This article was first published in Writing Magazine in August-September 1998. As with the other articles, it has been lightly revised. Copyright Carol Townend.
Readers today coming to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871) for the first time might expect them to be merely quaint, old-fashioned Victorian children’s stories, but closer studies reveals them to be genuinely quirky - eccentric, fascinating and unforgettable. Lewis Carroll died a century ago having written two of the most extraordinary children’s books in the language. Today they are an industry with Macmillan (Carroll’s original publisher) producing full-colour editions, black and white editions, centenary editions, pop-up books, party books and so on. There is now a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter. There are over seventy different versions of the Alice books in this country alone plus Alice Companions, Lewis Carroll biographies, play texts, parodies, a Latin edition, compilations of Carroll’s letters...
What was unusual about the books was that they were hailed as classics from the outset. Their success came as a surprise to all, not least to their author - the shy, bookish Oxford lecturer in Mathematics whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. (1832 - 1898). One of the reasons put forward to explain the success of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass was that unlike most children’s books of the period they did not set out to moralise. The tales of Alice were stories without strings and, in writing them, Carroll gave children permission to read for no other purpose than enjoyment. At a time when strict discipline went hand in hand with education and when learning by rote was a standard teaching method, Lewis Carroll’s delight in words and word-games for their own sake instantly attracted both adults and children alike.
Lewis Carroll, the retiring bachelor don, understood children and befriended many, particularly the daughters of his friends. He corresponded with these children regularly and his sympathetic understanding shines through the letters. Here, he writes to Agnes Hull on that bane of a child’s life, the subject of forgetting. Reading between the lines Agnes must be a less than perfect correspondent, but Carroll does not chastise her; instead he writes:
Christ Church, Oxford
December 10, 1877
My Dear Agnes,
At last I’ve succeeded in forgetting you!
It’s been a very hard job, but I took 6 ‘lessons in forgetting,’ at half-a-crown a lesson. After three lessons, I forgot my own name, and I forgot to go to the next lesson. So the Professor said I was getting on very well...
The Selected Letters: Papermac 1996
By reversing Agnes’s expectations regarding all that lessons imply (having knowledge drilled into her) Carroll gets his point across (‘Why haven’t you written to me?’) in a humorous way.
Each of the letters written to his young friends reveals a real relationship developed with a particular individual. There’s no preachy Victorian moralising and, more importantly, Carroll never talks down to his young friends. He uses language and word- play he knows they will appreciate, but without patronising them.
Here is another example showing the inventiveness of the imagination behind the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. This letter is addressed to Mary MacDonald, daughter of the writer George MacDonald whose most well-known work is the children’s story The Princess and the Goblin (1872).
Christ Church, Oxford
May 23, 1864
My Dear Child,
Its been so frightfully hot here that I’ve been almost too weak to hold a pen, and even if I had been able to, there was no ink - it had evaporated into a cloud of black steam, and in that state . it has been floating about the room, inking the walls and ceiling till they’re hardly fit to be seen: today it is cooler, and a little has come back into the ink-bottle in the form of black snow - there will soon be enough for me to write and order those photographs your Mamma wants.
From The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll: Papermac 1996
‘Black Snow’ is another typical Carroll inversion. This letter was written after Alice in Wonderland had been told to Alice Liddell at the memorable river picnic, and before Carroll had developed his most topsy-turvy work Through the Looking-Glass. But the eccentric cast of mind and tendency to look at the world from odd angles is very much in evidence.
Children are naturally curious, and play - both physical and mental - is their way of learning about the world. With their freshness of vision children can appreciate a pun that will wring a groan from an adult who has heard it or something similar a million times before.
‘It sounds like a horse,’ Alice thought to herself And an extremely small voice, close to her ear said, ‘you might make a joke on that - something about ‘horse’ and ‘hoarse you know.’
From Through the Looking-Glass
In the Alice stories Lewis Carroll has taken his instinctive understanding, and fictionalised it. For example, he knows that children often feel incredibly small: they live in a land of giants (adults) and even confident children are liable to be overwhelmed by the power of their emotions. Carroll also knows that a child’s ego is just as liable to be inflated as it is to be deflated. After expanding and contracting a number of times Alice eventually finds herself (temporarily) at a convenient size, but she’s swimming in a pool of salt water:
However she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high.
‘I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice as she swam about, trying to find her way out. ‘I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!’
From Through the Looking Glass
Children’s minds tend to be more flexible than adults since their perceptions are constantly changing and evolving as their physical size alters. The Alice stories show them the world from new, mind-expanding angles, and Alice’s high-speed size-changes not only echo the growing that the children are doing, they also open the mind to alternative ways of seeing and thinking.
In his Alice stories Carroll’s extraordinary imagination encourages children (and adults) to view the world with ‘eyes of wonder’. His viewpoint is individual and eccentric. Quirky rather than quaint, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books remain popular precisely because they value the innocent, creative eye of the child in us all.
Publications of interest:
Alice Adventures in Wonderland
Through the Looking-Glass
Several editions include the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel.
The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll ed. by Morton N. Cohen: Papermac (1982). Dodgson wrote and received thousands of letters of which four thousand remain. They give many insights into his life and the genesis of the Alice stories.
Wordsworth publish The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll which includes verses, puzzles, acrostics and ‘other comic writings’ and Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations.
Alice with commentary:
The classic edition is Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice - Penguin (1970)
For another slant on the text see The Alice Companion by Jo Elwyn Jones and J Francis Gladstone which posits intriguing origins for scenes like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party — Macmillan (1998).
Copyright Carol Townend
Preview of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland