The story of how Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford, came to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has long since grown into literary myth. While rowing up the river to Godstow on a hot summer afternoon in 1862 with Robinson Duckworth (the Duck) and three Liddell sisters: Lorina (the Lory), Alice and Edith (the Eaglet), Dodgson (the Dodo in Alice - the nickname arose from his stammer in pronouncing his name) was prevailed upon to tell them a story, which he did, extemporising as he went along. He later wrote up the story which he called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and illustrated it himself, presenting it to Alice Liddell in 1864 as a Christmas present. Dodgson was encouraged by his friends Henry Kingsley (brother of Charles Kingsley) and George MacDonald to put it into print; it was revised and published a year later by Macmillan. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as its title became, emerged as the work of ‘Lewis Carroll’, with new illustrations provided by the Punch cartoonist John Tenniel. It was a much expanded version of the earlier text, introducing ‘The Caucus Race’, ‘Pig and Pepper’, ‘A Mad Tea-Party’ and the Cheshire Cat, all of which had been absent in the original telling. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was later adapted by Dodgson for younger readers in The Nursery ‘Alice’ (1890), in which 20 of the original illustrations by Tenniel were printed in colour.
From his correspondence with Macmillan, it would appear that Dodgson was thinking about Through the Looking Glass as early as the latter half of 1866; it was, however, 1871 before he finished writing it and Tenniel completed the illustrations; the book came out in December of that year. Both the Alice books have been continuously in print since their first publication, and what might be called an ‘Alice industry’ has grown up around them which began during Dodgson’s own lifetime, he himself inventing and commercially producing such items as the Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case. The first professional stage adaptation of Alice was produced by Henry Savile Clark in 1886; the work has also been adapted for the ballet and inspired a good many composers. David Del Tredici (1937-), an American composer, deserves mention here as having apparently been more than ordinarily struck by the Alice books. His love-affair with them has produced Vintage Alice (1972), Adventures Underground (1973), In Wonderland (parts 1 and 2) (1969—75), An Alice Symphony (1976), Final Alice (1976), Annotated Alice (1976) and the four-part Child Alice (1977-1981): In Memory of a Summer Day, Happy Voices, All in the Golden Afternoon, and Quaint Events, most of which are works for voice with accompaniment (see also music and story). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were also rendered as a Walt Disney cartoon entitled Alice in Wonderland (1951), which failed to observe the integrity of the text, and there have been many film versions, including one using puppets and a soft-porn version in 1976. Dreamchild (1985) is a more serious film exploring the relationship between ‘Carroll’ and Alice Liddell/ Hargreaves.
Alice imitations are legion, for example G.E. Farrow’s The Wallypug of Why, Gilbert Adair’s Through the Needle’s Eye and the more recent Castle of Inside Out (1997) by David Henry Wilson, which begins with an encounter between a child named Lorina and a Black Rabbit. Plays on the title itself are even more prolific, one of the better-known perhaps being Malice in Wonderland, used as a title by C. Day Lewis writing as Nicholas Blake.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel are landmarks in children’s literature. In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, ‘The piece I’m going to repeat . . . was written entirely for your amusement.’ The statement is also true of the Alice books, which were among the earliest works for children to be written for the entertainment and delight of the child rather than for instruction or improvement. The Alice books were among the first ‘bestselling’ children’s works: Morton Cohen’s Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1995) states that by 1898, the year of Dodgson’s death, more than 150,000 copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 100,000 copies of Through the Looking Glass had been printed.
The Alice books confront questions related to the issue of identity: what forms it, whether it is a thing externally constructed by society, its categories, rules and behavioural patterns, or something that is internally made. Rosemary Jackson, in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (1981), has suggested that the fantastic, as an alternative and oppositional mode to realism, constitutes a form of subversion, its departure from the assumptions and workings of the real everyday world serving to question and undercut those assumptions. The playfulness of Carroll’s fantasies may indeed function to critique and deconstruct Victorian society and ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’, and also the philosophy or ethos governing its literature, by examining how identity is affected when the usual rules governing the individual are removed.
Questioning is a prominent feature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; a good many of Alice’s utterances begin with ‘I wonder’, and Wonderland is less a world of wondrous things (though it is this as well) than it is a place of investigation and speculative thinking. Play may work to disrupt or unsettle the engraved patterns of things in its refusal to treat them seriously, and one of the dominant metaphors of the two books is that of games: we have the caucus race and croquet, where rules are cast to the wind, and playing cards and chess. As Alice tumbles down the rabbit-hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the rules and assumptions which operate in the everyday world are found no longer to apply. Institutions and practices are gently mocked; Victorian education and mannerisms, for example, are simultaneously targeted in the Mock Turtle’s description of his education in ‘Reeling and Writhing . . . Mystery, ancient and modern . . . Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils’. The forms and rituals of social etiquette are dissolved in the chaos of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where dormice are stuffed into teapots, people move round the table in search of clean crockery, and the meaninglessness of polite conversation emerges under the scrutiny of the Hare and Hatter as they break down and examine the way words are put together. Matters religious may be read as being treated with equal irreverence if we accept Humphrey Carpenter’s interpretation, in Secret Gardens: the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (1985), of the invitation to ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ as being parodic of the eucharist. The notion of law-as-system is also shown to collapse in the trial sequence. Rules are made up or changed on the spur of the moment and the topsy-turvy nature of the proceedings becomes fully evident as the King asks the jury to consider the verdict before the evidence has even been heard, the Queen calling for sentence first and verdict after. Time itself has ceased to signify as structure: the March Hare’s watch, greased with the best butter, is no longer accurate and it is always six o’ clock and thus always tea-time. In Through the Looking Glass, the converse is true: ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.’ The eternity of Wonderland exists in the interstices of Looking-Glass time.
Alice asks, while falling, ‘I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?’ But latitude and longitude no longer serve as reference points by which to orient oneself. The sense of Wonderland’s innocence of formal directionality is reinforced when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ and is told that that ‘depends a good deal on where you want to get to’. The world is denuded of its structures and signposts, and this releases the individual from all social strictures. However, the implication of the Cheshire Cat’s speech is that direction is dependent upon desire and thus determined from within rather than externally; individuals are in the end responsible for themselves and their own destination.
In a world characterised by changeability (babies turn into pigs, pebbles into cakes etc.) and impermanence (cats fade away), the self’s sense of its own concreteness and identity becomes all-important. Certainly the structure of both the Alice books, especially Through the Looking Glass where she progresses from pawn to queen, is somewhat suggestive of a rite de passage, a quest to achieve selfhood and the heart’s desire, though this reading is not without its own problems.
Alice’s alterations in size occur at a dizzying rate, and are at first not voluntary but occur accidentally. On drinking from the bottle marked ‘drink me’, she shrinks till she begins to worry that ‘it might end . . . in (her) going out altogether, like a candle’. When she eats the cake marked ‘eat me’, she grows so large that she loses the sense of herself, unable to see her far-off feet which she then speaks of as things separate from her. (It is interesting to note that in her fantasies of sending presents to her feet by post, her right foot is ‘Esq.’, i.e. male and not even of the same gender as herself.) Identity may easily be lost as we see in the passage when Alice, fanning herself, becomes unsure of who she is:
Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night . . . But if I’m not the same, the next question is Who in the world am I? Ah, That’s the great puzzle! . . . I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and - oh dear, how puzzling it all is!.
Alice’ s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass show that neither the sense of concrete identity nor desire are things easily achieved. In Through the Looking Glass one can only reach a place by walking away from it. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the space towards which the work is tensed is the garden of bright flower-beds and cool fountains, and Alice spends a good deal of time trying to get there. When she does, she finds that the garden, the symbolic place of desire, is no Eden re-discovered but a sham: the roses are not natural but painted over, and in this Arcadia, death, in the person of the Queen of Hearts, is all-too present. The work in fact conveys the extreme tenuousness of existence - accentuated by the Queen of Hearts’ constant calls for beheadings - and the sense of self. Nor is reaching the garden symbolic of finally achieving selfhood, which appears to be always delayed, just as, in Through the Looking Glass, jam is always out of reach.
The Alice books remain almost as often-read today as they were a century ago, though this popularity may be a self-sustaining one, as much due to their status as classics as anything else. The wit of their parodies is bound to be less appreciated today, since the verse being parodied is no longer in currency, and the liberating value of Alice’s adventures to her own contemporaries - a children’s book intended purely to amuse rather than to educate - is perforce less in this time when the basic assumptions regarding children and their needs have altered greatly and there is so much good writing for children available. However, despite the challenge of comparison with Tenniel and Arthur Rackham, contemporary illustrators are continually attracted to the Alice books, two distinguished recent examples being by Anthony Browne (1988) and Helen Oxenbury (1999). For whatever reasons, Carroll’s works continue to maintain their cultural presence, with even strangers to the complete texts being familiar with quotations and characters from it.
-Susan Ang: National University of Singapore.
See also Kate Greenaway Medal, Kurt Maschler Award.
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