Alice, Sweet Alice
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.