Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Alice's Adventures under Ground: a facsimile

Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures under Ground: a facsimile. London: The British Library, 2008. ISBN 9780712350426.

Reviewer: David Beagley

The 'golden afternoon' of July 4th 1862, when Charles Dodson accompanied Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boating picnic and told them a tale, has given us not just one of the classic stories in the children's literature canon, but a whole basket of cultural and social references, allusions and emblems. Some are literary and artistic (not least of which, of course, is the title of this journal!), some are commercial, some are dark and threatening. Alice's adventures and Dodson's world have had a century and a half of analysis and yet still offer us so many possibilities, options, puzzles and paradoxes.

Whether the tale itself is the source of these references, or they come from modern interpretations of Dodson's peculiarities, or simply manipulation of a convenient metaphor, Alice "listening with bright eager eyes to a tale that was being told"(p.89) has established our modern world's quintessential, even if problematic, image of the child in an adult world.

Perry Nodelman has argued the colonial definition of childhood by the adult world in terms that mirror Alice's "bright eager eyes" -

"We gaze at them and talk about how charming they are in their passive willingness to be gazed at, how cute they are in their endearing efforts to put on a good show for those who observe them. We describe them as intuitive rather than rational, creative rather than practical. And meanwhile, we woo them to our values. We tell them that their true happiness consists in pleasing us, bending to our will, doing what we want. We plant the seeds of our wisdom in them. And we get very angry indeed when they dare to gaze back." (Nodelman, 1992, p.30)

Yet Alice does gaze back. She is the only sane character in the lunacy of Wonderland and, (apart from the Duchess' baby, that turns into a pig) the only child in a world of adults. Indeed, as this facsimile of Dodson's 1864 manuscript of the story shows, the Duchess and her baby were a later addition, and not in the original tale. Alice, the child, shows us a world where adults behave with "childlike irrationality or lawlessness or carelessness", a state that could be seen by we grownups as "attractively lax, a temptation to be less responsible, less mature, less adult." (Nodelman, 1992, p.31). It is a dangerous temptation, as Father William shows.

The manuscript had been promised to Alice immediately after the picnic but it took Dodson another 16 months to finish the 90 pages of careful handwriting, headings and illustrations, have it bound in dark morocco leather, and send it to her as an early Christmas present in November 1864. Six months later the enlarged public version of the story, the one we know now, was published, but Alice Liddell was to treasure her manuscript for over 60 years until financial pressures in 1928 forced her to sell it. A record price of 15,000 pounds took it to the United States but 20 years later it was presented to the British Library as a gesture of goodwill for the war efforts of the British nation.

In conjunction with the Folio Society, the British Library has now released this facsimile, with a photo of the young Alice gazing firmly at the reader on the first page, and Dodson's drawing of her in the same pose on the last. As would be expected from these two institutions, the book is a high quality hardcover with embossed cover and sewn sections. The sepia toned pages of the facsimile are preceded by a detailed introduction by Sally Brown exploring the provenance of the Alice story through Dodson and the Liddells, publication and John Tenniel, and the journey of the manuscript.

While the text of the manuscript has been readily available for years, and the Library published excerpts, illustrations and commentary on CD-Rom in 2005 and in its 'Treasures in Focus' series last year, holding it in this 'true-to-life' format evokes a curious mix of wonder, awe and delight at a masterpiece, tinged with a sense, almost, of intruding on a personal letter. The dedication - "A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of Summer Day" - in Dodson's own calligraphy is intensified by his hand-sketched illustrations of Alice through the text. These are not the blonde "Barbie doll" of the Disney commercialisation but a darker haired child, clearly drawn from life, watching, puzzling and dealing with the madness of the world "under Ground" (It would not become Wonderland until the commercial publication six months later). The final portrait is certainly a girl of character, fixing the reader with a determined gaze, almost daring you to deny the story.

These illustrations alone provide a strong starting point for comparisons with the many illustrated editions published over the years: from Tenniel and Mervyn Peake, through Anthony Browne, Helen Oxenbury and Alitji in Dreamland, to Robert Ingpen's forthcoming version.

The later published version of the story would be nearly twice as long, with episodes such as the Duchess' kitchen and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party added. We cannot be sure how much of the story told in this manuscript was embellished from the picnic's oral version. Certainly having this text enables scholarly consideration of these changes and the direction that Dodson - mathematical, socially inept, comfortable-with-children, possibly epileptic Dodson - wanted to take this story. But it also reinforces that, first of all, this was a private episode, a personal creation for a particular audience of three girls, to entertain and amuse them, as friends.

Alice's Adventures under Ground: a facsimile is a beautifully produced text that enlarges our appreciation (scholarly and personal) of the Alice story.

David Beagley

Nodelman, P. "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature". Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17.1 (1992)

Volume 13, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2009

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