Reviews 2014

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: A Publishing History

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: A Publishing History. Zoe Jaques and Eugene Giddens. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. 227 pages. £65.00 (hardback).

Perhaps it is best to begin with a riddle. How is Zoe Jaques and Eugene Giddens’ publishing history of Carroll’s Alice books like the Cheshire Cat’s grin? Each is remarkable both for what is present and for what is absent. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: A Publishing History presents the reader with a comprehensive, coherent account of Carroll’s texts and their afterlives. At the same time, it actively resists the urge to interpret either the author (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Lewis Carroll’) or the Alice books according to a single, definitive narrative. Jaques and Giddens chart the dissemination of Alice in literature, art, theatre, film, music and merchandise from 1862 to the present day. The strength of this endeavour lies in their ability to negotiate multiple strains of Carrollian studies (historical, literary, bibliographic, and sociological) in a style at once factual and whimsical: while Dodgson’s fastidiousness regarding pounds, pence, and paper thickness is exhaustively chronicled, the text concludes with a description of a Japanese Alice-themed restaurant with teacup tables and caterpillar cakes.

Jaques and Giddens begin by dispelling the origin myth of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as “a complete story [...] extemporized in a single day” (8). Using Dodgson’s diary entries, the authors trace Alice’s evolution from oral transmission to illustrated manuscript over the space of two years. The length and “meticulous[ness]” of this editorial process serve as foreshadowing, for “such detailed attention to the material text would characterize all of Carroll’s subsequent attempts at disseminating it” (9). Accordingly, this chapter is focussed on the materiality of early editions. We learn, for instance, that Alice’s red cloth covers were designed to correspond with the green cloth covers of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863). Negotiations between Carroll and John Tenniel, Alice’s celebrated illustrator, are of particular interest. Jaques and Giddens reveal the extent to which clarity of type was sacrificed for clarity of image, at Tenniel’s behest, by reproducing the faded, broken letters that surround an image of the sleeping Red King (light inking prevented Tenniel’s lines from bleeding). This particular episode aptly evokes Looking-Glass’s central paradox. While Alice remains uncertain as to whether she is a figment of the Red King’s dream (or vice versa), we might ask, “which dreamed it?” – Carroll or Tenniel?

In the second chapter, Jaques and Giddens chronicle Alice’s various adaptations and revisions, both those initiated by Dodgson, such as The Nursery Alice, intended for children aged five and under, and the handy ‘Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case’, and those in which he acted in an advisory capacity, such as Henry Savile Clark’s theatrical production. But Dodgson occasionally lost the plot. One of the more symbolic images of A Publishing History involves his reaction to a range of Alice biscuit tins, decorated with Tenniel’s illustrations and plastered with the manufacturer’s branding. Dodgson, who received a large number of tins to distribute as gifts, suggested that his friends “get some hot water and a scrubbing brush, and remove all traces of the unsightly label!” (88). By the time we get to Alice’s more modern incarnations, all sex, drugs, and rock and roll, one can’t help but picture Dodgson with his sleeves rolled up, desperately scrubbing away.

The third chapter is concerned with Alice’s status as a ‘classic’ text. Here, Jaques and Giddens question whether we ought to pursue a definitive edition of Alice, considering the substantial, and often inconsistent, revisions Carroll made during his lifetime. A Publishing History also questions Tenniel’s aesthetic authority, reproducing a diverse range of alternative illustrations. While Dodgson was dismissive of the American market (the first edition to cross the Atlantic was, on account of its poor quality, initially classed as waste paper), new-world artists, unimpeded by English copyright, initiated a series of progressively experimental interpretations of the text. When copyright expired in 1907, the Times Literary Supplement took a slightly more conservative view. Here, re-imaging is likened to rape: a “squadron of publishers, with as many resolute illustrators in their train, has been in wait to lay violent hands on [...] Alice, that little maid forlorn” (141).

The final chapters span over a century’s worth of material. In the space of two pages, we move from a 1920s cut-out book with moveable figures, to mid-century pop-up books, to Alice for the iPad. While Zohar Shavit has characterized Alice as an “ambivalent text” (66), intended for both child and adult audiences, Jaques and Giddens explore instances in which Carroll’s narrative has been repurposed for exclusively child or adult markets. As evidenced above, child versions of Alice tend to prioritize the text’s tactility. Alternately, editions geared for adults are often marketed as collectible – and consequently ‘hands off’ – art books or prints. As Jaques and Giddens move into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, their text loses some of its charm. I mean this in the most literal sense: biscuit tins and novelty umbrella handles give way to song lyrics by Babyshambles, “which refer[] to Alice’s ‘rabbit’ hole’ as the space ‘in between [her] thighs’” (223). It is difficult to avoid classing recent incarnations of Alice as somewhat lesser than the trailblazing work of artists, writers, and filmmakers in the fin de-siècle and early 1900s. Tim Burton’s 2010 film adaption, for instance, replaces Carroll’s nonsensical structure with a teleological narrative and ‘liberates’ Alice from a clichéd construct of Victorian oppression. For Jaques and Giddens, this “attempt at feminism is so old-fashioned as to be largely irrelevant” (219). In the same vein, the authors characterize the pornographic Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy in terms of its “predictab[ility]” (211).

And yet, if A Publishing History has a moral (the Alice books famously didn’t), it may reside in the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 song “White Rabbit”. Carroll’s text, despite what Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice might suggest, contains no fixed references or meaning. Rather, it enables an infinite array of close readings, misreadings, and re-readings. When overly prescriptive critics “tell you where to go”, go back to the text itself, and “ask Alice / I think she’ll know”.

Katherine Wakely-Mulroney
University of Cambridge, UK

Works Cited

Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”, Surrealistic Pillow, RCA Victor, 1967.

Shavit, Zohar. Poetics of Children’s Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.