Born to it.

I’m reading Michael Frayn on his theatre work at the moment and he establishes early that he had an obsession with the theatre from a very young age. He wrote plays, made the sets, the puppets and forced it all up on his doubtless long-suffering family. He doesn’t mention getting any particular encouragement. I wonder if his relatives ever looked back on those incipient moments of the writer emerging with surprise that it turned out so well in the end.

I noticed earlier today that another of these youngsters with the courage of their obsessions was Mabel Esther Allan.

Mabel announced to her family at the age of eight that she planned to be a writer. They took this seriously and when the family moved a few years later Mabel was given a spare room to use as a study. Her father bought a large office desk which she was to use for the rest of her life, and presented her with a typewriter upon which she taught herself to type.

She went on to write almost 200 books and hundreds of short stories.

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.