Our resident blogger and expert on all things bookish reflects on the history of Alice in Wonderland and why we still love Lewis Caroll’s tale 150 years on. We’ll be reading this month’s post with a cup of tea and a jam tart.
“Many a day we rowed together on that quiet stream – the three little maidens and I – and many a fairytale had been extemporised for their benefit . . . yet none of these tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.”
Thus did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, come into being. The rower was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician and reverend at Oxford, and the petitioner was ten-year-old Alice Liddell. Neither of them realised that she was about to be immortalised as the heroine of a book which inaugurated what would come to be called the first golden age of children’s literature. They were both more concerned with the story – the teller perhaps even more so than his listeners. “In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line in fairy lore,” he remembered later, “I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was going to happen afterwards.”
What happened afterwards was that he wrote it all down (adding “many fresh ideas, which seemed to grow of themselves upon the original stock”) and self-published what was originally called Alice’s Adventures Underground in 1865, with illustrations by a man his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth – who had been on the rowing trip with him and the Liddells – suggested might be rather good; a chap called John Tenniel. Dodgson – writing as Lewis Carroll to separate the book from his professional reputation – needed to sell 4,000 copies to break even. He need not have worried. Alice’s fans soon included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde (the twin poles around which mid-nineteenth century celebrity were strung – think of them as the Kim Kardashian and Graham Norton of their day, kids) and by Dodgson’s death in 1898 it had sold 180,000 copies and has never been out print.
Alice is a riot of nonsense, parodies, wordplay, twisted and dreamlike (il)logic, invention and imagination. There is something in there for everyone. I liked the semantic shenanigans (the Mouse giving a very dry lecture on William the Conqueror to restore those who have been soaked by Alice’s gigantic tears was always the moment that pleased me most) but a more mathematically-inclined friend of mine remembers it equally fondly for the EAT ME cake and the DRINK ME bottle which caused Alice to grow and shrink and thus introduce him, apparently, to “the concept of absolute scale”. I know. He’s a very nice man, but I have no idea what we ever find to talk about.
It marks the point at which children’s literature finally shucked off its history of didacticism and moralising and started speaking directly to child readers with the desire to entertain rather than educate them. Writers had been edging towards this since the beginning of the century, but it’s hard to throw off three or four centuries of tradition, religious conviction, and the feeling – still, I’d hazard, common to all parents and anyone else in charge of the young – that if you ever pass up an opportunity to hammer civilising edicts into juvenile heads their owners will turn feral in a heartbeat. Dodgson did it. Even more pleasingly, he (unwittingly – the reverend was no conscious feminist) did so with a protagonist who also set aside the tradition of polite, delicate, submissive heroines and was instead alternately stoic and stroppy as she navigates her way through this world of irrational creatures, mad royals and untrustworthy labels on attractive foodstuffs.
In the 150 years she has been falling down the rabbit hole, Alice and her adventures have given rise to an innumerable number of film, television and stage adaptations (even if you have never read the book, Disney’s cartoon version alone has probably ensured that you know the basics), parodies, tributes and reworkings and inspired songwriters, musicians and artists in all media, including writers – most recently Cathy Cassidy, who has just published a brilliant modern-day retelling called Looking-Glass Girl, about a 13 year old Alice who is invited by the “queen of the school” Savvy to go to a Wonderland-themed sleepover party . . .
But don’t forget about the original. The writer Roger Lancelyn Green once suggested that the ideal was for a child first to get to know Alice by hearing her adventures read aloud anytime between the ages of four and eight, before “the Gradgrindian fact-pushing at school” eroded the willingness to suspend disbelief. Lancelyn Green was writing in the pre-league tables, pre-SATs, pre-unspeakable, ridiculous rest of it 1960s. God knows how much more our children need her now. Let’s tumble down the rabbit hole together.
This May, Puffin are celebrating Alice’s big birthday with a very special show. Tell teachers, librarians and curious white rabbits to sign up for the Puffin Virtually Live Alice in Wonderland webcast on Tuesday 19th May – starring Cathy Cassidy, author of Looking Glass Girl.