Alice in Wonderland: The Celebration Is Now
Three years from now, at the start of 2015, the English-speaking world will celebrate Lewis Carroll’s masterful story, Alice in Wonderland, to commemorate the 150th year of its publication. This will be celebrated as it was in 1915 for its 50th year and again in 1965 for its centennial celebration. In 2015 I expect the entire world will join together and salute Mr. Carroll’s marvel of invention for by then Alice in Wonderland will have been translated into just about every language ‘known to books.’
But not so fast, if you please! What has been celebrated in those past years, and will be celebrated three years hence, is the publication of the book, not the telling of the story. For a man such as Lewis Carroll–the nom de plume chosen by the brilliant Oxford mathematician, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson,–he’d surely find this maddening. You see, Dodgson was a Victorian who prided himself on keeping to the order of things, and to holding firmly to mathematical certainties. He was a devotee of logic above all else; in Dodgson’s thinking, to disorder anything was to invite chaos. The utter illogic of deliberately taking anything out of order, –misnaming, mislabelling and especially, misusing numbers– that was, to Dodgson’s way of thinking, well…absolutely unthinkable! Maddening, you see. Perhaps, even sacrilegious.
Who was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? In an insightful essay that appears in the volume, “Lewis Carroll: A Celebration,” Temple University Professor of English, Donald Rackin, offers a clue…. ‘What should we make of a man who for fifty years kept a meticulous register of the contents of every letter he wrote or received–summaries of well over 100,000 letters? Of a man who maintained a record of the many luncheons and dinners he gave throughout a sociable lifetime, with diagrams showing where each guest sat and lists of just what dishes were served? Of a man who threatened to break off relations with his publisher of thirty years’ standing because he found slight imperfections in the eighty-four thousandth copy of one of his popular children’s books, then in print for twenty years? These are a few of the curious facts that shape our understanding of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson…’
I pose this: aren’t we doing a disservice to this (nevertheless) great man–obsessive and compulsive though he was–by celebrating the 1865 publication date of Alice in Wonderland, and not the date when he first told the story? Shouldn’t we be a bit more considerate of this great literary figure despite his strange ways, and shouldn’t we honor his singular contribution to world literature properly–that is, by honoring the story before the business decision to publish those first 2,000 copies? Shouldn’t we try, on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s behalf, to celebrate the ‘proper order of things?’
Consider this. A warm summer day in July, the year is 1862. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and a friend take three girls on a quiet five mile boat ride up the Isis from the Folly Bridge just outside Oxford. The girls are sisters,–Lorina; age 13, Alice; age 10 and Edith; age 8– the daughters of an Oxford Dean and friend, Henry Liddell. It is, what Victorian children–all children– might call, a ‘lazy day,’ which in child-speak often translates as a ‘boring day.’ Dodgson, a bachelor, has known the girls for four years at this point, and it had been clear at the start that Alice was his favorite.
At long last they arrive at their rest stop destination, the village of Godstow. Alice and her sisters present to Charles the time-old request of bored children the world over: ‘Tell us a story,’ they plead. And he does. The date once again is July 4, 1862. He calls his story, ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’.
The girls are enthralled, but it is Alice who says, ‘Write it down,’ and by doing so history is in the making. A month later another boat ride and Dodgson retells and refines elements of story to Alice; by November Charles Lutwidge Dodgson begins ‘writing it down.’ On Christmas, 1864, he presents Alice with the handwritten manuscript, inscribing it: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day.’ It is still titled, ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” and ‘weighs’ 15,500 words.
Between Christmas, 1864 and November, 1865 the manuscript had grown to 27,500 words owing to newly added material on the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea-Party. The completed illustrations by ‘Punch Magazine’ cartoonist and illustrator, John Tenniel, were then in place. The story had now become a book ready for sale.
From Homer forward, what is a novel but a ‘quest’ story? “Alice in Wonderland” is surely that. But this novel is a quest for order, not for other lands, a relic, a Golden Fleece, a Holy Chalice. As Professor Rankin has shown… ‘when ‘Alice in her Wonderland cries because she is, as she says, ‘so very tired of being all alone here!’ she pines not only for the human companionship she has lost, but also for some familiar signposts of intelligible order that her fellow humans dream or construct for themselves…’
Tragedy and comedy roll on in ‘Alice’ as she attempts to find or make order out of chaos.
What I am proposing is simple enough. For once, let us bypass the filthy lucre mentality of the book publishing business and set our sights on what really counts: the story. Let us declare July 4, 2012, the 150th celebration of one of the great achievements in world literature, and raise our glasses to the true birth date of this masterpiece, that warm summer day in 1862 when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spoke as Lewis Carroll and proceeded to tell the Liddell sisters a story.