“Well! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I can see you’re trying to invent something.
Likely or not, Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice – first told in two volumes, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) – has delighted readers across centuries and continents. Lewis Carroll is said to be the most quoted author after Shakespeare, and Alice his best-known creation and indeed one of our most cherished child icons. Only Peter Pan rivals Alice in popularity and cultural diffusion. Like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland (a title never used by Carroll) is known by all, even by – perhaps especially by – those who have never read the original texts. Most people recognize not only Alice but also the larger Wonderland menagerie: the caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter (not titled “Mad” in Carroll), and the Mock Turtle. Characters from Through the Looking Glass are equally famous: the Red Queen, the Jabberwocky, Humpty Dumpty, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.
Carroll’s original texts are now encountered more often in the context of university courses on children’s or Victorian literature, while many of us know Alice primarily through picturebook retellings, or the animated Disney film, or other variations or revisitations. As early as 1869, other authors tried their hand at Alice stories, sometimes challenging Carroll’s themes and attitudes, sometimes confirming them. Among the more famous and subversive “Alternative Alices” are Christina Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses (1874) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Behind the White Brick (1879). Several hundred such texts were written by the early twentieth-century; Carroll himself owned a number of them, including From Nowhere to the North Pole (1875) and Mabel in Rhymeland (1885). As for Carroll, Alice was translated into Japanese as early as 1908 and is now available in over 125 languages, including Esperanto. The Alice stories also quickly found their way to the silver screen. The first cinematic Alice was a Cecil Hepworth short made in 1903, just five years after Carroll’s death, and by 1933 five other films had been made. Alice has been embraced by the French Surrealists and by the Bloomsbury group, by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali; the character Alice has found herself starring in advertisements for “Holidayland” (the North-East Railway), “New Wonderland” (Yellowstone National Park), and for Guinness Beer and Wonder Bread. Wherever we go, Alice and/or Carroll are there: in popular music (the Beatles, Grace Slick), in adult films and video games (American Magee’s Alice), in television, graphic novels, in musicals, ballets, operas, plays, and realist theatre. Try an Alice search on eBay. Put simply, the Alice of Lewis Carroll has at once been preserved intact and transformed dramatically. And unless we seek out Carroll first, we’re likely to encounter Alice in alternative or revisionary dress. If Alice isn’t sure of herself in Carroll’s story, just imagine her confusion today. Who is this dreamchild, and why do we chase her still?
In her study The Case of Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose proposes that children’s literature is something of a misnomer, since adults write for and otherwise act on behalf of children. Like Peter Pan, Alice confuses as much as clarifies our expectations about childhood and children’s literature. Ostensibly “for” children, and originally for a particular child, Alice refuses to settle down sensibly in the realm of children’s literature. Carroll’s Alice books are at least partly adult in tone and concern, containing as they do mathematical puzzles, educational satires, and not a little narratorial joking at Alice’s expense. Is Alice really a classic of children’s literature? Are these various “alternatives” to Alice simply adulterations – or is there something already adult about Carroll’s original tales? What might The Case of Alice suggest?
If Alice the character and Alice the narrative are elusive and ever-proliferating, so too is Lewis Carroll. In a 1939 appreciation of Carroll, inspired by the appearance of Carroll’s “complete works,” Virginia Woolf had this to say: “We ought to be able to grasp him whole and entire. But we fail – once more we fail. We think we have caught Lewis Carroll; we look again and see an Oxford clergyman. We think we have caught the Reverend C. L. Dodgson – we look again and see a fairy elf. The book breaks in two in our hands.” More recently, Will Brooker has sorted through the many Carroll biographies in an effort to clarify our picture of him and to contextualize ongoing suspicion about his attachment to little girls. Brooker persuasively shows that “Lewis Carroll” is many men in the popular imagination, at once “a national treasure and a vaguely suspect enigma.”
We may fail to know Lewis Carroll and Alice, but such failure is what this exhibit is about. We are Alice ever after. ~ © 2007 Kenneth Kidd