IN Secret Gardens Humphrey Carpenter starts out from the premise that all fiction intended for children is implicitly Utopian. "Adult fiction sets out to portray and explain the world as it really is; books for children present it as it should be," he says in his preface. His title itse+ r of the Edwardian writer, E. Nesbit; in fact, the very notion of a literature specifically for children could only have arisen to meet the demands of the unprecedentedly protracted childhoods procured by the affluence of an unprecedentedly numerous middle-class, with a big, fat empire to back it up.

The fairy tale heritage may have helped to create a form that offered a good deal more imaginative freedom than the bourgeois realism of late Victorian adult fiction. Those writers who availed themselves of this freedom in a period where open discussion of sexuality was frowned upon frequently allowed their Freudian slips to show.

There is, after all, a profound strangeness in much of the fiction Carpenter discusses. Carpenter believes that the Alice books consist "on their deepest level, of an exploration of violence, death and Nothingness." But Alice, now shrinking, now growing, is tumescence personified. No female creature disrupts the gruff, male pleasures of Mole and Ratty; the only petticoat in the book is that worn by Toad in drag, when he disguises himself as a washerwoman. Although Peter Pan is, strictly speaking, a play, Carpenter makes room for it, proverbial as it is in its strangeness -- that tale of the boy who doesn't want to grow up. If this is Utopia, is Utopia suitable for children?

If the books are strange, their authors are made to seem even more so. Carpenter indulges himself somewhat in prurient detail, here, speculating on Charles (The Water Babies) Kingsley's penchant for making drawings of naked women being tortured and Lewis Carroll's well-known paedophilia, even finding some significance in the fact that George (The Princess and the Goblin) MacDonald's wife was two years older than he -- though it seems hard to therefore call her attitude to him "grandmaternal."

He reserves an especial leer for Louisa May Alcott, whom he admits among the Anglos on the grounds that the March family books portray "the family as an Arcadia." He informs us that Louisa inherited "her mother's mannish looks" and speculates: "was she really in love with her sister?" This line of thought gets seriously out of hand when Carpenter is discussing E. Nesbit (The Treasure Seekers, Five Children and It, etc. etc.): "There is scarcely any suggestion in biographical records that she found other women sexually attractive," he reports, even though she, too, was of "boyish appearance." But, oh sinister: it turns out that H.G. Wells always called her Ernest -- and "there is no evidence that this displeased her in the least." Obviously Humphrey Carpenter is not aware of the importance of being Ernest.