Follow That White Rabbit With The Fob Watch

by Gautam Mukherjee - Mar 1, 2015 06:40 PM +05:30 IST
Follow That White Rabbit With The Fob Watch

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Swarajya relives the magic of imagination

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

— Mad Hatter, at The Mad-Tea Party

Alice had originally gone ‘underground’, as the title of the first version had it, following a hurrying White Rabbit in a waistcoat. A rabbit with a fob watch, muttering to himself, determined not to be any later than late.

But what sets Alice in Wonderland apart from all the fantasia, fairy-tales, nonsense rhyme and make sense illogic that poured out during the mid to late Victorian era? And why was there such a creative outpouring of enduring, other-worldly fantasia during the grimy, early smoke-stack stage of the Industrial Revolution? The second question is like wondering what it was about the Seventies? Was it the end of the war in Vietnam or the liberation of the contraceptive pill, or both?

But in Alice, it was surely the number of delightful characters that populate the book and its sequel, the slightly darker Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published six years later. They are, without doubt, two of the most famous books in English literature.

There was an incandescent spark and wit about the Alice books then that remains most contemporary. Much zany conversation, to animate the animals who talked, the objects that walked, mixed with a quirky streak of landed upper-class British eccentricity and loftiness.

Follow That White Rabbit With The Fob Watch

That tone of voice was the norm in the leading university of the English-speaking world, in 1865, when Britannia ruled the waves, and the paroxysms of violent change that came with the 20th century, were still decades into the future.  Alice, like the never-existent but most evocative Wodehousian world later, has been ever-endearing. Besides, the best children’s books have a timeless quality about them, untouched by the vagaries of history and circumstance.

In addition, Alice has pace,crackling with a logician/mathematician’s intelligence and invention, but softened by the creative tenderness of romance as wide-eyed as a young man’s fancy, or indeed the innocence of a child.

Lewis Carroll had actually been writing and illustrating amusements, rhymes, fantasia, miscellania, right from his teens. But Alice was his block-buster, claim to instant and abiding acclaim, and what became his defining moment. It also earned him large sums of money throughout the rest of his life.

It was a heady coming together of creative juices and the play of relativity, expounded later by Einstein, brought to simplicity. As the Walrus in Looking Glass quips in this oft-quoted snippet:‘The time has come to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships-and sealing wax-of cabbages and kings’.

Edward Lear, a talented contemporary of Lewis Carroll, author of the beloved The Owl and the Pussycat, (1871), helped popularise the genre of hilariously illustrated nonsense rhyme. His best-selling book of self-illustrated limericks was actually published in 1846, well before Alice (1865). Alice, of course, ranged over a scale of thought and lyricism amongst the word-play, that went well beyond just the nonsensical.

That, a wonderful story, made up extempore by the author as he imagined it, for the simple entertainment of three little girls, could captivate generations ever since, defines its inherent genius. Its sheer longevity in print and celluloid contradicts what the Mad Hatter says to Alice: ‘You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness’. Fact is, Alice, as she asserted herself, is still ‘real’, a century-and-a-half later.

Published originally as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it was conjured up out of the ether in fascinating outline, while rowing/punting down the river Isis, on a picnic cum boat trip. The first of these astoundingly productive boating excursions took place on 4th July 1862, between the evocatively named Folly Bridge and the village of Godstow, both near Oxford.

There were many more such outings later, on other idyllic days. Together, they helped flesh out the story- with the three Liddell sisters as muse: There was Florine 13, Alice 10, and Edith 8, all clamorously urging Carroll ever onwards in his invention, insisting ‘next time’ was always ‘now’.

It is now the 150th year since the publication of the ‘first children’s story without a moral’,wrote Melanie McDonagh recently in The Independent. This astute observation probably accounts for the tale’s tantalising appeal to young and not so young alike.

Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, three years after it was conceived.The first edition illustrated by the celebrated John Tenniel, later knighted by Queen Victoria. And afterwards, Alice inspired many other illustrators in subsequent editions, as well as a galaxy offamous painters including Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Peter Blake and Yayoi Kusama .

And this year, a whole flotilla of Oxford rowers made a commemorative journey down the Isis. Oxford University has long been clear about claiming its own, and this one was the work of a life-long resident and faculty member. Alice may be global but it is also local.

Susan Sontag, the American playwright, essayist and novelist, wasn’t exaggerating when she called Carroll’s Alicethe most famous Alice of the 19th century.

Lewis Carroll’s muse however probably led him to an amalgam, a composite person of the imagination that actually featured in the books, but there is no doubt Alice Liddell figured prominently. She is mentioned directly in the text and referred to obliquely several times.

But there was also the influence of all three Liddell girls, daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, where Carroll alias the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a Mathematics don. He was, in fact, an Oxford prominent, teaching there from the 1850s till 1881, and staying in residence for the rest of his life till he died in 1898.

In any case, Lewis Carroll, prolific as he was, never again matched the popularity and magic of the Alice books, generally published sandwiched together in later years.Everything inside and outside, up top and underside in Alice belongs; nothing is superfluous, not even the liberal poetic licence. That is probably why Alicethinks it is fine to be mad. She tells the Hatter,who is suddenly seized with anxiety that he’d gone mad: But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

Marina Warner, in an article written in 2011 for the celebrated Tate Gallery, noted ‘Dodgson saw humour as somewhere, above all, to shelter’. This was the work of Dodgson’s nom de plume, the altogether more prepossessing Lewis Carroll, fluent, comfortable, debonair in the company of the Liddell sisters, but obviously his alter-ego, one that wasn’t tongue-tied or shy.

But there is enough gossip, conjecture and anecdotal trivia on Carroll. Any tinctures of paedophilia, suggestions of which came to the surface in the suspicious 1990s, in Dodgson’s devotion to Alice Liddell, and indeed little girls in general, were certainly not borne out by the facts. Neither Alice nor anyone else claimed anything untoward in the subsequent decades of Carroll’s life. This unlike quite a few celebrity icons of times just past.

It is true enough that  Alice Liddel’s defining moment also became Alice in Wonderland to be sure. After all, she was the possessor of the only hand-written and self-illustrated copy of the manuscript gifted to her in 1864.  And so, she was often called upon, after Carroll died, to preside over Alice functions, almost up to her own death, years later, in 1934.

It is no secret that Carroll plainly loved her. He also took photographic portraits of her, her mother, and sisters and many other little girls, often nude or partially dressed, almost always supervised by a parent, because the prevailing conceit of the time saw pre-pubescent little girls as the embodiment of innocence.There was no sleaze in it, and there were a number of other painters and photographers who did likewise.

Dodgson, a life-long bachelor did, reassuringly, embark on several discreet affairs with young women, some no more than in their twenties. It is also said, in some accounts, that he wanted to marry Alice Liddell when she grew up. This was a healthy enough sentiment for a man 20 years older. He voiced as much to her parents, but was turned down by Alice’s mother, the Dean’s wife.

Alice Liddel went on to marry a wealthy cricketer, one Reginald Hargreaves, the same age as her, in fact, and had three sons by him before he died in 1926.And she did name one of her sons Caryl, but coyly denied it had anything to do with Lewis Carroll.

There were other colourful rumours too. Alice was astriking beauty at 20, and before she married Hargreaves in 1880 when they were both 28,she was said to be the love interest of Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son. However, there is some confusion on whether it was actually she, or her younger sister Edith, who died young, that interested Leopold. But the Prince did pay Edith his last respects as one of her pall-bearers.

Also, there are missing pages of Carroll’s diary from 1863, which are thought to refer, contrary to the popular line, to the Liddel’s elder daughter Lorina, a blooming, hormonal young teenager by then, if underage  under today’s laws, who apparently gave inappropriate expression to her infatuation for Carroll.

This inevitably caused a rift between the Liddells and Dodgson. A rift, from which the relationship never fully recovered, though other reasons, including Oxford staff-room politics, were added to the mix in later years.

Irrespective of these formative juices, once Alice in Wonderland was published, it took on a life of its own, opening it up to a world of interpretation.What fascinated Director Tim Burton, for example, who directed the latest Disney cinematic version of Alice in 2010, is its ‘trippiness’.

Indeed, the mathematician in Dodgson perhaps seemed fascinated by what another analyst called the ‘unverifiable’, and the ‘unreliability of perception’. Others thought he brought non-being to life in Alice, along with a cast of hypnotic characters, including the contrapuntal Mad Hatter, the irascible Queen of Hearts, ,the Mock Turtle, the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Cheshire Cat, who could disappear leaving only his grin hanging in the air. Looking Glass introduced the duo Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the gryphon-like Jabberwock dragon, The Walrus, and the Carpenter.

Alice’s magnetism is probably due to its universality. It was clearly not just an outstanding Victorian era concoction, unlike several of its less celebrated ilk. It is still contemporary, and appeals also to adults, through its twists and turns, and its darker hues in Looking Glass. Carroll lost his father shortly before writing Looking Glass, and was quite depressed at the time.

The appeal and validity of the books has inspired a cornucopia of painters, illustrators, musicians, graphic artists, movie-makers, playwrights, fantasists, curators, sociologists, logicians, intellectuals, writers, novelists, and masses of Carroll biographers. There are postage stamps featuring Alice and the cast of characters in Wonderland, fashion, clothes, Apps, computer games, a plethora of toys and oodles of gift-shop merchandise.

There were also a number of works, before and after, in similar genres. A languid and intoxicatingly illustrated Water Babies, by the Rev. Charles Kingsley (1862), was a satirical, moral fable, commenting partially on Darwinism, and a precursor to Alice, which was neither. But it was published by the self-same Macmillan that took on Carroll’s Alice.

JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, came later, after the turn of the century,first in a novel form (1902), and then a play, (1904);soon after the longest reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria, died in 1902.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, L Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, marking the first acclaimed American fairy-tale and children’s fantasy ever. The PL Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books came further down the pike, the first of them in 1934, in the ‘modern’ era between the wars.

Walt Disney’s own parade of humanoid animal characters led by Mickey Mouse was followed by movie versions of several of the aforementioned.It was Disney that took a stab at the first film version of Alice in 1951 and once again in 2010. And all the idealised ‘worlds’ and ‘lands’ since,  from Disney World to Hogwarts, arguably had their basic inspiration in Lewis Carroll’s seminal and path-breaking work.

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a pastor’s son headed for a career in the ‘High Church’ too, but though a deacon, was actually never ordained a priest in the end. He was, additionally, a brilliant mathematician with a dozen books on the subject written under his real name, including Notes on the First Two Books of Euclid (1860) and Curiosa Mathematica, late in life, published in two parts, coming out in 1888 and 1894.

Dodgson was a teacher, mainly of geometry, an Anglican deacon from 1861, a pioneer photographer, starting in 1856, when the medium was just establishing itself, illustrator, comic, author, a singing bon vivant, an inventor of useful innovations.

In himself, Dodgson was, despite his gifts, sometimes stodgy, a stuttering, shy, conformist. But, in a Through The Looking Glass, mirror-image kind of way, he was also, in his Lewis Carroll avatar, an outrageous, incandescent, and fluent rebel, a  soaring Superman to his mild-mannered academic gowned Clark Kent.

Dodgson was, in fact, also an occasional temporal lobe epileptic, given to visions, and suffered ‘aura’ migraines. These afflictions may well account for the distortions of his vision, and not the influence of psychotropic drugs, that some people seem to divine in the text.

The feisty Alice, never one to be overawed, probably has the last debunking word for the motley dissectors, analysers,critics, and sundry other authority figures over the years. She shouts in retort at the imperious King and the bad-tempered Queen of Hearts: You’re nothing but a pack of cards! Who cares for you!

But perhaps it is not so much Alice, so given to holding her own, as the Mad Hatter, who sums things up best: you might as well say that I like what I get is the same thing as I get what I like.

Or even the Dormouse, who says: I breathe when I sleep is the same thing as I sleep when I breathe.

Deductive logic anyone?


Gautam Mukherjee is a political commentator whose columns figure regularly in different right-of-centre media outlets
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