Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Alice — she of the Wonderland and Looking Glass fame. This is appropriate: It’s the 150th anniversary of the original text. Happy Birthday, Alice!
I first read the books when I was 5, and they’ve been favorites of mine since then. And I used to teach the two texts together, along with the critical history, in the “how to be an English major class” that I taught back when I was a professor. So she’s been a part of my life for more than 5 decades now. Here’s what I’ve learned from living with her:
1) Alice is all around, but she’s not necessarily Alice as she was first conceived. This used to confuse me. I would come across memes on Facebook and Pintrest that attributed quotations to Alice that I knew were not in the books. This is because Alice is so ubiquitous, and there are so many versions of her, that she lives in many different realities. Case in point: “We’re all mad here,” is indeed a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, from her first conversation with the Cheshire Cat. However, “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are” is NOT from Carroll’s original book; it’s from Tim Burton’s movie. It’s lovely! But it hasn’t got anything to do with the 19th century, so stop thinking that Lewis Carroll wrote it. He didn’t, and he couldn’t. The word “bonkers” didn’t exist until 1957.
2) It is really easy to dress up like Alice characters. Really easy. Look! Ebay! Etsy! Various places available on the net! But again, notice how little most of these costumes have to do with Tenniel’s extraordinary drawings (especially nice, these, since the artist and the writer did NOT get along). Mostly what you’re seeing is from Disney and Burton. It’s the movies that are in the deep public imagination. This is ok. It’s just something to note. (And notice what’s easy and what not: Alice? check, of course, don’t be silly. Red Queen? check. Mad Hatter? check. White Rabbit? check. White Queen? check. Caterpillar? check. Tweedledum and Tweedledee? check. Dormouse? no. Duchess? no. White Knight? no. Frog Footman? nope. Those you have to work out on your own.)
3) Alice has been around a long time (in early 21st century terms), and she’s very beloved, and we all know characters from the books and the movies, even if we haven’t read the books or seen the movies, and now, even though I wouldn’t say that Alice and her minions are classic archetypes (is the Red Queen really a villain? Are there any villains? Is the Caterpillar a mentor? Is he as good as it gets in Alice Land?), they are indeed archetypes for the modern world. There’s no real moral to the Alice books — there’s nothing in there about how to behave well, or what goodness is. It’s an amoral sort of universe. But the books have a lot to say about growing up and surviving, and attempting to keep one’s character intact. Alice is our hero, certainly. But the rest of the characters act as the nonsensical forces of society. This book is not about becoming a useful member of society. This book is about surviving in spite of what turns out to be “nothing but a pack of cards.”
4) Alice is good to think on. The first question I used to ask students was, “what is children’s literature supposed to do?” To which they told me many things, but they always agreed that children’s literature is supposed to teach children, to help them negotiate life; it needs a moral, students said. “Excellent,” I would say. “And this is a Victorian children’s book, and they LOVED morals. So. What’s the moral of Alice in Wonderland?” Ha! That would take up an hour. (Hint: there’s not one. This is especially interesting, since Carroll, when he wasn’t being Carroll, was Charles Dodgson, who was not only a mathematician and mathematics professor at Oxford, but Reverend Dodgson. Later he felt bad about writing such popular books as the Alice books, and wrote some moralistic dreck. But it’s Alice we remember. And rightly so.)
5) Dodgson is good to think on, too. My students were always appalled by Dodgson’s obsession with little girls, but I would say, “what do you want from him? We’ve got no evidence that he ever acted out of line; we can judge his actions, but are we really qualified to judge his inner life?” Young college students want things to be easily categorized, and they like for moral issues to be black and white. Sorry, kids. Welcome to life.
6) Also! The photographs! Besides being the author of the Alice books, Dodgson — who was a fairly mediocre mathematician and a dreadful professor — was one of the best of the early photographers. The photographs of the girls he loved are brilliant (and their mothers were there in the studio). My favorite is the photograph of Alice Liddell herself, dressed as a gypsy:
Compare this with Carroll’s last photo of her, taken when she was 18 — despite the Alice books, she grew up into a proper young Victorian lady:
So I say, enjoy Alice! Read the books! (Especially the Annotated Alice, which explains all the Victorian jokes, the mathematics, and the chess!) Watch the movies! (But not just Disney and Burton! There’s an awesome TV version by Nick Willing. There’s a
Czech version that’s bizarre and dark. Hell, here’s Wikipedia’s list of all the versions it knows of, including the X-rated! We need more Alice, not less. The tormented artist who invented her tapped into a deep well of horror and beauty and joy and grief. Alice speaks for all the children , small and large, who daily negotiate the streets of the modern world, and the bizarre behavior of the grownups.
Here they are, Alice and Professor Dodgson, doing just that, walking around in Oxford: