I’ve been reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again – many decades after my first read – as I’d booked to see the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m slightly ashamed to say I don’t remember ever reading the book to my own children, but I do remember it was one of my favourites as a child – a book (along with Alice Through the Looking Glass) that I read over and over again.
As I started this ‘adult’ read – reading it as an adult – it struck me how weird it all was. Of course, I knew that, but I’d forgotten quite how weird and upside down a world is created here. When I was only about halfway through and happened to be talking to my daughter, I discussed with her that it was interesting to think how I’d seen it as a child. Did it all seem as weird and extraordinary to the young me as it did to the adult me? Or did I take it more at face value? Accepting the extraordinary more readily. Children are very accepting of magic. As I watch my young grandsons immersed in imaginary games, I’m not sure they would be at all surprised if a white rabbit ran past them saying, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’
You can find many analyses and interpretations of Alice online, and it invites all kinds of theories, but of course none of these would mean anything to a young child. I’m guessing I was about eight when first enraptured with Alice. I was an early and voracious reader and Alice was only one of my literary loves, but certainly one I turned to regularly. What did I see in Alice then? What so captured my imagination and interest? Perhaps it was no more than a child’s love of magic.
What I did see in Alice when reading it again now is the way Carroll captures the essence of children. Children are very logical and so is Alice: of the Queen of Hearts’ rule about processions, she says, ‘… what would be the use of a procession … if people had all to lie down on their faces, so that they couldn’t see it?’ Alice also displays a child’s sense of fairness and embodies their tremendous intensity and exaggeration. The Queen of Hearts screaming ‘Off with their heads!’ is just the kind of thing a child would scream in a boisterous game. Children live on a big scale, a small disruption to their lives or desires often blown out of all proportion to the adult. And of course there’s impassioned talks and questions. Anyone who has experienced a small child’s ‘why’ questions, the endless wanting to know more and more, no answer ever being enough, will recognise these qualities in Alice, who is constantly interrupting to question everything.
What the V&A’s exhibition confirms is that really, there is no definitive meaning to be gained from Alice. But its exploration of the way the books have influenced most areas of our lives since they were published 150 years ago, is both hugely informative and delightfully entertaining. And we learn much of Carroll (really Charles Dodgson, a Cambridge don) whose obsession with riddles and mathematics began at a precociously young age, as witnessed by a school report. We also learn – or are reminded – that at the time Carroll was writing a standardised Greenwich Mean Time had not been introduced (it came in 1880 and the first Alice was published in 1865) and thus the discussions of time at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the rabbit’s distress about being late as he looks at his pocket watch, all make more sense when we understand that time was moveable and not agreed upon.
The Tea Party is a reflection of the new idea of ‘taking afternoon tea’, introduced by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1830s. The exhibition tells us that Carroll’s Mad Hatter party was ‘parodying these stuffy social conventions’. Thus Carroll makes social and political statements through the vehicle of Alice. But there are less tangible, more abstract questions. Much has been written about Alice and identity. The exhibition notes tell us: ‘Alice changes in shape and size, and repeatedly faces the question “Who are you?”‘ We can see Alice as a young girl trying to make sense of an adult world; a young girl struggling with the changes to her body as she grows. But Alice is also an example of female empowerment for she grows in confidence as the story unfolds.
There’s so much more to Alice than I’d remembered and I’m so pleased I reread the book and the V&A’s exhibition is glorious. If you’re in London, don’t miss it! Click here for their website.