Professor Will Brooker, Kingston University, discusses the many interpretations and analyses Alice in Wonderland has undergone in the last 150 years
The first reviews of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in the mid 1860s, celebrated it as innocent, delightful entertainment. One hailed it as ‘a children’s feast of triumph and nonsense; it is nonsense with bonbons and flags… never inhuman, never inelegant, never tedious’. Another reviewer presciently declared that ‘it would be difficult to over-estimate the value of the store of hearty and healthy fun laid up for whole generations of young people by Mr. Lewis Carroll…’
Review of Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland
A positive review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the as yet unknown author Lewis Carroll. It describes the novel as an ‘exquisitely wild, fantastic, impossible, yet most natural history’.
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When Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, died in 1898, his saintly reputation soared, and his Alice books were seen as a literary gift to children from “the sweetest soul / That ever looked with human eye”. Letters written to his family paint him as “a sort of missionary to all in need”, as “the kindest and gentlest of friends”, full of “pure innocent fun” and “countless acts of kindness”. The first biography of Carroll, published by his nephew Stuart Collingwood in 1898, predicts that children would stop by his grave to ‘remember their friend, who is now – himself a child in all that makes childhood most attractive – in that “Wonderland” which outstrips our dreams and hopes.’
By 1932, the centenary of Carroll’s birth, Alice was circulating in a popular culture her author could not have imagined. There were new illustrated editions, images of Alice in advertising, and adaptations on-screen: the first Alice film was released in 1903, and a new Paramount production was developed for 1933, reviving interest in a book that had almost seemed lost to Victorian nostalgia. That year, though – just before Alice Liddell, the original inspiration for the books, died at age 82 – the fictional Alice acquired a shadow. That year, A.M.E. Goldschmidt published ‘Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed’. This essay, first delivered at Oxford University and considered by some to be a parody of Freudian interpretation, discovers in the fall down the rabbit-hole ‘perhaps the best-known symbol of coitus’, followed by ‘the common symbolism of lock and key representing coitus.’ Alice was in the grip of psychoanalysis, and critics and commentators would never again see her adventures as simple, innocent nonsense: 20th century culture would always insist on other, deeper, and usually darker, dimensions of interpretation.
1965 marked the 100th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland’s publication, and the Disney movie, first released in 1951, now provided the world with its dominant image of the blonde girl in the blue dress. Jonathan Miller’s BBC drama of 1966 offered a very different Alice – shot in black and white with no animal masks, and a soundtrack of sitar music – but both films were embraced by the culture of the time, which now saw Alice not in terms of psychoanalysis, but psychedelia. The Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ (1967) incorporated Alice into a trippy drug anthem, while a 1968 article by Thomas Fensch claimed Lewis Carroll as ‘The First Acidhead’. Disney, while never explicitly acknowledging the hallucinogenic associations, cleverly marketed a re-release of its film as ‘visual euphoria’, tapping into the drug culture of the student market.
One hundred years after Carroll’s death, a newspaper article of 1998 could wryly note that ‘most parents today would be happy for their children to listen to the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – but they probably would not want Dodgson to be the man to read it to them.’ Carroll’s reputation had gained another shadow in the light of new contemporary fears; his friendships with children, and his nude photography, were now seen as sinister indications of paedophilia.
No evidence supports this interpretation, any more than there are reasons to believe the 1960s readings of Alice as a drug-induced manifesto to magic mushrooms, or the 1930s view that the books constitute a Freudian confession from Carroll’s unconscious mind. Alice has stayed relevant, and resonant, by providing a framework for contemporary concerns as she passes through the decades of the 20th century; sometimes to her cost, and sometimes at the loss of the author’s reputation. Carroll’s book, rich in detail and complex in its puzzles, logic games and wordplay, has provided a screen upon which modern obsessions can be projected.
But while Carroll himself may have fallen out of favour as a children’s author in the eyes of some journalists, he and his work are still celebrated in 2015, at locations around the UK; at his birthplace in Daresbury, at Alice Liddell’s holiday home in Llandudno, at his resting place in Guildford, and of course at Oxford, where he spent most of his life and originally told the story to Alice and her sisters during an afternoon on the river. While critics like to invent scandal around Lewis Carroll – scandal that may say more about us than about him – Alice and its author remain firmly entrenched in England’s literary heritage and tourist landscape.