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)).
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 Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Treasure 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).
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*The Wind in the Willows
**Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and series