“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)
The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.