As the threat of the pandemic seems, finally, to be receding, some of last year’s big-name exhibitions are finally opening. They don’t get much higher profile than the V & A’s blockbuster show Curious and Curiouser, which delves into the “origins, adaptations and reinventions” of the classic children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There is unlikely to be a paucity of material. From its origins as a story made up by the Oxford don Charles Dodgson to amuse some small girls including Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, to its present-day status as a behemoth of literature and art alike, it remains one of the most iconic fantasias ever constructed.
I speak as a resident of Dodgson’s — or Lewis Carroll’s — city. Here, its influence continues to loom large, 157 years after the book was published. It is impossible to walk down the street without being besieged by the opportunity to buy a trinket from the Alice gift shop. Images of the girl confronted by a grinning Cheshire Cat are everywhere. Yet cannier interpreters have also managed to take the iconography of both Carroll and his illustrator John Tenniel and turn it into something vivid and exciting. The eclectic likes of Salvador Dali, the Beatles and Vivienne Westwood have all produced work explicitly inspired by the book, and “going down the rabbit hole” has itself become terminology for discovering new and revelatory material. And the story remains endlessly, addictively re-readable.
There are puzzles, allusions, puns and blind alleys that have enthralled and fascinated readers since 1865
Perhaps the best way of understanding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is to view it as a companion piece to its only serious rival for the greatest English-language children’s book ever written, The Wind in the Willows. Whereas Kenneth Grahame’s tale is one imbued with a great love, even reverence, for English literature, specifically but not exclusively Shakespeare, Carroll’s background as a mathematician and logician informs every page and every riddle of his book.
There are puzzles, allusions, puns and blind alleys that have enthralled and fascinated readers since 1865, so much so that there exists a famous 20th century edition, The Annotated Alice, that attempts to explain many of the more recherché jokes and references. Many readers will find that it adds little to their understanding or enjoyment of the book to learn that, for instance, “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat/How I wonder what you’re at” is an allusion to Carroll’s friend and fellow Oxford don Bartholomew Prince, whose lectures were widely believed to be incomprehensible. But this, and many other in-jokes, all combine to form a richly enjoyable and endlessly fascinating tapestry.
Yet, as ever, trouble in paradise remains. One endlessly controversial subject that, by all accounts, the V & A’s exhibition alludes to without exploring in detail is the precise nature of Lewis Carroll’s interest in Alice Liddell. The most generous interpretation is that Carroll, a lifelong bachelor and a deeply shy man who would stammeringly introduce himself as “Do-do-Dodgson’, was himself a childlike and asexual figure, somewhat akin to that other great British humourist PG Wodehouse. Yet his penchant for drawing and photographing naked pre-pubescent girls did not pass without comment during his lifetime, and now is regarded by most of his biographers as deeply suspect, even allowing for the cult of child-adoration that arose within Victorian times. One contemporary critic even refers to Carroll as “the Victorian era’s most famous (or infamous) girl lover.”
There is a fascination with a pre-pubescent girl’s body and its changing form
Under normal circumstances, one would imagine that Carroll’s reputation would lie well and truly down the rabbit hole. Certainly, any sexual feelings that he displayed towards the real-life Alice have long been a source of speculation, and the mystery of why he removed a page from his diary on 27 June 1863 continues. It has been suggested that he proposed marriage to the 11-year old Alice Liddell that day, was angrily rejected, and was so humiliated by his advances being rebuffed that he broke off his friendship with her and her family. Alternative interpretations have suggested that he was infatuated with Alice’s governess, her elder sister or even her mother. In any case, there was almost certainly some long-sublimated feeling that the 34-year old Carroll displayed, and its consequences fed into the strange, topsy-turvy world that he created.
Because, make no mistake, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very odd book indeed. There is a fascination with a pre-pubescent girl’s body and its changing form, displayed most explicitly in the way in which she grows and shrinks when she eats and drinks specific substances, but the apparently benign characters and creatures that she meets are variously shown to be insane, homicidal, terrified or barely there at all, in the case of the grinning, vanishing Cheshire Cat. Wonderland, for all of its apparent charms, is a frightening place full of casual violence and impossible-to-solve riddles, all of which combine to leave the protagonist, and the reader, helplessly lost at times.
Even as its epigrammatic wit looks forward to both Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, there is a creeping unease that lies at the heart of the book, but also an unfulfilled longing for something better. This is expressed best when Alice sees “the loveliest garden you ever saw”, and tries desperately to fit into it, but the Edenic vision remains ever out of reach, taunting her with its proximity. It does not take the most committed Freudian to draw the parallel between this and Carroll’s longing for something that he, too, could never have.
So it remains a surprising bold decision, in 2021, for the V & A to mount so lavish an exhibition revolving around the dark and unknowable heart of the book’s creator. But this is not all it is. To merely decry Carroll as a proto-paedophile, and to ignore the wonders of his work, is reductive indeed. He remains a legendary figure in imaginary literature for good reason, and it is a wonderfully exciting opportunity to be able to visit his world once again, and to enjoy his visionary talents while still asking pertinent questions about how the life informed the art, and vice versa. And, of course, it will be difficult not to honour him with a verse of “I Am The Walrus”, too.
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