sympathy for in real life?
And is it of significance that Gold moves to n°12 to write a commentary to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (which metamorphoses into a chronicle of his love for Bobs) and Wilson in 2011 published ‘Dante in Love’?
There is another factor that may have influenced Wilson’s Manichaean conception of paedophilia.
a digression on boarding schools
In England there has been generations of small upper-class boys who were systematically sent to private boarding schools. It seems that till recently the masters had a pretty free rein to exercise control, sexual or otherwise, over their charges. This may have occasionally taken a benign form. But surely the power imbalance between the boys and the masters, and a culture of secrecy, complicity and impunity would be conducive to the exploitative and coercive abuse Wilson experienced.
The other side of the coin is that these small boys, having been torn from their homes at a young age, and often desperately lonely and afraid, would be in great need of affection, attention, love and reassurance. They would turn to their peers for this, to older boys and, yes, maybe even to friendly masters. The conditions were such that these boys, sleeping in dormitories, had many opportunities for intimacy.
A theory that particularly interests me is that a key factor in the emergence of paedophilic feelings is an awareness, based on experience, that children are sexual beings (see ‘Sexy Kids: could this be the real cause of Paedophilia?’). The boarding school environment seems tailor-made to this end. And may explain why it seems that enlightened and nuanced views on paedophilia have frequently come from an older generation of men who’ve emerged from boarding schools.
One example of this is the late Brian Sewell. In episode n°7 of the Radio 4 programme ‘Saturday Night Fry’, which deals with ‘Moral Panics’, he excoriates hysterical attitudes towards child sexuality and paedophilia. Sewell is quite radical, drawing the line only at intimacy with ‘babes in arms’ (interestingly enough all the episodes of Saturday Night Fry are available on YouTube – except episode n°7!)
Other ex-boarders who have expressed subversive views round these issues include (off the top of my head) Simon Grey, Michael Davidson, George Melly and Stephen Fry himself – this article from the Guardian is interesting on this subject too.
Those who hate paedophilia and child sexuality will be shocked by this book. Readers like Judith Poch Armata (who seems to have read the book to the end: presumably in the hope that Gold suffer some kind of retribution, and/or that Bobs’s life be reassuringly destroyed by the relationship) clearly feel that the book is all sympathy and no condemnation. More sanguine members of the un-Kind population will think that this ‘shock’ is the book’s very point. Paedophiles are likely to see the novel as a vindication of consensual paedophilia.
Who is right? Has Wilson, by presenting it at its best, sought to write a more effective condemnation of paedophilia than the most harrowing misery memoirs? And if this was Wilson’s intention has he been too subtle, pulling the trigger only once the quarry is out of range?
With ‘Lolita’ one never really loses sight that Humbert (x2) is a selfish monster motivated by lust: with ‘Dream Children’ the opposite is the case: Oliver Gold is presented as such a paragon of love and devotion that any sense that this might be ironic is absent up until possibly, and only ‘possibly’, the novel’s last line.
It’s a book that in several places moves me to tears. It is the best depiction of paedophilic love I have read in fiction. And it so eerily and uncannily echos a period of my own life that it could almost be from my autobiography.