The Impact of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books on society and literature

The Alice books have got their place in literary history. The popular success of Tim Burton’s recent 3D film reminds me that this Victorian story has never gone out of fashion. Since Charles Dodgson, reclining on a punt in Oxford, told the tale to Alice Liddell (age 5 or 6) it has become the archetypal English children’s tale in a land famous for its children’s stories. It is also one of the few English children’s stories that feature a heroine. It so inspired his contemporaries that many stories taking up the thread of Alice’s adventures appeared in print soon after Alice In Wonderland was published. The popularity of girls’ literature may have been stimulated at the turn of the century, for instance with annuals and magazines. Alice In Wonderland offered comfort and security, particularly during the raging of world wars, being widely and keenly read. During the nineteen-fifties, in a search for a new and brutal writing, its likely she was relegated to the nursery. Alice became less attractive to English school examiners, being quite nonsensical and no one seemed to connect the ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…’ of Lewis Carroll to the language James Joyce was credited with inventing although now it is easy (to see) Carroll’s influence on him. But Alice was not to remain in the nursery for long. This reversed in the last two decades of the century, with children’s books selling in greater quantities, and thus scholarship from GCE to PhD again embraced it. More research developed on Lewis Carroll, his mathematics, poetry and his sources, and cults emerged and increased into the new millennium. Along with the attention given to this rather darker side of Alice and her adventures, there are of course its detractors who point out that photographs Lewis Carroll took of young girls, although always in proper Victorian dress, bordered on paedophilia. much has been written on the ‘other side’ of the Victorian era known, thanks to Queen Victoria herself, for its moral rectitude. What really happened in the lives of ordinary folk is more likely to be learned from letters, family histories, personal journals and autobiographies than well-known novelists, such as Dickens and the Brontes. Publishers in those days toed the conventional line. Today, with members of the Catholic clergy revealed as prime perpetrators, we can take a more liberal approach to Lewis Carroll’s photographs and his open love and admiration for young girls. Like Catholic priests, he was childless and these photographs could have been a way into the World of Children through which he had to peer in order to champion them. And champion them he did. The sadistic repression of young Victorian ladies was cruel, both at home and at school. When he advised his young charges to go paddling with him at the beach, even bringing them safety pins with which to tie up their voluminous petticoats, we can draw two conclusions. Either he had a passion for their ankles or he simply wanted to see them run about and enjoy the freedom of the beach, which was only just becoming socially acceptable as a prerequisite for it being popular. Carroll’s Alice was never able to leave home and go in search of adventure, she is a heroine who may never escape ‘the nothingness’; a little girl who will always reside in the never-never land of childhood. Though -Alice in Wonderland-, the film, also sees Alice as a nubile young girl with the possibility of a real life before her, although this possibility does not appear until the very end of the movie.

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