Is Alice forever?

If you’d asked me this even ten years ago, I would have said ‘Alice in Wonderland? Are you kidding? Of course she’s forever.’ Now I’m not so sure. MY world will always have Alice in it, but THE world?

I’ve been wondering whether Alice constituted a revolution in children’s writing, the impact of which is still with us, and that therefore we can still safely call it ‘timeless’.

Michael Organ, University of Wollongong, is researching the bibliographical beginnings of Alice in Australia. You can see what he is doing here.

He unearthed the following review, contemporary to the publishing of the book:

Liliput Literature

It is the privilege of us elders to grumble, in some cases perhaps without much cause, at the superior advantages enjoyed by growing youth, and to contrast them with the hard times we had in our own boyhood. But as regards the nursery epoch – the period that precedes school-life, and into which no shadow of coming “competitive examinations” can cast themselves – there is not a doubt that our young folks are now catered for in a manner that was never dreamed of in our day, nor, indeed, in any day before the present. Instead of dull, starched “Moral Tales,” with nothing but their morality to recommend them, which was of old the staple literature of Liliput, the juveniles have now a library of their own, almost as varied as that of their seniors; while, instead of having a few hack scribblers, and one or two respectable old ladies, of the Trimmer type, to provide their mental pabulum, they now employ the pens of half our men of genius. Dickens has written for them more than once (only we like his Liliput stories so much ourselves that we contend that they are for us, just as when that cream chocolate arrives from Paris, from dear Aunt Charlotte, we maintain it is for the drawing-room, and not the nursery); Thackeray wrote Dr. Birch and his Young Friends, to make them grin; Ruskin gave them The King of the Golden River; nay, the land having been sufficiently ransacked for their pleasure, Kingsley gave them The Water Babies. The very best artithesis of modern times have worked for them; one of the latest works of the most humourous of them all, poor Bennett, was dedicated solely to them – The Stories that Little Breeches Told. For droll drawing, perhaps there is no book in the world that excels that; but, besides the drollery, such art, and sense, and grace! And of still later years – indeed, quite recently there have appeared two other children’s books, which are, in their way, equally unrivalled. As they lie before me, and I contrast them, in my mind, with the foolish little books which were all that were provided for me in my childhood, in the way of fun, I positively feel jealous of my own children. Why was there no Lewis Carroll in my time to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and (even more especially) no John Tenniel to illustrate them?

I do not intend to make any ungracious comparison here between author and artist, but it is marvellous to think that the same pencil which has furnished so many years those cartoons in Punch, some of which, in their grandeur of conception, have an almost epic sublimity which stir the pulses while you look on them – should illustrate a child’s book with such marvellous humour. Mr. Carroll, in whom there is so much to praise, is un-equal, whereas his illustrator is uniformly excellent. In his portraiture of the beauty of Alice, the helplessness of the Mad Hatter, or the bad temper of the Queen of Hearts, one knows not which to admire most. Never, surely was author’s fantastic humour more faithfully interpreted by draughtsman. It may be supposed, perhaps, that the fun is too grotesque and wild to be appreciated by little folks in the nursery, but this I know, by practical experience, is not the case. Children have far brighter wits than they are given credit for, let them only be supplied with the proper sort of metal to reflect them in; one ought not to be disappointed with them (but rather the contrary) if they are not interested in Sandford and Milton. On the other hand, I can easily believe that there are many grown-up people who will see nothing to laugh at in Alice in Wonderland at all. Even Tenniel and Carroll combined cannot supply dull folks with the sense of humour. Chapter seven (it does not matter where one begins in this book) is entitled, and very justly, A Mad Tea Party. [Review goes on to quote the book at length]

Sydney Morning Herald
16 March 1868

It seems to me that the regrets this reviewer has regarding his own childhood and the nature of children’s books is not one we would have today. Would a parent today so earnestly wish that he/she had today’s children’s book as opposed to those of their generation? I can’t begin to think this is true, but maybe I’m way behind the times.

Note, by the way, that the reviewer describes this as a ‘nursery book’, which to me implies an age no older than primary school, maybe younger years of primary school? I wonder what age kids are reading Alice now? I will never forget the day I woke up and discovered on the little bookshelf that was my bedhead, a parcel wrapped up – Pioneer Books customers will imagine what that means! – and opened it to discover this most wondrous book. I reckon I was about eight. I’d love to know what others think about this.

Back soon with another post.

4 thoughts on “Is Alice forever?

  1. Hm…no, I think a “nursery book” would probably cover kids up until they stopped needing the attentions of a nanny or governess, which on the evidence of literature, etc, was probably as late as 11 or 12. I think 7-9 is about right, when you think about the ages of the children Carroll corresponded with.

    • At a quick glance, I notice The Governess in Nineteenth Century Literature where the point is made that girls and boys moved on to school (if, indeed a girl did at all) at quite different ages:

      An unmarried woman, the governess would not have been confused with the nurse, who was a member of the servant class and responsible for all the physical and emotional needs of the children during their first four to five years of life. Upon reaching this age, the children would be turned over to a nursery governess, who was responsible for the education of both boys and girls until they reached the age of eight. Foremost among the duties of the nursery governess was the teaching of reading and writing. A preparatory governess would then teach the girls of the household such subjects as English, geography, history, singing, piano, drawing, and needlework until they reached the age of twelve, when a finishing governess or a boarding school instructor would take over their education. Having been further schooled in the fine arts of dancing, piano, and singing, the girls, by the ages of seventeen or eighteen, would then be ready for their social debut, at which point their adult lives (and the search for a suitable husband) began. Boys, on the other hand, typically left the tutelage of their governess at the age of eight, when they entered a preparatory school. This was in keeping with the Victorian belief that the education of boys was of vital importance, based on their future roles as supporters of their own families. Girls had much less need for a formal education, since their prospects for marriage were based primarily on their personal fortunes and secondarily on their personal appearance and genteel manners.

  2. Yes, it is obvious that Alice is forever, such were the writing skills and wonderful imagination of Lewis Carroll. A nursery book? I think not – a reading The Annotated Alice will show the many layers and complexities of his work. A classic story for children? Definitely. My 3 year old loves Tim Burton’s film of Alice, and though we may criticise it – the movie is wonderfully successful in engaging with people – over $1 billion at the box office – and mashing up Carroll’s stories. Alice lives on.

    • I’m going to have to see the movie, Michael. It will be interesting to see what your son thinks of the book when he is old enough to give it a go.

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