The actual name of this book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it was published in 1865. The author was Lewis Carroll, which is the pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dawson. The book was written three years before, after the author and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat up the river Isis with the three children of Henry Liddell, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church. During this five-mile voyage, which began at Oxford and ended in the village of Godstow, Dawson told the children – Lorina (age 13), Alice (age 10) and Edith (age 8)–a story about a girl named Alice who goes looking for adventures. The girls loved it, and wanted him to write it down for them. He began working on the manuscript the next day, and further elaborated the story in another boat trip the next month. It was at the urging of the author George MacDonald’s children, who also loved the stories, that he finally decided on publication. Originally he did all the illustrations himself, but once he decided to publish the book, he turned to John Tenniel, who was very well-known at the time as being the political cartoonist for Punch magazine. And with that, the perfect marriage of words and illustrations was born.
I returned to this book with a great deal of anticipation. This, like all the books in my series this year, was a well-loved and much-read book. My Alice book was one of a matched set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They were special editions published in 1946, and contained the wonderful Tenniel illustrations beautifully coloured by Fritz Kredel.
The story has been well enmeshed into our popular consciousness. It begins with a little girl sitting by the side of a river, getting bored while her older sister reads a book, is suddenly distracted by a white rabbit running by wearing a waistcoat and muttering, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Alice runs after the rabbit and crawls into his rabbit hole under a hedge after him and quickly finds herself falling down,, down, down….falling so long that she almost falls asleep, and then she finally hits the ground and finds herself in Wonderland.
It’s pretty difficult to detail the plot from here on in, as all who have read the book will understand. It’s a jumble of events, none of which really make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice says. She spends some time shrinking and growing by consuming the appropriately labelled cake (“Eat Me”) and drink (“Drink Me”), all the while trying to get through a small doorway into a garden, which she eventually succeeds at doing. There she encounters the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and, most memorably the incredibly grumpy Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”) and her court, who are all actually a pack of playing cards. There is a strange croquet game with flamingos as croquet bats and hedgehogs as balls, an encounter with the Mock Turtle and a Gryphon in which they demonstrate the Lobster Quadrille for Alice, and a trial in which the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts.
To my regret, some of my favourite characters and scenes that I remember from the Alice books are not in Wonderland, but appear in Through the Looking Glass. In particular I was very much looking forward to the Jabberwocky (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe, All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”) which I can never read without feeling a little giddy with delight. I might just have to fit that book into my schedule further along the year, just for that poem alone.
Looking at Wonderland now, from an adult’s eye, I’m not sure I would have liked it very much if I had never read it as a child, which surprised me some, as the delight with which I read the Alice books is firmly entrenched in my mind. I pondered this some, and came up with these reasons as to why I think this book featured so large in my childhood imagination:
1). Alice herself – oh, I can see myself in Alice. A little girl, alone, trying to figure out the world. I spent long periods of time by myself as a child, especially in the two years after my sister went to school and I was left behind. Alice is by herself, and she has only herself to rely on to navigate this strange world. And this world, with its maddening refusal to make sense, is so very like the adult world to the eyes of a child. Things happen, and you have to cope. And those things that happen don’t make sense to you, even though all the other characters around you (the adults, in real life) have no difficulty navigating this world. You just have to play along and hope you don’t mess things up too badly.
2) The dream-like quality of it all – at the end of the book all of Alice’s adventures are revealed to be a dream. I had forgotten this! But it makes perfect sense, of course. Carroll captured the dream-world so very perfectly. Alice keeps encountering strange events, starting with the White Rabbit, which don’t seem to faze her at the time. This is so true of our dreams, right? I am a very vivid dreamer, and often remember my dreams, and laugh at the absurdity of it all, from this side of wakefulness. But in the dream world, well, it all somehow fits together, even as at the same time you know it doesn’t make sense at all. This strange suspension of reason is captured so very well in this book. All that growing and shrinking, the odd conversations, the times when Alice tried to recite poems she knows very well and yet they refuse to come out “right”, even the menacing Queen with her cries of “off with her head” and the grumpy Duchess with her pointed chin digging into Alice’s shoulder – these are all details that through Alice’s dream-eyes make sense but don’t make sense, and it is a wonderful depiction of that odd country we can find ourselves in when we drift off to sleep.
3) The illustrations – were there ever book illustrations that fit the words so perfectly than Tenniel’s fit Lewis Carroll’s words and descriptions? They have become iconic for good reason. Tenniel drew Alice normal enough for us to relate to her, but made the other characters just strange enough to perfectly capture the weirdness of the story.
Interestingly enough, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are the only two books Tenniel illustrated. Carroll approached him to illustrate another project, but Tenniel declined.
It was fun to re-visit Wonderland this month. It was actually a lot weirder than I remember it to be! But I’m glad I went back to make my acquaintance of Alice and the Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen.
Next month, I’m diving back into a book that I approach with a great deal of love and happiness: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham.