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The curious appeal of Alice

By Peter Hunt


The recent appearance of Fifty Shades of Alice, which is (I am told) about a girl who follows a vibrating white rabbit down a hole, made me reflect, not for the first time, that children’s literature is full of mysteries.

For example, how did a satire on literary fashions in the early 1900s, centred on the retreatist, misogynistic fears of middle-aged men ever become a cosy national icon?* How did a series of novels satirising the British middle-class, and closely based on the 19th-century mores of the public-school system (which scarcely exists elsewhere) become the world’s biggest seller?** Or how did an anti-heroic, anti-empire broadside, whose narrator is corrupt and whose most memorable (and most admired) character is a brutal multi-murderer, become a classic for boys?*** Perhaps most curious of all, how did an intensely personal present from an eccentric bachelor to a little girl, packed with intimate in-jokes, ever come to be translated into most of the languages on earth?

Since its first translation in 1869, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become, in Ireland Eibhlís i dTír na Niongantas, in Denmark, Maries haendelser I vidunderlandet, in Finland,  Liisan seikkailut ihmemaailmassa, in Iceland, Lísa í undralandi, and in Wales Anturiaethau Alys yng Ngwlad Hud and Alys yn nhir swyn. Alis, Alisa, Alicja, Alicji, Alenka, Elenkine, Elisi, Elsje, or Else, has her adventures im Wunderland, du pays des merveilles, nel paese delle meraviglie, csodaországban, I eventyrland, w krainie czarów, ülkesinde, or, in Slovak, divotvornej krajine (literally, the mad country). And, perhaps most improbably, the native peoples of northern South Australia, whose lands include Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, and whose language is Pitjantjatjara, can read about Alitjinja ngura tjukurtjarangka  (Alitji in the Dreamtime). The book was translated into Russian by Vladimir Nabokov, a link that has not escaped critics; an Italian edition in 1962, La meravigliosa Alice was subtitled Una lucida invenzione, la creazione poetica di una ‘lolita’ vittoriana.

Like other great pieces of popular culture, it has proved to be highly adaptable: Alice has appeared in Blufferland, Dairyland, Cookery-land, Blunderland, Virusland, Orchestralia, Police Court Land, Plunderland, Puzzle-land, Jurisprudencia, Debitland, Llechweddland (near Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales) and even in Stitches (a book of patterns). And the title or the structure or the characters of the book have been used for political satire (Edward Hope’s Alice in the Delighted States (1928)), for propaganda (James Dyrenforth’s Adolf in Blunderland (1940)) and as a reference in conspiracy theory (David Icke’s Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster. Why the Official Story of 9/11 is a Monumental Lie (2002)).

A dress in the style of that worn in the 1972 film ‘Alice in Wonderland’ featuring Fiona Fullerton in the title role. Dress designed, owned and photographed by Birgit Compton. Public domain.

Of course, some of this can be accounted for by the literary snowball effect – once a book is famous, it stays famous, with the help of royalty-free publishing and marketing – but how did it become famous in the first place? And even more mystifying, how did it become internationally famous?

Conventional wisdom attributes the initial success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the historical moment. For the child readers of 1865 it must have made a liberating change from the moralising tone of almost all the children’s books that preceded it. Carroll was, rather anarchically, slyly supporting the rebellious but frustrated nature of a real little girl. All the characters that Alice meets are adult (and mad), and the book is full of parodies of the pious verses that children were obliged to learn. And perhaps he was also slyly supporting rebellious but frustrated adults (who, after all bought the book for their children): to them it must have appeared as a refreshingly sceptical take on life in an age of increasing scepticism.

Its international success is more difficult to explain; it is, after all, an unmistakably British, or English book — a characteristic perhaps as likely to alienate as attract overseas readers. It is a world revolving around endless tea-parties, garden parties, a savage game of croquet (the All England Croquet Club was established in 1868), river-bank picnics, and comfortable, kitten-filled nurseries. Then there are the perhaps quintessentially English eccentrics: the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Mock Turtle, the homicidal Queen, the arrogantly ignorant Duchess, the servile courtiers, the mad jurymen — do these ingredients add up to something that could not but be English? And most of all, passing unscathed through all the lunacy, is the figure of Alice, polite, well-bred, ladylike. No Pinocchio or Jo March is she!

The answer, if there is an answer, may lie in the fact that for any reader, of any generation in any place, Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland is disturbing. It is a seemingly endless series of semantic Chinese boxes, emotional and intellectual, of precise and general application. It is never quite what it seems — it is anything but nonsense — and why it ever became to be considered as such is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

Peter Hunt was the first specialist in Children’s Literature to be appointed full Professor of English in a British university. Peter Hunt has written or edited eighteen books on the subject of children’s literature, including An Introduction to Children’s Literature (OUP, 1994) and has edited Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Wind in the WillowsTreasure Island and The Secret Garden for Oxford World’s Classics. 27 January 2013 is the 181st birthday of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (strictly speaking, Lewis Carroll will be 157 on 1 March, the day in 1856 when the name of Dodgson‘s alter ego was agreed upon).

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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*The Wind in the Willows
**Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and series
***Treasure Island 

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3 Responses to “The curious appeal of Alice
  1. DJ young says:

    I’m not sure what is happening here – is this writer making an argument of some kind? It hasn’t gone very
    far, if at all. We have the beginning: Alice’s international appeal. We have a neat summary of some
    contents. Finally, we have a statement that in no way engages what came before.

    Is it the book’s ‘Britishness,’ it’s lack of actual nonsense or that it is ‘disturbing?’ The latter two have few qualifications from this article. They are plucked out of the air. Please, do elaborate.

    Carroll’s sublime access of the surreal appeals on multiple levels: visual, linguistic and as metaphor. A
    well-dressed white rabbit with a fob watch? A mad tea party? Hookah-smoking caterpillars and looking
    glass gateways? The human mind is nothing if not attracted to the odd, the eye-catching, couched in the
    familiar. And Alice is not entirely ‘unscathed’ on her journey – she is perpetually questioned about her identity (her physical changes only add to her own confusion) – even mocked. That she stands up for herself makes her a predecessor of characters as diverse as Anne of Green Gables to Hermione Grainger.

    There are few of us who cannot appreciate what a strange journey childhood is. Who are we? Who will we become? Hardened by time, or will we keep some childish adventure in our hearts? There are also few of us who cannot relate to the pleasure of an unexpected adventure.

    In his screenplay for ‘Dreamchild,’ Dennis Potter shows us an aged and deeply cynical Alice (based upon the real Alice Hargreaves) on her final journey to a strange land (America, in this case) and her confusion about her relationship with the late author. After seeking some financial security from his memory (and the celebrity it made of her), she comes to realize that the (unasked for) gift wasn’t a burden, but something beautiful, borne of love.

    If you want to understand the appeal of Alice, there’s no need to look much further.

  2. Mark Kohut says:

    Full of ‘ disturbing’ elements, Alice makes them very overcomeable. This is why we, the young especially, have liked it all these years.

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