Who reads “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? The answer used to be: Anyone who can read. From the tangled tale of mass literacy one can pluck a few specific objects—books that were to be found in every household where there was somebody who could read and people who wanted to listen. Aside from the Bible, a typical list would run like this: “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” to which were later added “The Pickwick Papers” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Notice that Alice is not the sole adventurer. Every one of those titles contains the leading character, whose fate is to go on a journey, and whose mettle is tested in the process. Each explores a different landscape, or body of water, but all five traverse what you might call the valley of the shadow of life, profuse with incident. Three of the writers were men of God, and the two others began as journalists. Had you asked any of them to take a creative-writing course, the door would have closed in your face.
But who reads the Alice books nowadays? Everybody knows Alice, but that is not the same thing. There are countless ways to know something, or someone, without firsthand evidence, and Alice, as familiar as a household god and as remote as a child star, is a prime case of cultural osmosis. Having seeped through the membrane of the original books, she has spent the past century and a half infusing herself into the language, and the broader social discourse; as a result, we can all too easily picture her, quote her, or follow her example in the nonsense of our own lives without having read—or even feeling that we need to read—a word of Lewis Carroll.
Yet the need is more urgent than ever. Carroll wrote with a peppery briskness, impatient of folly, and always alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb:
“You know very well you’re not real.”
“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.
“You won’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”
“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”
“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.
The second half of this exchange was used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to “Vile Bodies,” in 1930, and the tone is a perfect match for the chill, directionless frenzy of Waugh’s personae. But Tweedledum’s question is, if anything, more pertinent still to our epoch, when the capacity to weep, whether in triumph or disaster, is a heartfelt imposture that has proved de rigueur, not least in the realm of the reality show—a term, by the way, that would have caused Carroll to sharpen his pen like a carving knife. Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.
The latest entrant to the Carrollian maze is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who has written “The Story of Alice” (Belknap). As someone who teaches English at Magdalen College, Oxford, he is nicely positioned for the task—a stroll away from Christ Church, the college where the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson taught mathematics, and the longtime residence of Lewis Carroll, who was almost, but not quite, the same person. The pair of them tussled, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Carroll gave a peculiar definition of himself:
One who, having been unlucky enough to perpetrate two small books for children, has been bullied ever since by the herd of lion-hunters who seek to drag him out of the privacy he hoped an “anonym” would give him.
It is a miracle, in retrospect, that the small books should have earned such global fame. After all, they are not merely British, and not merely Victorian, but nineteenth-century Oxonian—as fastidious as Carroll himself, who complained to the college steward about the cooking of cauliflower at dinner and the hour at which his window cleaners had arrived. Other Oxford men, no less conservative in their tastes, and no less religiously observant, have sat in their rooms and conjured alternative lands, named Narnia and Middle-earth, but only Carroll dared to import into his creation the quizzical habits that he observed in his surroundings. Things in Oxford have a habit of being other than what they sound like. The House is not a house but another name for Christ Church; a Student, at the House, is not a student but a fellow; and going up and coming down, at Oxford and Cambridge, refer not to elevators but to arrivals and departures. To be sent down is the gravest penalty of all; what sin has Alice committed, one wonders, to be dispatched so abruptly down a rabbit hole?
It was outside Oxford, in July, 1862, that Dodgson went rowing, one afternoon, with a friend from Trinity College, Robinson Duckworth, and three young sisters—Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, the daughters of the dean of Christ Church. Dodgson recorded the day in his journal:
Duckworth and I made an expedition up the river to Godstow with the three Liddells: we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Ch. Ch. again till quarter past eight.
The following February, he appended a note to his entry:
On which occasion I told them the fairy-tale of “Alice’s Adventures UnderGround,” which I undertook to write out for Alice, and which is now finished (as to the text) though the pictures are not yet nearly done.
Legend has it that a book came out of a boat trip, but nothing is ever that simple. The mathematician, moonlighting as an alchemist, turned things both animate and inanimate into different substances. Dodgson became a dodo (a word that toys not just with extinction but with Dodgson’s own tendency to stammer), while Duckworth, who later became chaplain to Queen Victoria, shrank into a duck; both creatures splash about not in a sun-warmed river but in a pool of a child’s tears. Alice Liddell became “Alice,” with no surname to tether her. “Alice’s Adventures Underground” became what we call, for the sake of convenience, “Alice in Wonderland,” although there is no such book. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published in 1865; the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary has been widely celebrated this year. In 1871 came “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”—another title that we often elide or get wrong. In that fable, our heroine walks into a wood where objects lose their names. She puts her hand on a tree, and can’t summon the word for it. Even her own identity escapes her: “Then it really has happened, after all! And now, who am I?”
Douglas-Fairhurst is at home with transformation. His previous work, “Becoming Dickens” (2012), the best and the most fine-fingered of the many books published to coincide with the bicentenary of the novelist’s birth, touched upon the genesis of “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” and other early successes. If Dickens scholarship is a crowded field, however, Carroll studies should have a sign nailed firmly above the door: “Standing Room Only.” This year has seen the publication of Edward Wakeling’s “Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle” (I. B. Tauris) and the reissue of “Lewis Carroll: A Biography,” by Morton N. Cohen. Supremos of logic and linguistics, photographers, historians of childhood, gender fiends, and chess wonks: all have tackled the puzzle of Alice and emerged, so they like to think, triumphant. Alexander Woollcott, in his preface to a compendium of Carroll, in 1939, declared, “Everything has befallen Alice, except the last thing—psychoanalysis. At least the new psychologists have not explored this dream book nor pawed over the gentle, shrinking celibate who wrote it.” Woollcott spoke too late. “Psychoanalytic Remarks” on Alice and her creator had already appeared, in 1938, in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Since then, open season has prevailed:
As Alice exceeds the frame of reference, she has a direct experience of the unsymbolized trauma that the phallus attempts to displace in the erection of its privilege.
That comes from an essay, “The Phallic Gaze of Wonderland,” by Richard Feldstein. Why do we feel so keenly the farce of this mismatch between Carroll and his commentators, in their infinite variety? Perhaps because the pair of books that started the palaver are such a slight affair—just over two hundred pages when pasted together. Alice, as if she sensed the onslaught of future inquirers, has a habit of putting plain, sane questions that tie her interlocutors in knots. Humpty Dumpty, asked whether he might not be safer on the ground, “pursed up his lips, and looked so solemn and grand that Alice could hardly help laughing.” To laugh at solemnity and grandeur is part of our civic duty, as is our need to gauge those moments when the laughter has to stop.
The life of Lewis Carroll, as laid out in one biography after the next, is not easily confused with the lives of the great Victorian explorers. The exploits of his heroine are so headlong, and so elastic in their range, that he could almost be rebuking himself for his own inclination to sit tight, like a dormouse. He was born in 1832, in the county of Cheshire, in northwest England. His father was a clergyman, but, then, whose wasn’t? Jane Austen, Tennyson, and the Brontë sisters were all the product of rectories and parsonages. (The equivalent American list would be couched in song: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, and, grimly, Marvin Gaye. For the Brontës, read the Pointer Sisters.)
After a wretched experience at boarding school, where Carroll’s prevailing wish was to be, as he ominously said, “secure from annoyance at night,” he arrived at Oxford, in 1851. As an undergraduate at Christ Church, his father’s former college, he labored hard—thirteen hours a day, in the three weeks preceding one examination. Precocious in mathematics, he was soon awarded a fellowship, which, in the Oxford of that period, bore two restrictions: he was forbidden to marry, and he had to take holy orders within four years of completing his M.A. (master of arts) degree. Somehow, this never happened; he was ordained deacon shortly before Christmas, 1861, but, when faced with the next step—the priesthood—he “hesitated on the threshold.” So says Douglas-Fairhurst, who adds wryly, “He would end up staying there for another thirty-seven years.”
It is odd, given the tireless inquest into Carroll, how seldom his religious faith has been brought up as evidence. This is, in part, because of his own timidity; eager he may have been to pursue a figure of speech to its unnatural conclusion, but, in theology, his intellectual nerve deserted him. Many storms blew through Anglicanism in his lifetime; the Oxford Movement, with its dedication to High Church ritual and the eventual conversion of its leading light, John Henry Newman, to Roman Catholicism, had struck on Carroll’s own doorstep. Sides were taken, positions entrenched, and how did Carroll respond? “Somewhere, somehow, he sorted out the arguments for himself.” Such is the placid conclusion reached by Morton N. Cohen. Darwinism, likewise, could not shake Carroll from his purpose. In common with many Anglicans, before and since, he clung to a sober middle way, betraying a near-heroic aversion to the unpleasant, the contentious, and the crude.
In practice, this lofted him into the highest ranks of priggery and fuss. There have always been bookish types who run on clockwork, and the noonday of the nineteenth century was their finest hour; regular churchgoing, no doubt, helped to wind them up. Carroll’s existence, however, was regulated with a care that went beyond the bounds of piety. Beginning in his late twenties, he kept a register of “Letters Received and Sent,” along with a précis of each letter. The final tally was 98,721. He was scarcely alone in his effusiveness (the letters of Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane, published by Duke University Press, have now reached Volume 42), but it takes a very singular brain to mock its own productivity:
I hardly know which is me and which is the inkstand. . . . The confusion in one’s mind doesn’t so much matter—but when it comes to putting bread-and-butter, and orange marmalade, into the inkstand; and then dipping pens into oneself, and filling oneself up with ink, you know, it’s horrid!
There are other surprising totals, equally grand. Carroll took some three thousand photographs: no big deal to a backpacker with an iPhone, but an impressive haul for an epoch when using a camera was as time-consuming, and often as messy, as making a stew. He also compiled a list of those who came to dinner, including a diagram of where they sat and the dishes that were served, so that no guest would be given the same meal twice. Two things set him apart from his fellow-precisians. First, what we construe as obsessive compulsion was, to his friends, a never-failing fount of hospitality, and, for every Carroll scholar who regards the man as unhappily clenched and inward, there is another who will stress the sociable soul, quite at ease in a zealously sociable age. Second, there is this:
The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: “No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming. “There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.
“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.
Anybody can be a stickler, but to dispatch your imagination to a place where stickling is either banished or badly warped, along with seating plans, sufficient provisions, and basic decorum—that is as rare as a Jabberwock. Likewise, there can be few professional mathematicians who, in publishing a paper entitled “Dynamics of a Particle,” slide toward the chaos of human emotion: “Obtuse Anger is that which is greater than Right Anger.” This instinct recurs in the beautiful puns of the Mock Turtle, who informs Alice about the different branches of arithmetic (“Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”) and recalls, with a sigh, that his classics master used to teach him not Latin and Greek but “Laughing and Grief.” Is there a purer Victorian joke? This urge to make fun of yourself, and of what you do for a living, is a traditional index of modesty, although the fun depends on how many selves you have, and Carroll, on the page, became pathologically skilled at framing in words, and in wordplay, everything that would make the Reverend Dodgson drop the cream jug. Go ahead and know thyself, but be warned: such knowledge means that battle has commenced.
There is, of course, one zone of Carroll’s life that, to modern sensibilities, looks more bizarre than anything in Wonderland, and where, for once, he was blind to his own excesses. This is the province of his “child-friends,” as he called them—young females, whom he encountered and corralled at every turn, especially on vacations or train trips. He had a routine, described by Douglas-Fairhurst: “Carroll would strike up a conversation with a family, bring out the games and puzzles he kept in his little black travelling bag, and follow up their meeting by sending the child a signed copy of an Alice book.” The chumminess would proceed from here, with each stage marked by a request:
If you should decide on sending over Gertrude and not coming yourself, would you kindly let me know what is the minimum amount of dress in which you are willing to have her taken?
The most remarkable aspect of this letter, written in 1876, is not that he was asking the mother of Gertrude Chataway whether he could photograph her daughter—preferably naked, in what he calls “Eve’s original dress”—but that Mrs. Chataway did not think the question remarkable. Four months later, Carroll repeated it, with a twist:
I have a little friend here, Lily Gray, child of Dr. Gray, and one of my chief beach friends at Sandown this year. She is 5, a graceful and pretty child, and one of the sweetest children I know (nearly as sweet as Gertrude)—and she is so perfectly simple and unconscious that it is a matter of entire indifference to her whether she is taken in full dress or nothing. My question is, are you going to allow Gertrude (who I think is also perfectly simple and unconscious) to be done in the same way?
It is impossible to read this now without horror. The politesse, the pointing up of sweetness, and the ascribing of “entire indifference” to the child evoke the classic stratagems of the pedophile, planning his campaign and convincing others (and, more important, himself) that he is doing no wrong—that there is no victim but merely a willing collaborator. After Carroll wrote his great poem “The Hunting of the Snark,” in 1876, the daughter of the illustrator became another friend. Her name was Winifred Holiday, and she recalled, “When he stayed with us he used to steal on the sly into my room after supper, and tell me strange impromptu stories as I sat on his knee in my nightie.”
Had Carroll lived today, and had such accounts been made public, he would have been either jailed or (a fate more infernal, for someone who treasured his privacy) hounded by an unforgiving press. The wish, we tell ourselves, is father of the deed; on the other hand, what was Carroll’s wish? If buried, it lay very deep beneath his outer crust. As Douglas-Fairhurst calmly states, “It is far easier to condemn Carroll than it is to decide exactly what he should be accused of.” There was no suggestion of physical abuse, and he himself thundered against any hint of impropriety, deeming even an expurgated Shakespeare to be unfit for junior readers. (He planned his own edition, just for girls: “I have a dream of Bowdlerising Bowdler.”) For us, the thunder is a giveaway, rumbling with guilt, but the fact remains that, in his time, Carroll both exemplified and enhanced what Douglas-Fairhurst calls “a more general trend towards seeing childhood as a separate realm.” If it was inconceivable, in genteel circles, that Carroll could present a carnal threat, that was not because he was a clergyman, or the writer of cherished books, but because children could never be objects of desire. Far from being adults in bud, they were fenced off, in a garden of unknowing, and that is why parents were content to let Carroll, himself an innocent, wander in and browse. Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” including one on “Infantile Sexuality,” were published in 1905. Carroll, mercifully, had died seven years earlier.
There were periods, it is true, when gossip rustled around Oxford, and the Liddells briefly suspended relations with Carroll; but the source of the gossip is hard to trace. Segments of his diary were later excised by his family. Cohen believes that he may have proposed marriage, or mock marriage, to Alice, who was then aged eleven, but that is hard to prove. One thing we do know about, because Carroll reports it in his diary, is a rumor that he was using Alice and her sisters as a cover for wooing their governess, Miss Prickett, usually known as Pricks. The rumor tells you a great deal about the moral etiquette of the age: a warm affection for other people’s offspring was acceptable; underhanded courtship of a chaperone was not. We cannot know what it was to inhabit such an era, when a middle-aged man could take a picture of three small sisters and give it the title “Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes.” Almost everything about Carroll now lies beyond the Freudian pale. All the more reason, then, to treasure the adventures of Alice on the page, which keep both their counsel and their cool—“strange impromptu stories,” by any reckoning, yet undying. The life of Carroll somehow fades away, leaving nothing but his books, just as a cat, on the branch of a tree, can slowly vanish, bequeathing only a smile.
To return to those books, as Douglas-Fairhurst admits, “can feel like such a relief.” His admirable method, in “The Story of Alice,” is to test the soil from which they arose, and to ask how long the scent of them has lingered in the air. He shows that Carroll, in swiftly sending Alice downward, was alert to a thriving fascination with netherworlds—whether in the London Underground, construction on which started in 1860, or, fifteen years earlier, in the English translation of a Norwegian novel, “which begins when the hero’s rope gives way and he falls into an abyss, although he still has enough time to take a cake out of his pocket and eat it.” Then, there was the aftermath: the Wonderland craze, which spawned feeble ripoffs and unsolicited sequels, as well as theatrical adaptations (which prompted Carroll to compose an overwrought essay on “ ‘Alice’ and the Stage”) and enamelled biscuit tins, to which, surprisingly, he gave his blessing. The cookies within dismayed him, though, and he requested that any tins sent to his friends were “to go out empty.” Three were delivered to “Mrs. and the Masters Hargreaves”—the grownup Alice Liddell and her sons.
Carroll kept in touch with her, while admitting that “it was not easy to link in one’s mind the new face with the olden memory.” After his death, Alice returned the compliment through her mere survival, which convinced readers that they were still in touch with him. The climax came in 1932, with a transatlantic trip, in the course of which two thousand guests filed into the gym at Columbia University to hear Mrs. Hargreaves speak. She also ingeniously claimed, in a radio broadcast, that “America and New York City are such exciting places they take me back to Wonderland.” (There is a stirring film, “Dreamchild,” from 1985, with a script by Dennis Potter, about her visit.) “That’ll be a comfort, one way—never to be an old woman,” Alice tells herself, near the start of her story, but the public was not in the least discomfited to learn that she had aged. The notion that this elderly dame and the seven-year-old of the books were one and the same person took root in received opinion, and there it has stuck: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a roman à clef, we reassure ourselves, and the Liddell girl is the key.
So trustable is Douglas-Fairhurst as a key holder, and so heroic is his rummaging in the archives and toy boxes of Aliciana, that he leaves you wanting more. Carroll’s parodies of Wordsworth and Tennyson in the Alice books, for instance, are calculated and quite cruel; is there not more to say about a man who seemed reluctant to approach the writings of major poets except in the spirit of lampoon? Later writers, by contrast, were open in their allegiance to Carroll; it is satisfying to be told that Vladimir Nabokov, hired to translate “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into Russian, in 1922, was paid with an advance of “a single US five-dollar bill,” and we should be grateful that Douglas-Fairhurst truffled around in “Finnegans Wake” to find some of Joyce’s lovely Carrollings (“Wonderlawn’s lost us for ever”), thus saving us the trouble. But why mention Carroll’s shy appearance on the sleeve of “Sgt. Pepper” and not probe further into his effect on John Lennon, whose lyrics for “I Am the Walrus” and other songs steal so cockily from the books? How about Monty Python; or the unhinged British passion for cryptic crosswords, sure to wreck a morning’s mental peace; or Mary Poppins, with her bottomless bag; or the demure girl who converses with monsters in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”; or the gray, moth-eaten hare devised by Jim Henson for “Dreamchild”; or the stop-motion “Alice,” directed by Jan Švankmajer, the most Carroll-mad animator of all? As for the anapest, the waltzing metre in which Carroll delighted (“I engage with the Snark—every night after dark— / In a dreamy delirious fight”), it lay dormant for decades, and then burst out in the keen exclamations of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes.”
To be honest, a book that hunted for Carroll in every crevice, in every art form, would never end. Oh, the places he goes! The look of Alice, for one thing, merits a book of its own, as she slowly morphs from the full-skirted, large-headed miss of John Tenniel’s original drawings (on which nobody has improved) to Disney’s simpering cartoon of 1951. This year, she acquired a neat black bob, in the return of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice ballet to the Royal Opera House, in London. The work, which premièred in 2011, radiates inventive brio; a flamingo’s neck, for example, is re-created by the pink-sheathed, downstretched arm of a ballerina. Carroll himself would have gasped.
The dancers, you might argue, could not hope to capture the unerring pedantry of a man who wrought, and mainly inhabited, a world of words. What you were reminded of, however, as the Red Queen struck her fierce and angular attitudes, was the violence of that world. Life in Wonderland, and through the looking glass, is a savage affair, rife with shaken babies, threats of decapitation, and vorpal swords. What on earth compelled the mild mathematical bachelor to grow furiouser and furiouser as he beat the English language over the head? “I can’t stand this any longer!” Alice cries, at the finale of her adventures, and sends the other characters, together with their plates and their pettifogging squabbles, crashing to the floor. “It is the High Table of Christ Church that we must think of here,” William Empson wrote, in a marvellous Carroll essay of 1935. High table is where Carroll and the other dons would dine. Did he really crave so revolutionary an act? If so, it stayed ticking inside him, like an unexploded bomb. Or perhaps it was defused, over time, by another reverie, in which he rowed down a river with children, on a golden afternoon. The river never ended, and the children never grew up.
De THE NEW YORKER, 08/06/2015
Imagen: JOHN TENNIEL, "OFF WITH HER HEAD" (1885)/MORGAN LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
De THE NEW YORKER, 08/06/2015
Imagen: JOHN TENNIEL, "OFF WITH HER HEAD" (1885)/MORGAN LIBRARY AND MUSEUM