Welcome to a new series, My Reading Life, where I revisit the authors and novels that have shaped me into the reader I am today.
Today I’m talking about how I fell down the rabbit hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, and why I stayed there.
I’ve always been rather partial to quirk. Quirky stories, quirky movies, quirky songs, quirky TV shows. If it’s a little bit weird or a little bit out there, then there’s a good chance that I’ll like it. I’ve had this trait for as long as I can remember and I have no doubt that this predilection for anything odd is what drew me to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the first place.
As a child, I was always on the scrounge for books to read. My Pop was a bit of a reader and he had this cabinet on the porch which was chockers full of old books. Seriously old books, with pages that had gone far beyond the point of yellowed and dipped right into brown. They had these gaudy illustrated covers with spines in every colour of the rainbow, the titles printed in gold lettering; editions of classics brought out in a subscription set, a bit like Readers Digest but these were from a company called ‘Companion Library’. Pop gave me the little key for the cabinet and told me I could read anything I wanted in there, so long as I washed my hands well after every time I touched them because the porch was filled with mice. As an adult, it’s very unlikely I would have touched those books for fear of the germs from all the old mice poo that may have been lurking within the pages, but as a child, I had just been handed the key to the kingdom. What was a little mouse poo to a farm girl?
This was my introduction to the classics, and I discovered many treasured stories within this cabinet. But the one I want to focus on today is the one that I have read too many times to recall, own several different editions of, and have watched every movie adaptation of. Think odd, think quirk, think classic, and you have Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s follow up, Through the Looking Glass. Most conveniently, Pop’s companion library edition had both novels in the one volume. Over time, I came to love Through the Looking Glass a bit more than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but in all honesty, the two novels are part and parcel for me. You simply can’t have one without the other.
Written by a young mathematician by the name of Charles Dodgson, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland originally appeared as a handwritten book in 1862, born out of a story made up and told amongst friends while rowing on the Thames near Oxford. It was later published in 1865 as an actual novel under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (later renamed as Through the Looking Glass) came out a few years later in 1871. Charles Dodgson held a mathematics lectureship at Oxford for the term of his life and was also ordained as a deacon. Yet he had a creative side, writing poetry as well as novels and gaining a reputation as a notable photographer. He died in 1898, aged 65, and by this time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the most popular children’s book in Britain. (Source: The Literature Book (2016) Dorling Kindersley Limited). I find this blending of mathematics and creativity of particular interest and wonder at the sophistication of Charles Dodgson’s mind. There are certainly elements within the Alice novels that, when considered with the benefit of hindsight, showcase this merging of logic with creativity. For such a nonsensical story, there really is a lot of intelligent introspection contained within its many pages.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is regarded as the first masterpiece for children in English. Its fantastical story was a marked departure from the prevailing realism of literature at the time. Children’s Fantasy, as we know it today, was born. At the time when I was standing in front of my Pop’s cabinet holding his tattered copy, I had no idea I was holding the birth of children’s fantasy in my hands, but over the coming days of reading, I knew it was a cracking good story. There were many things I loved about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; it was a story where adults were absent, animals were like humans and everything had the potential to be not as it seemed. It was pure nonsense, every bizarre thing you could ever imagine from an alternate reality being bled out onto the page, yet it all made perfect sense to me. I experienced a rather uncertain childhood, periods of peaceful living with my grandparents punctuated by chaos from my parents. The idea of being lost in Wonderland with no adults to answer to appealed to me greatly and I spent many an afternoon searching the farm for rabbit holes big enough to crawl down.
I recently discovered this little analysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whereby five key points articulate the themes and motivations of the text from a child’s perspective:
1. Scale: A child can grow or shrink, usually as a result of drinking or eating something, just as children are often told to ‘grow up’.
2. Behaviour: Characters are often rude, aggressive, or frustrating, as adults can be, incomprehensibly, in a child’s world.
3. Justice: Power and perversity prevail over fairness, mirroring the arbitrary nature of adult power over children.
4. Animals: Animals have human characteristics, though exaggerated or distorted, functioning as stand-ins for adults.
5. Time: Clock time has no meaning, reflecting the adult world of rules, regulations, and schedules that make no sense to a child.
I found this quite interesting to mull over and as an adult who still loves Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and all it encompasses; these points seem a rather valid deconstruction. (Source: The Literature Book 2016 Dorling Kindersley Limited)
Out of my three children, my daughter, who is also my eldest and possibly ‘benefited’ from my obsession most intensely, loves Alice and everything to do with Wonderland as much as I do. Like me, she too has multiple editions of the now joined volumes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as a beautifully illustrated adult colouring book filled with scenes from Wonderland. I feel as though my parental literary duties have been done with the passing of my Alice obsession onto the next generation.
No discussion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is complete without touching on the movie adaptations. The most notable of course is the animated Disney version, Alice in Wonderland, first released in Australia in 1952. It’s one any of us with a television would have seen at some point in time on a Sunday night during The Wonderful World of Disney. I did, of course, buy the anniversary edition on DVD when it was released so that my children could watch it – I really did have my children in mind when purchasing! But then, in 2010, a wonderful magical incredible thing happened. Tim Burton directed a new version starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, and all the weirdness of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was magnified and celebrated, and I was, truly, in my element. This was followed up in 2016 by the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and if you haven’t watched this one, you are truly missing out. The character of Time, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen, is incredible. It’s a joyous movie that brought tears of happiness to my eyes. What can I say? I’m a literary dork and I’m happy to own it. These two movies brought Alice and all of Wonderland to life in all its freaky awesomeness. Needless to say, they are favourites of mine.
So, after all of this, why is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass such an iconic set of stories for me? Because they turn reality on its head and allow your imagination to go wild. No prizes for guessing my favourite quote:
“Alice laughed: ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said; ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”
To believe in the impossible; now that’s a liberating idea!