On the 19th May, I had the pleasure of seeing Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst of Oxford University give a talk at Newcastle University. His subject was Finding Wonderland. There is a link to an archive recording of the talk here, but these were some of the highlights.
In 1990, The New York Times published an article about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its title is an apt one: That Girl is Everywhere. Alice’s story has been translated internationally, and has left its mark almost everywhere: in the business world, in the gaming world, even in the food world:Supposedly, the Alice stories are the most quoted English text after the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, and it’s easy to see why. Lewis Carrol is responsible not only for the birth of several new words—chortle, frabjous—but also phrases like curiouser and curiouser.
Alice is an enduring figure, and one whom changes and influences to her will. Alice is difficult to pinpoint, even for Alice herself. She is called monster, flower, snake and housemaid. She grows giant and then tiny. She physically and mentally changes, so much so that she is everything we want her to be, and therefore nothing at all.
The Alice books are books of doubling. The characters are doubles, the books are doubles, and even Alice is a double. The real Alice was named Alice Liddell, and she was photographed numerous times by Carroll. We know physically she looked nothing like the story character, but the story was written for her enjoyment. Even Carroll was a man of doubling. His moniker, Lewis Carroll, was a whimsical man who loved puzzles. But the real man, Reverend Charles Dodgson, was a dull mathematician, and someone whom many considered unremarkable.
The irony of course is that the story is a remarkable one. You don’t have to have read it to remember it. Following that white rabbit and falling down the rabbit hole is an image that has been ingrained in our cultural memory. The entire scene is a magic trick, a pun of sorts; as she is falling, she is falling asleep, and she enters a dream world. Everything about the book is a magic trick: white rabbits, top hats, growing and shrinking etc.
That is not to say the books are wholly original. Carroll was very much a product of his time by sending Alice underground. It was something of a fashion to do, with the world around them providing inspiration. The streets of London were torn up to make way for sewers and transport. They were still discovering dinosaur bones at this time. Many popular fairy tales had a changeling motif.
Douglas-Fairhurst further mentioned a theory I find to be very interesting. Another famous underground idea, at least to those of a Christian culture, is Hell. The infamous Hatter’s tea party echoes a Dante-esque scene of comedy—characters stuck in a place where time has stopped, never moving on and never going anywhere. The story was even originally called Alice’s Adventures Underground. She never refers to it as Wonderland in the story. Wonderland is a concept from the Romantic era, depicting a land of imagination, much like Palgrave’s poem The Age of Innocence.
For all its bizarre rules, Wonderland is a place of constancy. The Queen of Hearts will always order heads off, but everyone will always survive. It will always be 6pm at the tea party. Alice Liddell may have grown up, but in Wonderland, she is always a seven-year old dream-child.
We love our Alice. She is virtuous, but with all the vices a child should have. She is threatening, she is stubborn, she is lost. We retell her story in countless ways because it is part of our cultural memory now. We love our Alice stories.
Douglas-Fairhurst also talked a great deal about Carroll’s personal life, and the myth surrounding the man. His talk is worth listening to if you’re interested. These were but a few fascinating tidbits.
And so, dear readers, we reach the end of another post.
Let me ask you this: what is your favourite Alice adaptation? Have you read it recently? And who is your favourite character?
Let me know your thoughts.