Lori Anderson: A wonderland through looking glass

Alice Liddell, inspiration for Lewis Carroll's surreal stories. Picture: PA
Alice Liddell, inspiration for Lewis Carroll's surreal stories. Picture: PA
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A century and half after the first ‘Alice’ novel, Lewis Carroll’s creation still enchants, writes Lori Anderson

AS A child I had Rumpelstiltskin tendencies. I imprisoned my favourite doll, not in a tower but a white cardboard box which grew more dog-eared throughout the years. My captive wore a black velvet band around her hair, black patent Mary Jane shoes, a blue poplin dress and a white apron. Her name, unsurprisingly, was Alice.

She was beautiful, too beautiful for everyday play. I would go up to my room, open the box, take her out, brush down her shoes and dress, tuck her hair behind her ears and, whilst admiring her, fall into a reverie of wonder.

Where had she been and what adventures had she enjoyed with those fantastical residents of Wonderland, the Mad Hatter and my favourite, the portly-thighed, chubby white rabbit with the oh-so-elegant pocket watch?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the book from which my childhood favourite sprang, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (later shortened to Alice in Wonderland), and the celebrations begin next month with the unveiling of a new production of Alice’s Adventures Underground – the title of the original story – which opens beneath Waterloo Station in London. This is to be followed by a new musical, wonder.land by Damon Albarn of Blur and exhibitions at both the V&A Museum of Childhood and the British Library.

What began on 4 July 1862 when the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (who would later appropriate the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) entertained three young girls to a wondrous tale while on a languid river boat trip down from Folly Bridge in Oxford to the nearby village of Godstow, would become a timeless classic of imagination and invention.

The story of a little girl called Alice who follows a talking rabbit down a hole in the ground is replete with wondrously surreal images: Alice swimming through a hall flooded by her own tears, animated playing cards painting white roses red; and a game of croquet with live flamingoes as well as whimsical characters such as the Mad Hatter and a Cheshire Cat who disappears leaving only his grin, prompting Alice to say that she had “seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.”

The exact nature of the story has prompted endless debates, with many believing that it is about a child’s progression to adolescence as epitomised by the exchange between the caterpillar, who asks: “Who are you?” and Alice who replies: “I, I hardly know, sir, at present, at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I must have been changed several times since then.”

Today we view Lewis Carroll through a looking glass that has taken on a much darker hue. What was the exact nature of the friendship between a grown man and the ten-year-old girl Alice Liddell? We know that Carroll took great pleasure in drawing and photographing children semi-dressed or entirely in the nude and while there are academics who argue that Victorians viewed such images as the epitome of innocence, we cannot help but ascribe a more sinister agenda. Last year, the BBC broadcast a documentary in which a full-frontal image of a naked teenage girl was identified as that of Lorina Liddell, Alice’s older sister, and that the photographer, given the style of camera and printing paper used, was almost certainly Lewis Carroll.

There has long been speculation that a rift between Carroll and the Liddell family was prompted by the author’s desire to propose to Alice Liddell, a theory kindled into life by the fact that pages were torn from his diaries and destroyed by an unknown hand.

If Carroll had paedophile tendencies, there is no evidence of him acting on them and as disturbing and horrific as the idea may be, it has not tarnished his literary creation. While adult readers may bear such a sinister relationship in mind when reading both books, children simply delight in the creations and chaos that he unfolded.

Another interpretation of the books is that they can be read as subtle satires on what were then the latest “breakthroughs” in contemporary mathematics. It has been argued by the more arithmetically sound that the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a cunningly disguised critique of the work of Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who discovered quarternions, apparently a milestone in abstract algebra as it allowed “rotations to be calculated algebraically”. For those who know what to do with the cosine button on a calculator, this chapter may have hidden depths but I just love the idea of Time getting in a huff and refusing to budge past by tea-time.

The genius of Alice in Wonderland and the sequel, Alice through the Looking-Glass is that each generation over the past century and a half has interpreted the novels according to its own politics and ideology. Alice with her ability to stand up to authority in the form of the Queen of Hearts was a heroine to the Suffragettes, while the caterpillar with his hookah pipe was absorbed by the Sixties radicals as easily as acid on blotting paper. The past 150 years have taught us that only Alice can walk through the Looking-Glass, the rest of us are left to gaze upon our own reflection and those of the times in which we live.