Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass:
TAKING CHILDREN’S LITERATURE ITSELF DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
The Fourth of July may be America’s national holiday, but a specific fourth—July 4, 1862—is famous for what began as a picnic. On that date, a slightly eccentric young man with a stammer, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, went rowing up the Thames River from Oxford, where he taught mathematics at Christ Church, one of the constituent colleges of the great English university, to Godstow. With him were Robinson Duckworth, a colleague and friend, and three of the daughters of Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church. To keep the girls amused during rowing and while they had tea along the riverbank, Dodgson made up a story about an adventure Alice Liddell, the middle sister at ten years old, had when she followed a rabbit down a hole. The story might have ended with the picnic had Alice not pestered Dodgson—her own word—to finish the story, which he eventually did, writing it out longhand and adding his own illustrations. The single, leather-bound copy of what Dodgson called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was delivered to Alice
Liddell for Christmas in 1864. Others read the manuscript and convinced Dodgson to have it published. In 1865, the book appeared before the general public as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—Dodgson thought the original title sounded too much like a textbook on mining—under his chosen pen name, Lewis Carroll. And his legend began to grow.
Both the book’s reviews and sales were good, in part because of the quality of the illustrations. Carroll’s publisher, Macmillan, had commissioned one of Great Britain’s most famous illustrators for the book: John Tenniel, who worked for the flourishing humor magazine Punch. When people see Alice today, they picture Alice as Tenniel first drew her (even the Walt Disney version looks comparable). The success of the first book led to a sequel, published in 1871, which achieved even wider acclaim. The books are almost always published as one volume as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Popular culture has shortened the title to simply Alice in Wonderland, and scholars often refer to the two as “the Alice books.”
In both books eccentricity is the order of the day. While Alice tries to keep her wits about her and behave in a “civil” fashion, to adopt the word that Carroll uses most often in the text, the characters around her violate logic and common sense with enthusiasm. Almost all the animals can speak (the puppy near the start of Wonderland is an exception), and when they talk, they convey rudeness and wild irrationality. Carroll has rewritten the familiar verses of the era so that the original meanings disintegrate. When Alice frequently tries to deliver these verses in the manner of a good schoolgirl, they come out all wrong.
Carroll is also remarkable in his ability to refrain from correcting Alice’s behavior; in this, his work is unlike nearly all other children’s books of his time, which were designed to serve as models of behavior for children. The Alice books are designed mainly to amuse. Further, while writers have been describing dreams for a long time—the Bible is filled with them—Carroll makes Alice’s dreams elaborate, absurd, and genuinely funny beyond anything that had gone before. His work influences writers, especially fantasy writers, to this day. Alice has also inspired numerous films, from the 1903 silent film Alice in Wonderland, directed by Cecil Hepworth and renowned for its special effects, to director Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, in which an older Alice returns to Wonderland for new adventures.
The Life and Work of Lewis Carroll
At least on the surface, Carroll did not set out to become one of the world’s most famous children’s authors. He was born into what the novelist George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle class,” or the landless gentry. In the nineteenth century, British society was as stratified by social class as it ever would be and included a large class of people who were technically gentlemen and ladies but who lacked much money, property, and an aristocratic title. This class of people tended to take jobs as teachers, doctors, clergymen, and civil servants or join the military. Carroll followed suit and became an academic and a clergyman.
He was born on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire (the place that his grinning, disappearing cat would call home). The eldest son of a country parson,
he attended the Rugby School and then Christ Church at Oxford, which would essentially become his life-long professional home. A sometimes erratic student, he was nevertheless brilliant at mathematics, graduating with First Class Honors in Mathematics. He was appointed a Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church and completed his M.A. in 1857.
His interests were not confined solely to academia. He befriended the literary figure John Ruskin and was active in the social circle that revolved around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of avant-garde artists and writers. He also wrote poetry and short stories from an early age. However, the success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel astonished him; they made Carroll world famous. While he was not comfortable with the attention he received, he wasn’t a real-life Mad Hatter that he is sometimes depicted as being, a kind of artistic lunatic. His dress was sometimes odd, and he struggled with his stammer. (In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Dodo represents the author, in part because when introducing himself he stammered, and his name came out as “Do-Do-Dodgson.”) Nevertheless, Carroll maintained a wide and successful social life.
As part of the faculty at Christ Church, Carroll was expected to become a priest in the Anglican Church. Given his background as the son of a parson, he had been groomed for this step from birth. He became a deacon in 1861, but when the time came to take the final promotion into the priesthood, he asked Dean Liddell to let him out of the commitment. This was against the school’s policy and Carroll should have been discharged, but Liddell allowed him to remain. It’s unclear why Carroll resisted entering the clergy, although his stammer
has been advanced as one reason. A better theory may be his interest in alternative religions. He was an enthusiastic member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization that of its nature requires an interest in ghosts, psychic powers, and other curiosities that do not feature much in conventional Anglicanism (note that the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland reads Alice’s mind).
Carroll was what we would call today—affectionately—a geek. His academic interest in technical subjects, deep attraction to the high technology of his era (like photography), and social awkwardness are all the same markers we would expect to see in today’s software billionaire.
In 1876, Carroll published what many consider his last great work, another tour de force of nonsense called The Hunting of the Snark. He took early retirement from his mathematics lectureship in 1881 but remained at Christ Church, continuing to write and publish until his death in 1898.
Historical and Literary Context of the Alice Books The Victorian Era
Carroll’s lifetime, 1832–1898, coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837–1901, and thus fits within the distinctive period of British life called the Victorian era. It has become a cliché to describe any historical period as a “time of contrasts,” but Victorian Britain really deserves the label. Great Britain had led the world into the Industrial Revolution, creating the first mass-production economy. It did so not only through organization but
also through innovation: a series of scientific and technical breakthroughs had, crucially, led to the invention of the steam engine, which it used for rail and sea transportation and in manufacture. This new, modern economy provided Great Britain with economic and military power to establish a widespread empire on which, literally, the sun never set. We think of “globalization” as a recent phenomenon, but it really began under Queen Victoria, if not earlier. At the same time, prosperity had only begun to filter down through the society, and—as any reader of Charles Dickens knows—Victorian Britain was also characterized by its poverty and slums. Life in the poorer parts of the empire was a good deal worse.
While the Alice books are most striking for their nonsensical nature, Carroll’s creation owed much to his expertise in mathematics and logic. Carroll was an amateur inventor and was fascinated by that characteristic modern art form, photography. He spent his life at Oxford teaching undergraduates mathematics, a highly technical subject. Indeed, one can, by using the characters in Carroll’s books as negative examples—models of incorrectness—learn much of formal logic.
Childhood in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
While today children in wealthy Western nations are treated as if they were precious objects, in nineteenth-century England children weren’t held in such esteem. It was common for a family to have a dozen children and lose half to childhood diseases. This phenomenon was not confined to the poor; the Liddell family lost two children. Those who survived were often regarded as small adults and weren’t necessarily well treated. Girls
married as young as age twelve. In the rural economy, children started working as soon as they were able; and during Carroll’s day, infamously, children worked (and frequently died) in dangerous factories and mines.
Yet the perception of childhood also underwent a transition during the nineteenth century. A series of laws known collectively as the Factory Acts helped curtail some of the worst abuses in child industrial labor. While it is not easy to pinpoint why attitudes toward children changed, better living conditions (among an influential minority, at least) probably played a part. Many also credit the Romantic movement in literature. The work of William Wordsworth, poet laureate during the 1840s, is often thought especially important in the rethinking of childhood. His memories of his own childhood and depictions of that of others in his writings are thought to have steered people toward a view of the child as a special creature, vulnerable, innocent, yet capable of a heightened intensity of experience that adults have lost.
The Alice books clearly support this movement. In Carroll’s view, Alice is not merely a small adult. He considers her a crucially different being, actually better than adults. This comes through in his writing and demonstrates why he has had such a revolutionary impact on the children’s book genre.
The Children’s Book
Children’s literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was mainly concerned with education and religious instruction. Bible stories and religious songs and tracts were popular. In fact, Alice appears to have read Divine Songs, Attempted in Easie Language for the Use
of Children, an eighteenth-century work by Isaac Watts that was continuously reprinted in children’s format during the nineteenth century. (Alice humorously misquotes some of Watts’s songs.) The History of Sandford and Merton, a highly influential early children’s book by Thomas Day, was another eighteenth-century didactic (instructive) work for children reprinted in multiple editions. It presents a cautionary tale of two boys, one of whom behaves morally (and is rewarded) and one of whom pursues a different path.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, new trends emerged in books for children. American writer Mark Twain seemed to take direct aim at didactic children’s literature (and perhaps The History of Sandford and Merton, in particular) with his paired stories “The Story of the Good Little Boy” and “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” (published around 1870). For the good little boy, nothing goes right: even though his Sunday school books tell him that good little boys are rewarded for their virtue, he leads a miserable life and dies a gruesome, albeit comical, death. The bad little boy, too, provides a reverse image of the Sunday school books in his fate: he sins continually and is never punished, going so far as to commit mass murder, and is ultimately elected to the legislature. The two stories are parodies of the literature that adults expected children to take seriously in Twain’s society. In the Sunday school story, of course, the exact opposite happens: the bad little boy is punished, and the good little boy rewarded. Twain suggests that this rarely happens with any consistency in real life.
Carroll openly lampoons traditional didactic children’s literature, substituting sheer nonsense for moral lessons. The Alice books are striking because Alice’s friend Lewis
Carroll does not bother to teach her anything, or at least not anything uplifting or important. The point, it seems, is simply to enjoy the story. As the twentieth century began, children had a wide range of entertaining fiction to enjoy, from the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, to James Barrie’s tale of Peter Pan (published as a novel in 1911 under the title Peter and Wendy ), to the beloved Oz stories of L. Frank Baum (published between 1900 and 1918).