Alice in Won­der­land turns 150

Peter Craven cel­e­brates the mad­ness and wis­dom of Lewis Car­roll

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

It’s 150 years since Lewis Car­roll pub­lished Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land, that ab­so­lute bedrock on which our English­s­peak­ing civil­i­sa­tion is based. The story about the lit­tle girl who goes tum­bling down a rab­bit hole to dis­cover her­self in a top­sy­turvy world where cater­pil­lars smoke hookahs, Cheshire cats evap­o­rate ex­cept for their smiles and queens scream “Off with her head” is the essence of Bri­tish com­edy, of An­glo-Saxon stuff and non­sense.

It an­tic­i­pates Gil­bert and Sul­li­van, Os­car Wilde and Saki, it is the ta­ble of the law from which the Goons and Monty Python take their ba­sic id­iom of ab­sur­dity, it is the great source of non­sense high and low.

Yes, but Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land and its 1871 se­quel Through the Look­ing-Glass are also an ex­tra­or­di­nary dream­scape, an en­chanted world.

With Car­roll, the high dream and the po­etry are in the non­sense and it’s part of his ge­nius to have taken a vi­sion of nar­ra­tive and lan­guage that might, with just a twist, have be­come mod­ernist and ab­stract, and given it to the An­glo-Saxon world as a chil­dren’s story as old and deep as lul­la­bies and the world of sleep where ev­ery dream comes and ev­ery bur­ble can seem like bab­ble.

If you want an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of the pure lin­guis­tic in­ven­tive­ness of this world (where lan­guage goes nuts and logic goes hay­wire as well as high­wire) take the lines Alice reads early on in Through the Look­ing-Glass.

“’Twas bril­lig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gim­ble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the boro­goves, / And the mome raths out­grabe. // Be­ware the Jab­ber­wock, my son!”

Any­one who has glanced at James Joyce’s Fin­negans Wake, with its mul­ti­ple puns across lan­guages, all con­tained within a lilt­ing Ir­ish brogue that high­lights the An­glo-Saxon back­bone of English, will be re­minded of Jab­ber­wocky (“Eins within a space and a weary­wide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse; “Latin me that, my trin­ity schol­ard, out of eure san­screed into oure eryan!”).

Any­one who has en­coun­tered the sheer melodic strange­ness, the lux­u­ri­ance and de­fa­mil­iaris­ing ef­fect of the proto-mod­ernist po­etry of the great­est poetic in­no­va­tor of the Vic­to­rian age, Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, will see another kind of par­al­lel. “I caught this morn­ing morn­ing’s min­ion, king- / dom of day­light’s dauphin, dap­ple-dawn Fal­con …”

Car­roll had been there be­fore them. Ex­cept that in re­duc­ing English — English verse in this case — to pure sonic non­sense and sug­ges­tion, he was do­ing do so face­tiously.

In France they had the sym­bol­ist move­ment and the poet Mal­larme declar­ing “Paint not the thing, but the ef­fect it pro­duces”, so that lan­guage was be­ing used to give us the rus­tle and shadow of a world through its ghostly glide, as in the po­etry of TS Eliot (who trans­lated these ef­fects back into English) where the yel­low fog in The Love Song of J. Al­fred Prufrock is like a spec­tral cat.

But take a step back to the ori­gin of this ex­tra­or­di­nary chil­dren’s story. Charles Lutwidge Dodg­son, a young Ox­ford don, a bril­liant math­e­ma­ti­cian, is row­ing along the river and is telling a story to the 10-year-old Alice Lid­dell and her two sis­ters. And for all the plea­sure of the row­ing and the mess­ing about in boats, the true cap­ti­va­tion is the story Dodg­son is telling about the won­der­land that opens up when a girl like Alice goes down that rab­bit hole, into the cu­ri­ouser and cu­ri­ouser world where she grows big, grows small, and ev­ery­thing seems an­i­mated by some prin­ci­ple of dis­tor­tion yet still seems gravely it­self at ev­ery point. His friend in the boat asks the man who will even­tu­ally take the nom de plume Lewis Car­roll if he’s just ex­tem­po­ris­ing these wacko sto­ries. “Oh yes, I am just mak­ing it up as I go along,” the sto­ry­teller says.

And then Alice Lid­dell says would Mr Dodg­son write down this story and give it to her as a present. And so 18 months later he wrote it up for her and gave it to her with his il­lus­tra­tions.

Then in 1865 the ex­panded ver­sion ap­peared from Macmil­lan with the il­lus­tra­tions by John Ten­niel, later sup­ple­mented by Through the Look­ing-Glass, to haunt the world as a ro­mance of the 19th-cen­tury dream­world ever since.

No one has ever known what fo­cus of ob- ses­sion or won­der­ment drew Dodg­son to Alice Lid­dell. Si­mon Winch­ester has writ­ten a book, The Alice Be­hind Won­der­land, about the pho­to­graphs Dodg­son took of Alice from the time she was six. The celi­bate cler­gy­man ob­vi­ously took a de­light in the young child, but why shouldn’t he? There’s no ev­i­dence his feel­ing for her was any­thing but chaste.

Still, re­la­tions with Alice’s fam­ily — her clas­si­cist fa­ther Henry Lid­dell was co-au­thor of what’s still the stan­dard dic­tionary of clas­si­cal Greek — did not stay close and there’s the sug­ges­tive fact that some pages were torn from Car­roll’s di­ary. Alice did not at­tend Car­roll’s fu­neral in 1898. She mar­ried in 1880 and had a long life. She was forced by need­i­ness to sell her Lewis Car­roll col­lec­tion and in 1932 she came to New York to celebrate the cen­te­nary of the birth of the au­thor, the man who 70 years ear­lier had turned her into the hero­ine of his dream story. She was mobbed, she apol­o­gised to the peo­ple of Amer­ica for not sign­ing their books, her own man­u­script had been bought by an Amer­i­can.

Be­fore she left on that trip she had signed a copy for the six-year-old El­iz­a­beth, the girl who would be­come the Queen. At the end of World War II, the li­brar­ian of congress brought the man­u­script to Lon­don and gave it back to the peo­ple of Bri­tain. It was ac­cepted on their be­half by the arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury with ap­pro­pri­ate solem­nity. This un­der­lined the com­mon in- her­i­tance of English-speak­ing peo­ple in this ex­tra­or­di­nary and iri­des­cent story that had be­come the great­est folk­tale of the age.

It is a re­mark­able thing to cre­ate a mod­ern fairy story that also em­bod­ies, through a spirit of com­edy and en­chant­ment at its most deliri­ous, the deeper cul­ture of a civil­i­sa­tion. Alice in Won­der­land suc­ceeds in do­ing this partly be­cause Alice is such a cred­i­ble girl.

Car­roll is so good at in­hab­it­ing a child’s-eye view of the world with­out ever mak­ing Alice mawk­ish or mushy or in­fan­tile. She is in her own terms shrewd, prac­ti­cal, alert, full of energy and imag­i­na­tion and a de­sire to know what’s go­ing on, how­ever bizarre and un­canny it may be.

And the style in which Car­roll couches his epic of a non­sense world that ab­so­lutely re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge its lu­nacy (and nor should it) is a mas­ter­piece of plain el­e­gance and pre­ci­sion.

She was look­ing about for some way of es­cape, and won­der­ing whether she could get away with­out be­ing seen, when she no­ticed a cu­ri­ous ap­pear­ance in the air: it puz­zled her very much at first, but, af­ter watch­ing it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to her­self ‘‘It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have some­body to talk to.’’ ‘‘How are you get­ting on?’’ said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with. Alice waited till the eyes ap­peared, and then nod­ded. ‘‘It’s no use speak­ing to it,’’ she thought, ‘‘till its ears have come, or at least one of them.’’ In another minute the whole head ap­peared, and then Alice put down her flamingo, and be­gan an ac­count of the game, feel­ing very glad she had some­one to lis­ten to her. The Cat seemed to think that there was enough of it now in sight, and no more of it ap­peared.

The re­moval of the sublime Cheshire Cat is nat­u­rally enough — at the axe-happy queen’s in­sti­ga­tion — to be by ex­e­cu­tion. But, of course, the cat starts his fad­ing-away trick and the ex­e­cu­tioner is might­ily un­a­mused: “The ex­e­cu­tioner’s ar­gu­ment was, that you couldn’t cut off a head un­less there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing be­fore, and he wasn’t go­ing to be­gin at his time of life.’’

Alice can be read with a fair amount of ease by any­body. It’s in a fresh, id­iomatic, racy style that avoids the rich pon­der­ous qual­ity of a lot of


grand Vic­to­rian prose, so that it can in fact — like Huck­le­berry Finn and de­cid­edly un­like

Moby-Dick (which is no chil­dren’s book, what­ever they used to imag­ine) — be read when you’re nine years old. And should be. But Alice in Won­der­land is likely to take ev­ery child’s fancy and the main thing is prob­a­bly to en­cour­age kids — per­haps par­tic­u­larly boys — that they are not too old for it. And the trick there is prob­a­bly the sim­ple one of con­vinc­ing them it’s very funny and very weird.

And that’s true. It is bot­tom­lessly funny and sad and wise, and if it’s a kids’ book, even a lit­tle kids’ book, it is so with an ex­tra­or­di­nary clair­voy­ant in­ten­sity of vi­sion, piti­less and naked to the wild­ness and poignancy of the world.

Lis­ten to the sublime and solemn de­scrip­tion of the Mock Tur­tle and the Gryphon as they de­lin­eate a dance of lob­sters with Alice try­ing not to dis­close the fact that she thinks of things from the sea as es­sen­tially things to eat:

‘‘You may not have lived much un­der the sea — ’’ (“I haven’t,’’ said Alice) — ‘‘and per­haps you were never even in­tro­duced to a lob­ster — ’’ (Alice be­gan to say ‘‘I once tasted — ’’ but checked her­self hastily, and said ‘‘No, never’’) ‘‘ — so you can have no idea what a de­light­ful thing a Lob­ster Quadrille is!’’ ‘‘No, in­deed,’’ said Alice. ‘‘What sort of a dance is it?’’ ‘‘Why,’’ said the Gryphon, ‘‘you first form into a line along the sea-shore — ’’ ‘‘Two lines!’’ cried the Mock Tur­tle. ‘‘Seals, tur­tles, salmon, and so on; then, when you’ve cleared all the jelly-fish out of the way — ’’ “That gen­er­ally takes some time,’’ in­ter­rupted the Gryphon. ‘‘ — you ad­vance twice — ’’

There’s a won­der­ful un­der­state­ment that is the medium for re­leas­ing the book’s en­chant­ment and delir­ium. Even though Car­roll knows all about the pure sug­ges­tive­ness of lan­guage, as in Jab­ber­wocky, he needs — and ef­fort­lessly con­jures up — a win­dow­pane prose that has all the nec­es­sary clar­ity and trans­parency for the wack­i­ness of what is to tran­spire at ev­ery point.

It’s the qual­ity you get in one of the great­est small-scale 20th-cen­tury mas­ter­pieces about the dream­like and im­pos­si­ble: Franz Kafka’s

Meta­mor­pho­sis, the story about how Gre­gor Samsa wakes up to dis­cover that he has turned into a gi­ant in­sect. It’s the story of Kafka where he is clos­est to the tech­nique of clas­sic re­al­ism, where he is at his sharpest and most Flaubert-like.

Aris­to­tle, the Greek philoso­pher of literature (and ev­ery­thing else), said that a prob­a­ble im­pos­si­bil­ity was to be pre­ferred to an im­prob­a­ble pos­si­bil­ity. This sim­ply means that some­thing like A

Midsummer’s Night Dream, with its fairies and asses’ heads, is bet­ter, it is more real as writ­ing, than a bad soap opera where some­thing that could hap­pen, but wasn’t likely, takes centrestage with a com­plete lack of be­liev­abil­ity.

Alice in Won­der­land and Through the Look­ing-Glass are full of the high logic and pre­cise re­al­ism of the im­pos­si­bil­ity, and what makes the im­pos­si­bil­ity so real is that the never less than in­tel­lec­tual Car­roll gives his nar­ra­tive the pre­ci­sion of dream. So the grumpy duchess can be nurs­ing an ac­tual pig. And so we can get all the re­al­is­tic semi-in­tel­lec­tu­alised di­a­logue of Tweedledee and Twee­dle­dum.

“I know what you’re think­ing about,” said Twee­dle­dum: “but it isn’t so, no­how.” “Con­trari­wise,” con­tin­ued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” “I was think­ing,” Alice said very po­litely, “which is the best way out of this wood: it’s get­ting so dark. Would you tell me, please?” But the fat lit­tle men only looked at each other and grinned.

Was there ever a more vivid por­trait of two all but in­ter­change­able dumb-arse clever boys?

A close cousin is Humpty Dumpty who knows ev­ery­thing about words and how to jump hoops through them, log­i­cally and su­per log­i­cally: “‘When I use a word,’’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scorn­ful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — nei­ther more nor less.’ ”

And this very in­tel­lec­tual idiot gives a very pre­cise im­per­son­ation of a literary critic by un­der­tak­ing to pro­duce an anal­y­sis of Jab­ber


This as­pect of Alice in Won­der­land is in­ex­haustible be­cause its bril­liance is in its silli­ness and vice-versa. The Goons and Monty Python have noth­ing on it be­cause its wit and its dis­dain for in­tel­li­gence are part and par­cel of the same thing, and the Won­der­land frame is won­der­ful be­cause it al­lows the sur­re­al­ism of what tran­spires to have an ab­so­lutely or­di­nary rain­bow of ac­tu­al­ity.

It’s a bit daz­zling just how much re­al­ism Car­roll packs into his evo­ca­tion of the sur­real through the eyes of an in­no­cent and prac­ti­cal child. There’s some­thing so silly and so daz­zlingly pro­found in the fight be­tween the Lion and the Uni­corn to­wards the end of the Look

ing-Glass sec­tion and then the King’s de­scrip­tion of his mes­sen­ger.

“‘ Not at all,’ said the King. ‘ He’s an An­gloSaxon Mes­sen­ger — and those are An­gloSaxon at­ti­tudes. He only does them when he’s happy. His name is Haigha.’ (He pro­nounced it so as to rhyme with ‘mayor’.)’’

An­glo-Saxon at­ti­tudes — who but Lewis Car­roll could act them out? The whole book is an en­chanted cir­cus of An­glo-Saxon at­ti­tudes, but it is also the broad­est and most panoramic of comic spec­ta­cles.

There’s even the ap­pari­tion of a White Knight who has the poignancy, the tragi­comic ab­sur­dity of Cer­vantes’s Don Quixote in minia­ture. He flits, he flut­ters, he in­di­cates his great frailty.

So there are even tears in this strange book of the world that is made up of so many an­i­mated jokes, yet the walk­ing jokes and para­doxes have hu­man faces and shapes and pos­si­bil­i­ties, how­ever glanc­ing, of real feel­ing, and des­tiny.

Alice in Won­der­land is a book of the deep­est kind of magic. It is com­pounded of po­etry and logic and it be­lieves in nei­ther. It is a work of wis­dom and a work of mad­ness. It is hi­lar­i­ous and there is a sense in which it is a place where all our mem­o­ries be­gin, or seem to.

It’s mar­vel­lous that it’s turned 150 and ev­ery­one has an ex­cuse to read it again.

Clock­wise from far left, Humpty Dumpty meets Alice; Lewis Car­roll; an il­lus­tra­tion by John Ten­niel from the 1865 first edi­tion of Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land; Alice Lid­dell aged seven, pho­tographed by Car­roll


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