Sunday, 7 June 2015

150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland

It’s been 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was published. the book stores are full of Alice in Wonderland books and paraphernalia, including some good versions of Alice Through the Looking Glass which I've been looking for for a while. It is an interesting book to study with children but I'm not necessarily sure it is a children's book. I will revisit my unit for the book over the holidays and I may use it this year with my grade 2 and 3.

Carroll was a complex character to say the least. He was far from liberal in his outlook which adds to the mystery of his bizarre characters. His real name was Charles Dodgson, an Anglican deacon and don of Oxford’s Christ Church College. According to Canadian poet and fantasy literature scholar David Day, Dodgson was a thorn in the side of the reform-minded Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church and father to the real life Alice.

‘Dodgson was exactly the opposite and did everything he could throughout his life to basically sabotage any kind of liberal reform,’ he says.

That included being dead set against removing Latin and Greek as compulsory subjects for Oxford students, a move Liddell initiated, despite being a leading scholar of ancient Greek. While Liddell was trying to bring Oxford into the modern world, says Day, ‘Dodgson was going backwards, fervently.’

The most radical idea of the time was Darwin’s theory of evolution. Oxford was the scene of a legendary debate between Thomas Huxley,a Darwin acolyte , and the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the British Association on June 30, 1860.

How did Dodgson react to evolution? A very keen photographer, he took photos of everyone involved in the debate. Perhaps he was already thinking of how he would send them up and satirise the idea of evolution in Alice in Wonderland, which contains a farcical ‘kitchen of creation’ scene where everything goes wrong: men with fish and frog heads, a boy turned into a pig!

Even the idea of the survival of the fittest is satirised in the ditty ‘Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy’. Alice spirits the boy away, only to find him transformed into a pig. Oops!

The kitchen scene also features the Cook, whom Day believes was a spoof of Sir Richard Owen, the natural scientist and advisor to Bishop Wilberforce who disagreed with Darwin on how things evolved.

The trouble was that the bishop kept getting Owen’s science muddled, and according to Day their relationship was rocky, similar to that of the Duchess and the Cook in Wonderland, who scream and throw pots at each other.

Above the raucous scene, and throughout this charming tale, appears the smiling Cheshire Cat, the most mysterious figure in the story.  Day believes he has rightly identified the grinning cat as the ‘conscience of Oxford’, Reverend Edward ‘Puss-Cat’ Pusey, the canon of Christ Church College.

If that seems too obvious an association, Day points out that word games, mathematics and even Latin references were all part of Dodgson’s mental playground. 

Indeed, Dodgson, a polymath, invented the popular parlor game Doublets, which was first published in Vanity Fair.

Dodgson saved his most entertaining spoof, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, for Christian socialists. Dodgson regarded them as dangerous and even vaguely traitorous. Hence the party takes place at Cambridge, a town Dodgson (amazingly) never visited.

What of Charles Dodgson’s own religious sympathies? They were complex and anything but straightforward. On the one hand, his highly Victorian morals recoiled at vulgarity, which saw him walk out of plays that offended his sensibilities. Apparently, little girls shouting ‘damn’ in HMS Pinafore prompted him to write an angry letter to The Times while at the same time taking extremely questionable nude and semi-nude photos of them! ( One of the great mysteries of his life is how he became so estranged from The Liddell family? Was it the photos he took of the Liddell girls, his stubborn conservatism, an over familiarity with Mrs Liddell or was he just a bit too creepy?)

Oddly for an Anglican deacon his religious beliefs were adventurous. Supernaturalism, Rosicrucianism, and Theosophy (at the time called ‘esoteric Buddhism’) drew his interest, as did the Christian Kabbalah.

Day and the hordes of other Dodgson enthusiasts study his work intently ( others like me just enjoy the unique absurdity of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and like to share it with kids) but his secret life is very fascinating nonetheless and given this anniversary I'm sure we will read more about this paradoxical man.

This post is based on a Guardian story and the BBC documentary The Secret Life of Lewis Carroll. ( No longer available on ABC iView but can be seen on YouTube) 

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