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Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll
By Gillian Beer
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are delicate subjects for academic analysis. Indeed, two of the most recent monographs related to the novels, Will Brooker’s Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (2004) and Anna Kérchy’s Alice in Transmedia Wonderland: Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic (2016) are about adapting and appropriating the Alice books, rather than the books themselves. It is hard to resist a cringe at the thought of subjecting something so famously playful to something that Carroll would probably have played with. (One can only imagine the fate of deconstruction in Wonderland.)

Gillian Beer’s Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll is fully aware of the pitfalls. Many Victorianists faced with the Alice books cannot resist the temptation to explain its wildly-proliferating cultural references, from tea party etiquette (violated in every which way) to didactic children’s literature in the vein of Mrs. Sherwood’s notorious History of the Fairchild Family, to which Alice alludes when she reminisces about “several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them.” Mathematicians and philosophers expound on the logic games. More controversially, biographers attempt to work out the true nature of Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson’s) relationship with the young Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the fictional Alice.

Alice in Space, released during Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s 150th anniversary year, bucks that last trend entirely: it is not interested at all in virtually anything related to Carroll’s private life. This is key to Beer’s analytical strategy. Carroll’s biography only appears when it touches on the novel’s warping of mid-Victorian culture: when Beer stops to wonder if Carroll had migraines, she immediately shrugs that aside for the possibility of “something much more generally experienced, in dreams.” Instead, the study follows the Alice books’ own playful narrative construction, in more than one way. On the one hand, it echoes their form in being, as Beer puts it, “picaresque.” On the other, Beer avoids a neat account of the relationship between text and context. Carroll was deeply involved in intellectual, political, and cultural controversy, whether as reader, observer, or active participant, and his considerable run of intellectual interests involved everything from Darwin to mathematics, from philology to the court system. But Beer adopts a dreamlike theory of influence—one in which she never uses the novel’s many scientific, political, religious, literary, ad nauseam allusions to explain the text, to pin it painfully to its own moment, but instead explores the novel’s endlessly fragmentary, transformational, and mobile relationship to Carroll’s own intellectual life. This is both the book’s strength and, for some readers (although not this one), possibly its weakness: while Beer’s fascination with Alice’s journeys through all forms of space, literal or figurative, holds the book together, Beer’s argument is no more linear than Carroll’s plot.

Beer is a well-known specialist in the relations between Victorian literature and science, and Alice in Space is organized around dimensionality, or how objects exist in space, literally and figuratively—that is, how things (and, in Alice’s case, people) grow, contract, invert, speed up, slow down, extend, disappear. In some cases, the role of dimensionality is obvious, as in the chapters on time (the White Rabbit, always worried about being late; the Hatter, forever stuck at tea-time) and “growing and eating.” In others, dimensions appear as if by magic: we move from games to the nineteenth-century question of how we “are circumscribed intellectually by the particular dimensionality of space we live in.”

One of Beer’s key points about Alice’s unexpected movements through space comes early on, as she discusses Alice’s famous fall down the rabbit hole. The rabbit hole both behaves as normally advertised (it’s a hole; one can go into it) and yet is strangely missing the usual “thronging society of rabbits”; moreover, one normally expects a “lithe and predatory ferret” to make the descent, “not a little girl.” The rabbit hole both meets and subverts the reader’s expectations, and that is before we get to the fall itself, which takes so long that Alice begins to “wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!”:

Neither the depth nor the speed of her fall answers to ordinary experiences, though they do to dream motion. Yet the fall also marks the extreme literalism of these stories: she is “falling asleep,” as we say, and she here acts out that phrase by “falling.”

Alice’s descent is both extremely weird and extremely literal, and the reader who tries to resolve this discrepancy badly misses the point. The book’s effects derive from it being both simultaneously, not either/or.

Beer’s monograph itself is an experiment in both/and, an attempt to both engage in source study (that most traditional of literary-historical occupations) and to refuse source study’s habit of translating source into meaning. Thus, when Beer analyzes Carroll’s interest in contemporary caricature and parody, she points out that “parody relies on chirality, a cack-handedness or inversion that prevents it ever merging with its mirrored source-text.” Carroll’s parodies, that is, rely on assymetrical principles in order to work; their distortions and exaggerations invoke their source while gleefully asserting their difference from it. Milk the original texts for Carroll’s meaning, and you find, to borrow from Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” that they “softly and silently vanis[h] away.” Similarly, Beer’s discussion of scientific taxonomy in Alice notes that, in a post-Darwinian world, “[r]elations change; ecological systems are always in a process of adjustment. Description must shift, too.” Even dreams invoke dimensions via the frightening possibility of “spacelessness.” Questions of classification, both scientific and philosophical, turn out to invoke questions of mobility, slippage, and entrapment—categorical boxes that box Alice in. Thus, Alice’s assumption that people like herself belong at the “apex” of “taxonomic systems” collapses when she finds, in both Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land, that “that hierarchy does not hold sway”: she is, after all, insulted and bossed around by animals, and the occasional plant, on a regular basis. The Alice books, in this account, are thus not so much “about” instability—as in Alice’s famously non-linear growing and shrinking, thanks to eating and drinking cake, a mushroom, and a mysterious bottle of multi-flavored liquid, all of which alter her size with somewhat unpredictable results—but instead are unstable at a formal level, putting the reader through the equivalent of Alice’s many discombobulating experiences (albeit while enjoying them rather more).

The game of chess, which governs Through the Looking-Glass, is a case in point:

In choosing a chess game to control Alice’s movements and encounters in Through the Looking-Glass Carroll created a complex space that could include both rule and multiple possibility. Different possibilities are realized by the diverse motions of the pieces—each programmed to shift only in specific but erratic ways. Together they create multiple spatial and temporal narratives. Within the drives of the chess game are skirmishes and stories that cluster locally within the scheme. These stories reach down into the depths of the game and the unwary player may become so fascinated by their power that he or she slackens attention to the longer narratives of play. Lewis Carroll chose to improve further on the dilemmas of chess by granting consciousness to the pieces as well as the unseen players. For who plays this game? Alice after a while finds herself within it, a pawn who might become a Queen. The game is thus performed from a pawn’s point of view.

What Beer identifies in the chess game, in other words, is the possibility of simultaneous order and chaos: the pieces are both “erratic” and “programmed,” the game’s inset narratives both entertaining and distracting (perhaps fatally) for the player, and, in the novel, the game itself played both according to rule and, paradoxically enough, without a governing player. As Alice moves through the chessboard-landscape, she occupies multiple spaces—the spaces on the board; spaces in time; spaces in a hierarchy—that are all about play, yet also all about rules.

Beer’s interest in how Carroll transforms chess into something recognizable and yet very strange—“all the ways about here belong to me” says the Red Queen, turning the rules for her physical movement into a claim to power—reminds us how Carroll’s approach skews, warps, and scrambles its frequent cultural referents. In some cases, Carroll’s narrative logic contradicts positions we know that he himself held, as when his own allegiance to “Euclidean order” starkly contradicts the pleasure the stories take in seeing “hierarchies upended.” In others, Beer detects not so much influence as delicate echo, as when she suggests that Carroll’s fascination with Mr. Lockwood’s terrifying nightmares in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights exerts a pull on Alice’s dream adventures in Wonderland—not as some form of direct correspondence, but as a mutual fascination with the dreamer’s agency within the dream. In this kind of juxtaposition, we can see how Beer’s approach to the Alice books tries to emulate their allusive playfulness: the reference to Wuthering Heights is both a literary critic’s strategy (hunt the source, much as one might hunt a snark) and extremely unexpected (one doesn’t usually think of ghost girls wandering the moors when Alice’s adventures come up for discussion). But the source slips away, as always, for while in the end Lockwood’s nightmares don’t explain Alice’s own dream experiences, they do illuminate how Carroll freely appropriates and warps his literary environment to create his uniquely bizarre effects.

This is not a book, then, that one approaches to find out the most likely real-life candidate for the Hatter. Instead, Beer points us to how Carroll draws “obliquely” on contemporary culture, how everything he knew “became untethered and confounded as they enter his dream worlds.” Explaining the joke notoriously strips it of its humor, but Beer up-ends that argument too: the Alice books have already anticipated the reader’s desire to “get” what’s going on, and gleefully take apart that impulse.

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein is Professor of English at the College at Brockport, SUNY, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature. She blogs at The Little Professor.

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