Alice, Sweet Alice

The Arts

To the Victoria & Albert museum for their highly praised ‘Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition, I decide that if anyone can do it the V&A can. These days it is a money-making concern with more rapacious officers than the East India Company, but they put on a great show.

A confession; it is not a favourite book. I never owned it as a child (‘girl stuff’ said my father, inaccurately). ‘Treasure Island’ and the terrifying ‘Tiny Tim in Giant-Land’ left a far greater impression on me. Narratively Alice fails to satisfy with its coldly illogical logic, its mathematical incidents tumbling in random episodes designed to amuse a sleepy child. But there’s no denying its power over the English-speaking public, partly because it was taken to heart in America, where wily Harvard enticed the elderly Alice Liddell across the pond to accept a chair.

Perhaps it is because of its sheer ubiquity, the ease of parody and homage Alice generates, that I don’t much care for it. The book has been republished in more than 300 editions and translated into 40 languages, including Pitman shorthand and Klingon – peak Alice I feel, especially when so many contemporaneous wonders have been overlooked in the rush to honour Dodgson’s volumes.

What the books have, of course, is an array of unforgettable characters and situations – subservient in this exhibition to the overall idea of Wonderland. Literary magical kingdoms were all the rage with Victorians, and packing a nice little girl off to one was not unusual. Much children’s fantasy of the time was episodic but also ‘improving’ – but the life lessons tucked into Alice are not the Christian lessons you’d expect. Few other visits to magic kingdoms feature such purposeless encounters; when Tiny Tim meets Baron Greed in Giant-Land he’s a thinly disguised anti-Semitic caricature of breathtaking offensiveness. When Alice meets the Walrus and the Carpenter it’s simply to sing on the seashore.

There’s less of the Mad Hatter than I’d hoped, or the other unique characters; I’d have liked an unpacking of their origins and a roll-call of the actors drawn to such parts. Making up for that are disorienting grand visuals, like the ever-changing tea table that pulses with hallucinogenic energy and spinning clocks.

The exhibition is not exhaustive (how could it be?) but it exhausted me – I’m currently somewhat lacking stamina – even though I’d seen much of it before. It manages to surprise and delight while offering the kind of fan service one would expect from such a large commercial enterprise. I’d performed at the last big Alice event at The British Library, and this is understandably a far more expansive show, dotted with giant sculptural pieces:


Larger than life sets fill the spaces where there aren’t cabinets of curiosities. We start with The Book Itself, those spidery drawings in the margins, the neat childish handwriting, and then photographs of Liddel and Dodgson, a skeleton of a dodo (surprisingly large), optical instruments, riverbanks in sun-dappled motion and the eerie, gurning Tenniel drawings, which unlike the Disney versions are devoid of sentiment or anthropomorphism.

There are several silent film versions to watch, early merchandising, games and toys, chess sets and cards, all set in a Victorian seaside so that the caterpillar punnily becomes a caterpillar ride and the mushroom is more like a coastal shelter.

From the outset art is balanced with history, reflecting the fact that Alice was shaped by two characters, a mathematician and an artist. Tenniel’s drawings still startle because they are so far from where we now stand in children’s illustration, much of which is too emotionally manipulative and sentimental. Tenniel offers up grotesques – a panoply of Victorian types that Jonathan Miller’s deeply unsettling TV version brilliantly latched onto.

From here we flash through influences in the 20th century; psychedelia (Disney shamelessly rereleased the animated version and that of ‘Fantasia’ to cash out hippies’ drug money), reinventions, surrealism, sculptures, paintings, wordplay, fashion styles. There’s no mention of one of my favourite Alice iterations but of course there’s not room for everything.

And there’s plenty to surprise most buffs; I didn’t know that James Joyce’s nonsense masterpiece ‘Finnegans Wake’ was a Carroll homage, or that chef Heston Blumenthal had spent 67 hours creating mock turtle soup. A school report describes the young Dodgson’s constant punning as a compulsion, which must have made him hard work; perhaps Mrs Liddel burned the letters because she was simply worn out by him. I knew that ‘The Ugly Duchess’ was an inspiration for Tenniel – it’s here – but there are other exotic influences connected to the Victorian passion for travel, and a strong sense that they were rather more open to the fantastic than we are now.

With such a cornucopia of visual cues provided by the original author and artist, all those puzzles and parodies, why did so many homagists get it wrong? Because Alice is so hard to define. She is strong-minded but has a rather stern, matronly character, and her adventures ultimately represent the Victorian mindset, a sensible counterbalance to whimsy. To me she represents the educated and academic rural English, which is to say that her adventures are rather hard-hearted and bleak and filled with non-sequiturs.

Directors Miller (Jonathan) and Millar (Gavin) nailed the book most accurately; few others have. Both their films haunt and disturb. Disney falls hardest for trying to imposing a sentimental kiddie-friendly narrative that stubbornly will not fit the template. Its live-action films are more Tim Burton than Charles Dodgson.

Negatives? The first rooms are label-heavy and the VR room is rather pointless, but more than made up for by kinetics and halls-of-mirrors reflecting Alice’s topsy-turvey world. Little is said about the book’s darker edges: Carroll’s sad thoughts on fleeting childhood or his attempts to capture girlish innocence in his camera. Ultimately this is about the work, not the man, and so it should be; it’s too easy to knee-jerk into woke attitudes on this one, especially as the good Reverend’s proclivities were explored decades ago in intelligent films like ‘Dreamchild‘, written by Dennis Potter.

21 comments on “Alice, Sweet Alice”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Of course there would be an “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.” John Todd, a British psychiatrist, gave the disorder its name in a 1955 paper, noting that its misperceptions (objects can appear small or large) resemble Lewis Carroll’s descriptions of what happened to Alice. It’s also known as Todd’s syndrome. Some neurologists consider it a sensory warning preceding a migraine. Some even believe that Lewis Carroll, who described his migraines in his journal, may have suffered from it. Fortunately, it usually goes away by adulthood.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    The thing I enjoyed (and occasionally still do) about the “Alice” books (apart from the books themselves back when) was/is the unbridled, and often wildly imaginative, literary criticism. The books are so rich in interpretive nutrients that you can take just about any tack without much fear of being contradicted. Feminism or conversely, male dominance. Check. Marxist theory. Check. Drugs or certainly, altered reality. Of course. Religion (Dodgson was a cleric after all). Okay. Child social and physical development. Sure.

    Even now, some 150+ years after publication, I’m reluctant to say that every critical and interpretive stone has been unturned. According to those who keep track of these things, only the Bible and Shakespeare are cited more often in western culture than “Alice in Wonderland.” It certainly has provided the fodder for hundreds of post-graduate degree theses and dissertations. And both academic and entertainment industry interest seem to be continuing pretty much unabated.

  3. James Devlin says:

    I’m hoping it will be possible to get from New York to London again before this closes. I saw several of the ALICE exhibits here during the 150th anniversary, and would like to view her on her home turf, so to speak.

    Hope you’re doing okay, Chris…

  4. Roger says:

    Have you read Martin Gardner’s THE ANNOTATED ALICE? It goes into the books’ background in astonishing and fascinating detail. THE ANNOTATED SNARK is also well worth reading.
    Hope you’re getting on OK and work is going well.

  5. Roger says:

    Tiny Tim in Giant-Land only seems to exist in your vivid imagination, Admin – is this a Cunning Ploy to build up interest before you write it?

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Off topic, but certainly something that may be characterized as a museum piece, if things go as they have. I was commiserating about the pandemic with a longtime friend — a man of the cloth — an erudite and worldly personage — invariably equanimous . Except for this time. He was clearly troubled. Among the major economic and social concerns raised by the pandemic is its impact on religion. I can hear the sighs and groans from here.
    There is little question that secularism is dramatically on the rise in Western Europe (somewhat less in Southern and Eastern Europe) — and in both the UK and the US — largely being generational in nature.

    With this as a backdrop, there is heightened anxiety by my friend and other faith leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, that more than a few adherents, having essentially spent a year away from congregational activities, may decide to forgo them altogether post-pandemic — with severe economic and social repercussions for some religions in the years to come. Will they have to change accordingly, or simply become an artefact of another time as a kind of spiritual theme park ?

  7. John Howard says:

    Luckily, I think, I didn’t have a father hovering to put me off so read Alice during my youth along with all the rest, all the Enid Blyton different sets, Winnie the Pooh, the William books and the Jennings saga and many more. But Alice is up there only second to my most favourite which was Wind in the Willows.

    Roger, not sure about Admin obviously but yes I have read the Annotated Alice. I agree, it is a great read. Although the Annotated Snark passed me by. I suspect I shall be acquiring that sometime soon.

    I only found out that Dali had illustrated Alice when I went to Bruges quite some time ago and on one corner of the main square I found a Dali Museum. Not surprisingly I was the only one who went in (we were on my sons stag week – don’t ask) and it was glorious to see some of the Alice illustrations there.

    Anyway, last but not least, Admin, to mangle “Oddball”…. Many positive waves coming your way man.

  8. admin says:

    I have indeed read the Annotated Alice, and several of the other ‘Annotated’s – the Gilbert & Sullivan one is a revelation about Victorian attitudes. And for Roger I’ll post some proof of Tiny Tim!

  9. Davem says:

    Agree with Roger that the THE ANNOTATED ALICE is well worth getting, as is the ANNOTATED SNARK.

  10. J+F+Norris says:

    Is the Tiny Tim book perhaps a different translation of Christian Bärmann’s The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim which dates back to 1918?

  11. SteveB says:

    As a child I did not care for Alice but LC‘s poetry fascinated me.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I never much cared for the ‘Alice’ books, but I do like ‘Jabberwocky’, from ‘Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There’. I heard it as a child, and it stuck. I’m very fond of Terry Gilliam’s 1977 movie of it, too. It’s funny, and in places, darkly, gruesomely so.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    The fact that the ‘Alice’ books and illustrations have been out of copyright or in the public domain for yonks (although sources for the actual text and illustrations, like Project Gutenberg, may have their own restrictions) certainly is a major reason behind the continuing proliferation of everything ‘Alice.’ This is, no doubt, only hinted at by even the ‘expansive’ V&A exhibition.

    And if the books weren’t macabre enough for you, you can always view the them through the especially dark lens of two of the 14 or so ‘Alice’ video games: ‘American McGee’s Alice’  and the sequel, ‘Alice: Madness Returns.’ In the first, after years in a psychiatric clinic, a traumatized Alice retreats mentally to a Wonderland deformed by her injured mind. In the follow-up, Alice now lives in an orphanage for mentally traumatized orphans. To rid herself of the trauma and learn the truth about her past, she must once again enter Wonderland, where a new evil force has corrupted it. Yeesh!

  14. Paul C says:

    if you enjoyed The Annotated Alice you should like ‘Alice in Sunderland’ by Brian Talbot too.

  15. Ed+DesCamp says:

    At John Howard: I must support your ranking of The Wind in the Willows as number one. The chapter on the Piper at the Gates of Dawn still sends shivers down my spine. And his description of the trip with the caravan (“The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying” so perfectly connects me with a pleasant summer afternoon) is magnificent. I reread it annually.

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    Ed, I loved The Wind in the Willows and agree completely about the Piper chapter. For several years I was a substitute teacher and one day had a group of eleven year olds who were “totally bored” with the book. I could have kicked them, but I was only there for the morning and couldn’t do anything about re-introducing the thing.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Taking Alice as far from the childrens’ book as you can possibly get, is Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s ‘Lost Girls’, also featuring Wendy, from Peter Pan, and Dorothy, from ‘The Wizard Of Oz’.
    Definitely not for the faint of heart, or the easily shocked. Being an avowed Alan Moore fan, I have a copy, and yes, it is superb, but it resides in a box in my wardrobe, under some coats, as I would not want my young nephew to find it.

    My favourite childrens’ books are ‘The Little Grey Men’, and ‘Down The Bright Stream’, by ‘BB’. Another of his books, ‘The Forest Of Boland Light Railway’ is wonderful, too.

  18. Wayne+Mook says:

    Roger – the book Admin refers to is GIANT-LAND or the wonderful adventures of Tim Pippin, there are 4 Pippin books. Admin did posts on them as follows 1ST NOVEMBER 2015 and 10TH NOVEMBER 2013. The last dated shows a picture from the book.

    Paul C totally agree with you about about Alice in Sunderland, Brian Talbot has created a lovely and wonderful book.

    Knock Three Times has a splendid and evil grey pumpkin, there is a chilling scene with it. Even now ids books are nasty and full of suspect humour, have a read of the Captain Underpants books.

    Must go, working from home means I have less time on the proper computer than usual. so I FB from my phone which is less than wondrous, can’t leave a decent message.


  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Captain Underpants. Oh, yes, the delight of eight year old boys. There are some school librarians who wont have it in their libraries but I couldn’t see any real harm in them, just natural subversiveness and resentment against adults in authority. They’re about empowerment and 8 yr olds feel very much oppressed as a rule.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve no problem with the ‘caotain Underpants’ books, but the ones I really hate, with a passion, are the ‘Horrid Henry’ books, which some children seem to think are an instruction manual. At least the unpleasant little shits in the books I read, always ended up punished. None of the ‘Oh don’t do that, I’m getting cross’ bollocks. There were always consequences for bad behaviour, ranging from a good larraping, to, in some cases, death. ‘Horrid Henry steals Ankou’s squeaky barrow, on holiday in France, and is never seen again…’

  21. Helen+Martin says:

    Well, Ian, that larraping business can go too far, as we all know, but I think I’m glad I don’t know the Horrid Henry books. Too bad the word “horrid” doesn’t have a restricting effect on their actions.

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