Dodgson's friendship with the Liddell children flourished, though their mother could be difficult and obstructive on occasions, and he was never on the best of terms with their father. To this serious-minded, high-principled, conscientious young man the association became increasingly important, implying as it did a release of spirit that he found nowhere else. Harry and Lorina, the older children, shared his affection with Edith, the youngest, but Alice—a pretty child with an oval face, dark hair and shy fawn-like eyes— became his favourite.
He had told them all many stories before the famous day, 4 July 1862, on which he and his friend Robinson Duckworth of Trinity took Lorina (aged thirteen), Alice (aged ten) and Edith (who was eight) on a trip upriver to Godstow. It was during that afternoon that he began the story that was later developed into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. A suggestion of wild impromptu still clings to the opening chapters describing the fall down the rabbit-hole and the little door into the garden. The episode of the pool of tears is a reminiscence of another expedition he had made with the three Liddells to Nuneham on a rainy day a fort-night earlier.
In the six months that followed, Dodgson wrote out his story, at Alice's special request, under the title Alice's Adventures Under Ground. The drawings with which he illustrated it are not without merit. They have a private, anguish which is more moving than amusing, and the earnestness of the amateur occasionally rises in them to a weird frenzy that is almost Blake-like in its intensity. The original manuscript consists of 18,000 words only, but on George MacDonald's recommendation Dodgson determined to revise it for publication, and in the course of so doing he enlarged it to 35,000 words. John Tenniel, the Punch artist, who had made his name as a book-illustrator with his decorations for Aesop's Fables, and who was particularly skilled at drawing animals, consented to illustrate. His drawings were remarkably successful, though there is little doubt that they betray the strong influence of the French artist, J. J. Grandville ( See Creators of Wonderland by M. Mespoulet, (New York, 1934) I am grateful to Mr Bryan Montagu for drawing my attention to this convincing study.). Dodgson interested himself in their progress at every stage.
A comparison between the first manuscript version of Alice in Wonderland, now in the British Museum, and the printed book shows that the general tendency, as might be expected, is away from parochial allusions and mere child's play towards more advanced and reasoned ingenuity. The most important additions are the chapters 'Pig and Pepper' and 'A Mad Tea-party' and the trial scene, but such favourite parodies as 'Speak roughly to your little boy', 'Twinkle, twinkle little bat', ' 'Tis the voice of the Lobster', and 'Will you walk a little faster' do not appear in the first version. Many local allusions remain, some of them probably derived from the famous expedition to Godstow. Dodgson himself was the Dodo (perhaps a reproduction of his stammer as he pronounced his own name); Duckworth was the Duck, Lorina the Lory, Edith the Eaglet and Alice, of course, was Alice. The three little girls in the Dormouse's story, Elsie, Lacie and Tillie, are only the three Liddells in another disguise: Elsie stands for L. C., the initials of Lorina Charlotte; Lacie is an anagram for Alice; and Matilda (Millie) was a family nickname for Edith.
It is difficult to put oneself in the place of someone who reads Alice in Wonderland for the first time, but not difficult to say why it immediately appealed, and still appeals, to children. This is an extraordinary world of fantasy, where Alice can shrink almost to insect size or grow to the dimensions of a giant; where she can talk to a caterpillar on a mushroom; where a cat can exist merely as a grin; where there are Mock Turtles instead of real turtles; where playing-cards become persons. The animals and the jokes about lessons are easy for children to understand; the Caucus-race, the tea-party, the game of croquet, the lobster-quadrille— all are based on facts of everyday experience, suddenly turned topsy-turvy and made startlingly entertaining. Much of the play with language and many of the parodies are only fully appreciated by grown-ups, but the source of
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at
can hardly be missed even nowadays ('You know the song, perhaps?' asks the Mad Hatter), while Watts's ''Tis the voice of the sluggard' still sounds recognizably behind
"Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.'
For the rest, a limpid prose that holds the attention of grown-ups is that most likely to retain the affection of children, as Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter have proved, though the mixture must be infinitely subtle. Lewis Carroll was a notable master of dialogue. Consider the counterpoint of this passage from the trial scene:
'What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.
'Nothing', said Alice.
'Nothing whatever?' persisted the King.
'Nothing whatever', said Alice.
'That's very important', the King said, turning to the jury They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: 'Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course', he said, in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
'Unimportant, of course, I meant', the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, 'important—unimportant—unimportant —important—' as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down 'important', and some 'unimportant'. Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; 'but it doesn't matter a bit', she thought to herself.
At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his notebook, called out 'Silence!' and read out from his book 'Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court'.
Everybody looked at Alice.
'I am not a mile high', said Alice.
'You are', said the King.
'Nearly two miles high', added the Queen.
'Well, I shan't go, at any rate', said Alice; 'besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now.'
'It's the oldest rule in the book', said the King.
'Then it ought to be Number One', said Alice.
The story of the withdrawal of the first edition of Alice in Wonderland in August 1865, owing to supposed deficiencies in the printing of the illustrations, and its reissue later in the same year, makes a bibliographical adventure too complicated to be described here. The success of the 'funny pretty book', as Christina Rossetti called it, was immediate, though the advance of its sales proved gradual rather than spectacular. Time was needed for the general acceptance of the revolution in children's literature implied by Alice in Wonderland; for this was not the goody-goody book conventionally familiar to Victorians, but handled childhood freshly and without sententiousness.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (to give the book its full title once more) is best thought of in conjunction with its equally famous sequel Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there, which was published in time for Christmas, 1871, again illustrated by Tenniel. As early as August 1866, Lewis Carroll told his publishers, Macmillans, that he had 'a floating idea of writing a sort of sequel to Alice'; but he did not seriously start work on it until two years later. He had much material ready to his hand, including the poem 'Jabberwocky' and the parody of Wordsworth, 'Upon the Lonely Moor', while he drew on Halliwell-Phillips's collection of nursery rhymes for 'Tweedledum' and 'Tweedledee', 'The Lion and the Unicorn', and several similar ingredients. Alice Liddell and her sisters remained the inspiration for the second book as they had been for the first, although this time their influence cannot be so exactly documented. We know that Dodgson had told them many stories about chessmen, at a time when they were learning to play chess; and as Through the Looking-Glass was based roughly on a game of chess, some of these stories naturally took their place in the new book, along with other reminiscences of the Liddells (Dinah was a recollection of Alice's cat). The idea of going through the looking-glass into a mysterious country beyond seems to have derived, however, from a meeting between Dodgson and another Alice, his little cousin Alice Raikes. Dodgson gave her an orange and asked her in which hand she was holding it. When she said 'The right', he invited her to stand before a mirror and tell him in which hand the girl in the looking-glass held the orange. 'The left hand', came the puzzled reply. 'Exactly', agreed Dodgson, 'and how do you explain that?' 'If I was on the other side of the glass', said Alice Raikes, 'wouldn't the orange still be in my right hand?' 'Well done, little Alice', replied Dodgson, 'the best answer I've had yet.'
Lewis Carroll achieved the rare distinction of writing a worthy sequel to a masterpiece. The Looking-Glass world is a land where things go the wrong way round, where flowers talk, where the characters of popular rhymes come to life, where chess-men are humanized. Through the Looking-Glass is to some tastes an improvement on its predecessor, and has certainly impressed itself equally on the national consciousness. It was the White Queen whose rule was 'jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today'. It was the Anglo-Saxon Messenger with the 'Anglo-Saxon attitudes' who called Alice 'as large as life, and twice as natural!' In the White Knight, Carroll parodied his own passion for small inventions. And if we must choose a representative poem, or a typical stanza of Carrollian verse, it is to 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' that we turn:
'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.'
Many readers make no marked distinction between the two books, considering them as parts of the same story; Alice herself is the unifying factor, the rational being in a mad world, the Victorian child with courage, dignity and common sense. As Walter de la Mare said, 'She wends serenely on like a quiet moon in a chequered sky'. If there are times when she seems a bit of a prig, she is not the less convincing on that account, and always she is kind, courteous and considerate. She likes the Walrus 'because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters'; she is afraid that the Red King will catch cold from lying on the damp grass, being 'a very thoughtfull little girl'. Though her predicament is continually alarming, though the argument invariably goes against her, she has the resource to change the subject and hold on to her courage and common sense. I am not sure that Alice did not do more for the character of Victorian girlhood than Queen Victoria; yet even the Queen could not say this time that she was 'not amused'.
The combined Alice is a work of supreme originality. Carroll was clearly influenced by Lear's nonsense verses; conceivably he was slightly influenced by The Water Babies; I have a personal theory that he may have got some hints from Chapter XI of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss— 'Maggie Tries to Run Away from her Shadow'. But that is the most that can be said. Written in the heart of the Victorian era—and by a man who in other respects was held fast to his period—Alice is timeless in its appeal. The out-standing achievement is the creation of a dream world that is never for one moment unacceptable. Walter de la Mare has compared its atmosphere not only to those of the Songs of Innocence and Traherne's Meditations, but to the medieval descriptions of paradise and the gem-like Italian pictures of the seventeenth century. To those who deny Lewis Carroll's poetry, we can answer with de la Mare: 'What of the visionary light, the colour, the scenery; that wonderful landscape, for example, in "The Walrus and the Carpenter", as wide as Milton's in Il Penseroso—the quality of its sea, its sands, its spaces and distances ? What of the exquisite transition from one setting on to another in a serene seductive discontinuity in—for but one example— the chapter entitled "Wool and Water" ?'
Carroll's art is so well concealed, his prose so limpid that, we may fail to realize how carefully the stories are organized. And there is a sense of purpose in them that lies beneath the surface entertainment and marks the philosopher. Baffled at first in the mad world of her dream, the child learns to speak up for herself, to live with eccentricity on her own terms, and finally to sympathize. The old copybook moralizing has been mocked, but something has been taught nevertheless; the adventures of Wonderland have given spiritual encouragement to a child in the real world; the lesson has been as strange and unexpected as the book itself.
Besides this curious and almost unconscious lesson in character, Alice conveys only one further message that could possibly be termed didactic, and it is a message that came naturally from a student of language and logic: 'Pay attention to what you are saying!'
Alice asks the Cheshire Cat: 'Would you tell me, Please which way I ought to go from here ?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to', said the Cat.
'I don't much care where—' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go', said the Cat.
'—so long as I get somewhere', Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'
No child can read Alice without gaining an increased understanding of the importance of words. Inspired word-play, mixed with judicious slapstick, and set within the frame-work of an idiosyncratic view of the human situation is the essence of Alice. Lewis Carroll added at least two words to the English language—'chortle' and 'galumph'—and he revived a number of forgotten words, among them 'whip fling', 'burbled', 'beamish' and 'slithy'. For the nearest parallel to his humorous method we must turn to the cinema —to the Marx Brothers, whose dialogue not only has many verbal similarities with his, but who also, like him, assert one grand false proposition at the outset and so persuade their audiences to accept anything as possible.
|« NEXT »||« Lewis Carroll »||« Biographies »||« Library »|