#58: Alice In Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
They’re classic children’s novels — but what do we know about the author?
This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 25, 2019.
Initial release: 1865 and 1871
Author: Lewis Carroll
For what’s probably the most well-known, imitated, referenced, and parodied work of children’s literature in the world, there sure is an awful lot to discuss about its author. It’s hard deciding which one to talk about first, but I think it’s best that I start with the books.
Everyone is at least passingly familiar with the books, or at least some of the characters and themes, like the hatter and hare, the tea party, the constant growing and shrinking, et cetera. There’s no real rhyme or reason to any of it, and that’s the whole point. The basic plot of the first book is that Alice follows a sharp-dressed rabbit down a hole and finds herself in a realm of animals and other strange creatures where logic goes out the window; the sequel has her going through a mirror into a giant chess metaphor. This is the most imitated example of the kind of nonsensical whimsy that often seems to go with “light-hearted” depictions of madness, exemplified in the sinister Cheshire Cat: “We’re all mad here.” It’s not a parody of mental illness; it’s simply the dream logic of a child. And yet the imagery is lifted wholesale for a lot of madness tropes. It’s no surprise that the cult platformer American McGee’s Alice comes from the same kind of faux-Victorian edgelord aesthetic school as Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas — the source material seems to encourage it.
What’s striking is how uncooperative and unhelpful everyone is. They constantly contradict, undermine, and degrade Alice. I’ve had anxiety dreams like this. This is a fucking anxiety dream. I dream about constantly changing size and getting yelled at? That’s not a good dream! Indeed, very little of Alice’s dreams are pleasant. Arguably, her age (she’s seven in the first book, seven and a half in the second) are a factor —research indicates that children that age are prone to unpleasant dreams just this side of nightmares. No wonder this stuff gets mined for madness tropes.
Which is why I really have to wonder what was going on through Lewis Carroll’s head when he wrote these books. He was a mathematician and fond of playing with logic; the books generally follow a basic sense of logic as long as you accept that the premises are insane. This is why it’s sometimes thought that the books are in fact a parody of the kind of stuffy, rigid thinking found so often in academics. I’d say it’s probably not that deep. Or rather, it’s something else entirely: that Lewis Carroll was kind of a weird, messed up dude.
We know that Carroll, also known as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, studied to join the clergy. We also know that he taught math at Christ Church, Oxford University, and that he struck up a friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, who apparently remembered him fondly into her 80s. We also know that he preferred to make friends with children. He had adult friends as well, but it was always his “child-friends” that his thoughts settled on. Most of his artistic works, especially photographs, have been of children. A lot of them nude.
While the abundance of nude children in his photography work is shocking by today’s standards, it was extremely common in Victorian times as child nudity was seen to symbolize innocence. (To me, that speaks volumes about the Victorian era’s screwed up morals, but okay. I can accept the logic as long as it’s acknowledged that the premise is insane.) Given Victorian mores at the time, he likely convinced himself that his relationships with children were nothing but the purest of innocence, but people are good at convincing themselves of things, is the problem. It’s well known that he did not like little boys and preferred to make his friendships with girls instead. And as mentioned earlier, he did have adult friends — and keen interests in women. But people have spent decades trying to find some sense of impropriety. It’s easy to see why: by today’s standards he’d be fucking arrested, or at least regarded with suspicion. A lot of the controversy over Carroll is down to lack of relevant information regarding Victorian social mores, hence the thing about his photo work.
So while there has never been, in nearly 200 years of research, any evidence that Lewis Carroll ever had or even entertained the thought of inappropriate relationships with children (that is, that he wasn’t a child molester) one can’t help but wonder what, exactly, he got out of it. He certainly seemed to struggle with undefined feelings of guilt and sin, writing in his diaries his view that he was “vile and worthless,” and unworthy of the priesthood — which might explain why he never actually became ordained. But we don’t know what he was feeling guilty about. Or maybe it’s like some kind of Mr. Rogers thing where we simply can’t accept that a dude is absolutely pure of heart around children with nothing but the purest intentions. That in itself is a facet of toxic masculinity, where we assume that men are predators by default.
Unfortunately we’ll never really know for sure as a lot of the important documentation that would shed light on any of it is missing. Four volumes of his diaries are gone, and several pages are torn out from another. We have no idea what’s in them, and can only speculate. The most anyone can say is that if he were a pedophile, he had the good sense and discipline enough to keep it to himself. But his motivations remain, as biographer Robert Douglas-Fairhurst put it, “a troubling blank.”
I guess all we can really do is go by what we do know, which is that a dorky math teacher who likes logic puzzles wrote a book for children that bucked a lot of social expectations of what children’s literature should be like, and has inspired creators ever since.