28 June 2021


Angela Youngman. The Dark Side of Alice in Wonderland. Pen and Sword, 2021.

There has always been a rather dark cloud hovering over Alice in Wonderland. Starting with the nature of the relationship between Charles Dodgson – Lewis Carroll – and Alice Liddell, the original ‘Alice’. The story was made up, on the hoof as it were, one summer day in 1862, to amuse the ten-year-old Alice and her two sisters, daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, on a boat trip along the Isis in Oxford.
The relationship between the young girl and the thirty-year-old professor of mathematics has been speculated upon endlessly. Youngman is unwilling to make any definitive pronouncement, pointing out the problems involved in contextualising Dodgson’s clear affections to young girls. She quotes one biographer who writes: “rather than being a closet paedophile … [w]ith his loving child he could obtain loving, beautiful feminine company which was neither tempting nor sinful”. 

Our modern reaction to this may be along the lines of ‘pull the other one!’, but this should be seen in a context of a Victorian idealisation of the purity of childhood, and the absence of any suggestions from families that Dodgson did behave in any way that was – at the time – seen as ‘inappropriate’.

There were contemporary rumours, perhaps promoted by the mysterious disappearance of several volumes of his diaries, and the post-mortem removal of some pages from surviving volumes, that Dodgson was actually in a sort of reverse-Lolita relationship, and that his attention to children was a way of maintaining a close relationship with older family members – and indeed domestic staff – which would otherwise be seen as scandalous.

Of course, this leads on to modern, sexualised images of Alice, and Youngman looks at the ‘Lolita’ cult in Japan. There is a remarkable difference in the way the ‘Lolita’ image is presented in Japan and the west. In Japan there is a street fashion subculture know as the ‘Sweet Lolita’, emphasising neatness and smartness, with costumes inspired by Victorian and Edwardian styles. This also takes in influences from, and in its turn influences, manga and cosplay.

The image of Alice that emerges from Lewis Carroll's books is as ambiguous as the man himself. Youngman looks at the ways that the the figure has been used culturally, ranging from 'Horror Alice' to 'Drug Alice', 'Occult Alice', 'Surreal Alice' (surely a given) and 'Steampunk Alice'. The author notes for example that the horror film Resident Evil (1999) was influenced by the Alice stories, and the actors were told to read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to fully understand the characters they were playing.

Lewis’s uncle, Robert Skeffington Lutwidge, was a member of the Board of Metropolitan Commissioners on Lunacy, and it is possible that his accounts of inspections of asylums, or Carroll’s own observations when accompanying his uncle, may have influenced his writing, particularly the account of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Afternoon tea parties where ‘inmates’ were encouraged to dress up and act out various characters, were seen as a form of therapy in many asylums. An observer wrote, “the scene is at once curious and affectingly gratifying.”

It would be very strange if a languid caterpillar sitting on a magical mushroom smoking a hookah did not immediately make you think of hallucinogenic drugs, and the Alice stories have become deeply entwined in drug culture. Although it is unlikely that Carroll himself was a drug user, is is possible he was interested in the topic, and the writer Mike Jay has unearthed evidence that he had at least read a chapter in a book on the use of fly-agaric mushrooms by shamans in Russia. LINK

I think the author could have saved herself the trouble of writing the chapter on the suggestion that Lewis Carroll was in the frame for the Jack the Ripper murders, as this is entirely based on one eccentric ripperologist’s evidence-free imaginings. But even that itself does indicate the depth to which Alice has sunk into our collective unconscious.

The book does not aim to be any sort of scholarly psycho-social analysis of the stories and their cultural influence, but it clearly shows how a story composed as a gift for a child can be interpreted, reinterpreted, and be made to perform almost any role you might wish it to. Fascinating, and in places a little scary. 
  • John Rimmer.

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