I can bite anything I want

Matthew Bevis

  • Lewis Carroll by Morton Cohen
    Macmillan, reissue, 577 pp, £30.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 4472 8613 4
  • The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll edited by Morton Cohen
    Palgrave, reissue, 302 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 137 50546 0
  • Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle by Edward Wakeling
    Tauris, 400 pp, £35.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 78076 820 5

‘What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?’ the Red Queen asks in Through the Looking-Glass. The child to whom this question was addressed was in little danger of becoming meaningless. ‘I’m very glad you like Alice,’ Charles Dodgson wrote to Margery Worthington in 1895, ‘but what wicked wicked sisters you have not to let you read it till they go to school! But perhaps the mistress had told them they had to learn a page of it by heart as a lesson?’ Dodgson is toasting the success of the books he wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, yet also hinting at a preference for those who read them outside the classroom, maybe while playing truant. Carroll (let’s call him that) liked to imagine ways in which you could be a good and a bad student simultaneously; in a letter to Agnes Hull he says he’s been taking ‘lessons-in-forgetting’, and ‘after three lessons, I forgot to go for the next lesson.’ By the time the centenary of Carroll’s birth came round in 1932, G.K. Chesterton was fearful that nothing could be forgotten about ‘poor, poor, little Alice’, and that she had become the victim of a straitened sense of what constitutes an education: ‘She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.’ It wouldn’t be long, he thought, before students would be faced by examination papers containing questions such as ‘(1) What do you know of the following; mimsy, gimble, haddocks’ eyes, treacle-wells, beautiful soup?’ or ‘(2) Record all the moves in the chess game in Through the Looking-Glass, and give diagrams.’ Those inclined to sit this exam now have several revision aids to choose from; The Annotated Alice (1960) sold more than a million copies, a sequel followed, and the 150th anniversary ‘deluxe edition’ is on the way.

The inhabitants of Alice’s dream enjoy using the words ‘never’ and ‘always’. ‘Always say “Your majesty”,’ the Red Queen commands, while the old crab warns her daughter: ‘Let this be a lesson to you never to lose your temper!’ Wonderland has plenty of pedagogues, and Alice observes at one point that she might as well be at school. Yet she isn’t simply ‘made to do lessons’; her dreams allow her to imagine how lessons might be redone and undone. Creatures teach her Reeling, Writhing and Arithmetic (with its four branches: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision). ‘They’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon explains, ‘because they lessen from day to day.’ This could suggest that lessons help you to grow older and wiser (there’s less to learn each day), or that the more you learn, the more you realise that lessons have limits (some things just can’t be taught). The Gryphon’s outline of his education – ten hours of classes the first day, nine the next and so on – prompts Alice to do a quick sum: ‘Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?’ Correct, but then she asks, ‘How did you manage on the twelfth?’ and the Gryphon hurriedly brings the discussion to an end: ‘That’s enough about lessons.’ He would have her think that Subtraction is merely Distraction, but Carroll – a rigorously quizzical lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church – warmed to those who raised awkward questions. ‘Manners are not taught in lessons,’ Alice points out later. ‘Lessons teach you to do sums, and things of that sort.’ One of the problems with rules is that you need to know when and how to apply them, and there’s no rule for that. Despite – or because of – the assurance of the teachers in the Alice books, readers are invited to wonder whether their knowingness is a smokescreen for their uncertainty about what they really know.

Ambition is no less perplexing than Distraction. ‘We cannot conceive how a point, moving from “0” to “1”, through this infinite series of steps, ever reaches “1”,’ Carroll explained to one correspondent, ‘but a thing is not impossible, merely because it is inconceivable. The human reason has very definite limits.’ His relish for the infinities that lie between integers is also discernible in Wonderland. Getting from A to B proves as tricky as moving from 0 to 1, and it’s hard even to locate a clear starting point. Isa Bowman recalled Carroll demanding: ‘Tell me a story, and mind you begin with “once upon a time”. A story which does not begin with “once upon a time” can’t possibly be a good story. It’s most important.’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presents itself as something other than a good story when it starts like this: ‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.’ Readers join her in medias res and in formation, but after she’s plummeted down the rabbit hole a sense of falling gives way to a sense of stalling: ‘Presently she began again’; then, a few pages on: ‘if only I knew how to begin.’ Everyone remembers the King’s sage counsel: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop’; in these books, though, this advice is somehow unworkable or undesirable. At one point Alice is asked to tell a story and says she doesn’t know one, but this isn’t strictly true. It’s rather that Wonderland has challenged her faith in stories; she is less sure of her ability to tell them – and to tell things from them. ‘I – I’m a little girl,’ she tells the pigeon, and its reply is even more doubtful: ‘A likely story.’

Carroll enjoyed living a double life, and Alice appears to be excited as well as frightened by the thought that selves, like stories, are improvisations. ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ That question unwittingly provides a clue to the puzzle about what sort of thing these books are: quest narratives, with the self as the quest-object. A moment later, as she imagines the adults calling down the rabbit hole, the same question takes on a different tone: ‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here.’ Now she sets the puzzle, and doesn’t seem to mind if it’s insoluble; not knowing who she is allows her to make herself up as she goes along. Questions beget quests, but whenever the image of the quest comes to the fore something weird happens. The boy who hunts the Jabberwock has to seek his manxome foe for a long time – so long that he needs a break:

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
        And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
        The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
        And burbled as it came!

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in