A-Z of Alice in Wonderland
On the eve of Tim Burton's 3-D take on Wonderland, Kevin Jackson reveals his cultural history of a Victorian classic
Sunday 21 February 2010
A is for Alice Liddell
How it all began: on July 4, 1862, a young Oxford don, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson , went for an agreeable five-mile boat trip on the Thames from Folly Bridge to Godstow. With him were the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry George Liddell: Lorina Charlotte (b. 1849, aged 13), Alice Pleasance (b. 1852, aged 10) and Edith Mary (b.1853, age 8) To while away the sunny afternoon’s trip, Dodgson began to make up fanciful stories about a little girl called Alice. The children were enthralled, and Alice in particular wanted to hear these stories again, so in November 1864, Dodgson presented her with a self-illustrated manuscript of about15,500 words, entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. (Incidentally, Dodgson often denied that the Alice of his imagination was based on Miss Liddell. He has seldom been believed.) What Alice did not know at this time was that her older friend was already busy expanding his yarn to about 27,500 words. It was this larger text, declared to be by one “Lewis Carroll” and re-entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that was eventually published with illustrations by John Tenniel, first in 1865 (with such slovenly reproductions of Tenniel’s work that he demanded a reprint) and more triumphantly in 1866. It was a dazzling success, as was the sequel Dodgson/Carroll published in 1871, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. (In many of the popular adaptations of the Alice fable, elements of the second book are stitched into the narrative of the first.)
Alice Liddell lived until 1934: a respectable age, and quite long enough to realise that her fictional counterpart had become an immortal.
B is for Mary Hilton Babcock
Who? A good question. Whether or not the fictional Alice was a version of Alice Liddell, it has always been clear that the girl in Tenniel’s illustrations bears very little resemblance to Carroll’s young friend. For many years, it was assumed that the real model for Tenniel’s girl was Mary Hilton Babcock, another of Carroll’s favourites. Carroll certainly sent the artist one of his photographs of Mary, asking him to use it as his model.; but in later years he would tell people that Tenniel’s Alice was a creature of pure invention.
C is for Carroll
Apart from the immense and largely unwelcome flood of attention that washed over him on the publication of Alice, Dodgson/Carroll did not lead a life of great incident: he never married nor, as far as we know, had any lovers; only travelled abroad once, in 1867, when he made a trip to Russia; and spent most of his life in the comfortable if sometimes tedious tranquillity of Christ Church. He was born in 1832; his home town was Daresbury, near Runcorn in Cheshire. Educated throughout his childhood by private tutors, he was sent to Rugby in 1846, and - shy and sensitive - found the experience painful. In 1851 he matriculated at Christ Church, and showed such early academic promise that he was soon appointed to the college’s mathematical lectureship, a post he held for 26 years. He published about a dozen studies in mathematics – work that is now regarded by mathematicians, when regarded at all, as solid rather than outstanding. Always fond of wordplay and story-telling, he began his official literary career in 1856 with a poem, “Solitude”; in the same year, he took up a photography, and is now recognised as a gifted, even remarkable pioneer in the art. He published the only other work for which he is popularly remembered, The Hunting of the Snark, in 1876. After a brief illness, he died in 1898. Perhaps a life of outward tedium was the necessary condition for gestating a unique form of fantasy?
D is for Gilles Deleuze
The eccentric and still modish French philosopher devoted a good part of his 1969 book Logique du sens to Alice. The little English girl has been well known and liked in France ever since the publication of Henri Bue’s Adventures d’Alice au pays des merveilles in 1869.
E is for William Empson
Though many twenty-first century readers have come to feel, not without justice, that psychoanalytic readings of literature are dogmatic, daft or simply irrelevant, there have been some glorious exceptions, and one of them is William Empson’s witty and searching essay “The Child as Swain” in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). (This essay influenced Jonathan Miller’s film; see below.):
F is for Freud
In 1960, the American philosopher and journalist Martin Gardner published The Annotated Alice, an edition of the two books which, among other things, explained the wealth of puns, allusions and other jokes that would have been obvious to a well-informed Victorian reader. At that time, the sum of psychoanalytic literature on the book was already large and growing rapidly. This was partly because Carroll was such an interesting case for shrinkage (was he a paedophile? Well, no, if by “paedophile” we mean someone who molests or otherwise ill-treats children for sexual kicks); partly because Wonderland in particular is such a remarkable representation of the non-Aristotelean logic of dreams; and partly because the books are dense with happenings that almost scream out to be read as symbolic. In his notes, Gardner lists seven major Freudian essays on Alice, as well as a short story by Robert Bloch, incidentally the author of Psycho, which pokes cruel fun at such interpretations.
G is for Gilbert Adair and also for Martin Gardner
The novelist - and essayist, poet, critic, translator and screenwriter - made his fictional debut with Alice Through the Needle’s Eye, a beautifully judged and affectionate pastiche of Carroll’s style and storytelling; in effect, a third episode of Alice’s adventures.
Gardner, an American philosopher and journalist, edited The Annotated Alice (1960), which unearthed dozens of hidden jokes, parodies and games that would have been fairly obvious to adult Victorians, and sometimes to their children, but had become obscured by the passage of time.
H is for Huxley
Aldous Huxley wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Disney’s animated version of Alice in Wonderland (1951) Walt is said to have turned it down on first reading, saying that he could only understand one word in three. H is also for Aldous’s nephew Francis Huxley, anthropologist, expert on shamanism, and author of The Raven and the Writing Desk, a philosophical fantasia on themes from Carroll.
I is for Alice’s Inferno
A concept album by the Spanish Goth metal band Forever Slave [sic], which imagines Alice’s life after both her parents have died.
J is for Jefferson Airplane
The band’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit”, written and performed (with a voice that could strip the paint off a battleship) by Grace Slick, brought out the affinities between Carroll’s imagined world and the drug experience (“One pill makes you larger/ One pill makes you small”) in such unambiguous terms that even the most addled hippies got the point. Ms Slick’s reading of Alice as a metaphor for a trip on Lysergic Acid was corroborated by the LSD guru Timothy Leary in The Politics of Ecstasy. Leary is hardly read nowadays, but the song, though frankly rather silly, is still a potent sliver of West Coast psychedelia. There is a fine cover version by Patti Smith.
K is for Kafka
Kafka’s fables are usually regarded as glum and terrifying, and Carroll’s as merely charming. Yet the affinities between their fictional worlds have long been plain enough to the unprejudiced eye. The trial of the Jack of Hearts shows the same nightmare logic as The Trial; the hidden forces of The Castle echo the deep structure of a chess game in Looking-Glass...
L is for Lost Girls
Finally published, after many years of hard labour, in 2009, this large-scale graphic novel by Alan Moore - grand master of the form - and his wife Melinda Gebbie imagines a time just before the beginning of World War One, in which a trio of famous girls - Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from the Oz books, and Alice - all gather in an exclusive hotel. And so the sexual games begin.... Despite the best attempts of local radio interviewers and the like to whip up some bogus outrage, this gentle exercise in period erotica was greeted, on the whole, with admiration.
M is for Jonathan Miller
Though it caused outrage at the time of its first broadcast, when the angrier critics wrote as if Jonathan Miller had defiled a national treasure, this modestly budgeted 1966 BBC version of the tale has grown in stature with the years. For one thing, it is very beautiful indeed - the black and white cinematography, by the late Dick Bush, rivals the best work coming out of France and Italy in the mid-sixties. And what a cast! Peter Cook! Peter Sellers! Alan Bennett! John Gielgud! Michael Redgrave! Eric Idle (pre-Python)! The title role was played by the then 13-year-old Anne Marie Mallick, an enigmatic beauty who never seems to have acted again; and the soundtrack - hinting at India’s crucial off-stage part in the Victorian age - was by the great sitar master Ravi Shankar. Simply, a quiet, neglected masterpiece.
N is for Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov translated Carroll’s work into Russian, changing “Alice” into “Anya”. Though references to the Alice stories are scattered throughout his fiction, he firmly denied that Carroll was an influence on Lolita. Sure, Vladimir, we believe you.
O is for Oz
L Frank Baum was happy to admit that Carroll’s work was a major influence on his stories about the land of Oz (beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900), particularly in his invention of Dorothy, a young female protagonist who can play the role of surrogate for the reader. He complained, though, that Carroll’s stories were “incoherent”. Well, yes....
P is for Dennis Potter
Somewhat upstaged by the playwright’s more successful (Singing Detective) or scandalous pieces (Brimstone and Treacle), Dreamchild is still well worth seeking out. Directed by Gavin Millar, the screenplay drew both on the real-life Alice, seen here as an 80-year-old lady on a visit to New York, and on Carroll’s creation.
Q is for the Queen of Hearts
A surprisingly cheeky note: Victorian adults who read Wonderland with their children would have seen at once that Tenniel’s portrait of the Queen - described by Carroll as a “Fury” - was based on Queen Victoria. Later dramatizations and adaptations of the tales often conflate the Queen of Hearts with the Red Queen of Looking-Glass, though they are very different characters.
R is for John Ruskin
Dodgson became a good friend of the great Victorian art critic, who taught Alice Liddell how to draw; the figure of Ruskin can be made out in the “old conger eel”, who taught the Mock Turtle “Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils”. There are a number of curious parallels between their lives: for example, Ruskin also composed a fable, The King of the Golden River, at the request of a young girl; Ruskins tale was moderately successful, and has never been out of print, but it has never had such a vast and devoted audience as Alice.
S is for the Surrealists
“At an epoch when, in the definitively united kingdom, all thought was considered so shocking that it might well have hesitated to form itself, what had become of human liberty? It rested in its entirety within the frail hands of Alice”: Louis Aragon. The Surrealists adored Alice; Andre Breton cited her in various manifestoes, and all manner of Surreal works allude to her. One latter-day Surrealist, Jan Svankmeyer, made a well-received animated film of Alice.
T is for Bryan Talbot
Talbot’s recent (2007) graphic novel Alice in Sunderland has been acclaimed as one of the outstanding works of its kind. Impossible to summarise in a few words, it begins with a slobbish everyman character following a White Rabbit into a deserted theatre, and includes a number of fascinating speculations on the links between Dodgson and the North-East of England.
U is for Unsuk Chin
The Korean composer of the opera Alice (premiered in Germany in 2007), with a English language libretto by the Asian-Anerican playwright David Henry Hwang (best known for his play M Butterfly)
V is for Virginia Astley
The English singer has composed and performed a number of songs that allude to the Alice books; her CD From Gardens Where We Feel Secure includes sound recordings made close to the sites where Dodgson imagined his alternative reality.
W is for the Wachowski Brothers and also for Tom Waits
As they have freely admitted (or boasted) in interviews, the Wachowski brothers scattered references to Alice throughout their Matrix film trilogy, beginning with the injunction to “follow the White Rabbit”. Tom Waits wrote the songs for a 2002 stage version of Alice
X is for X-rated
Alan Moore’s erotic fantasia on themes by Carroll is far from being the first attempt to sex up Carroll’s superficially sexless tales. There have been countless pornographic versions, of which Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Porno (1976) is probably the most notorious.
Y is for Yu Watase
The manga artist who created Alice 19th, which includes a rather frightening version of Wonderland into which Alice’s older sister is banished, and begins with the appearance of a White Rabbit called Nyozeka. This is one of many manga Alices, since the little English girl has been Big in Japan ever since the first Japanese translation was published in 1908.
Z is for Zadie Smith and also for Roger Zelazny
who has written an elegant introduction to a recent re-issue of Carroll. Zelazny was a major science fiction writer, whose novel Sign of Chaos includes chapters set in a simulacrum of Wonderland. The influence of Alice on science fiction is vast and profound - it includes an episode of Star Trek entitled “Shore Leave” - and many, many novels and short stories; just one of the reasons why, as W.H. Auden once said, the Fourth of July is an important a day for literature as it is for the United States.
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