This month a new book about the origins of the ‘Alice’ books was published: “The making of Lewis Carroll’s Alice – and the Invention of Wonderland”, written by Peter Hunt.
In the book, Hunt mainly discusses the three ‘layers’ that can be found in the Alice in Wonderland books (including Alice’s Adventures Under Ground):
- Private jokes that only Alice and her sisters would understand (mainly in “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”);
- References to things in their society;
- Dodgson’s private thoughts and feelings (mainly in “Through the Looking Glass”).
Chapter 1 deals with how the story originated: started during a boat trip and evolving over the course of time. It also investigates to what extent the real Alice matches the Alice from the story, and what kind of person Charles Dodgson was.
In chapter 2 the ‘Alice’ books are being put within the historical context of children’s books: what kind of children’s books preceded them and how did those develop from moralistic stories to stories more aimed at the entertainment of children, and which children’s books, nursery rhymes and poetry possibly influenced Dodgson’s stories?
Chapter 3 illustrates the ‘first layer’, meaning all things in the stories that Alice would have known, like events and poems she would recognize.
Chapter 4 illustrates the ‘second layer’: societal references, amongst others to political situations and well-known Victorians.
In chapter 5 we read about the ‘third layer’. It discusses references that adults would recognize more than children would, Dodgson’s personal feelings that we can find in the texts, and his cameo appearances as characters in the story.
The book ends with a 6th chapter, that informs us about what happened to people mentioned in the book after the ‘Alice’ stories were published, but also about the success of these books, Dodgson’s other publications and ‘follow ups’, adaptations and translations by other authors.
I’m not sure if it’s just my copy, but I found some ink smudges on some of the pages, and there were some words printed a bit brownish rather than full black. Other than that, the book looks and feels very nice: it is pleasantly layed-out, has thick pages and is abundantly illustrated with both black-and-white and color illustrations and photo’s – although they do not always have a direct relation to what is being described in the text. The book counts 128 pages, so because of all the visual additions you’ll finish reading it relatively quickly.
Peter Hunt’s writing is pleasant: he has a narrative style that easily takes you through all 6 chapters.
Hunt’s book is very suitable for people who did not know yet, or are only just starting to find out, about the many layers that the ‘Alice’ stories contain, and are interested in learning why they are not merely (or rather, not at all) nonsensical children’s books.
Hunt is not trying to be comprehensive, though. He mentions many examples of more or less obscure references, but does not try to offer a complete list of everything that has been discovered (or speculated) up to now.
Although he often mentions that some references he describes are speculations, and sometimes also adds his own doubts about them, telling us this specific speculation may go a bit to far, he seems to be rather certain about other references which I would personally be doubtful about as well. Especially because he does not always explain the connection. For example, he states “The White Rabbit might well have been a portrait of Dr Henry Wentworth, Professor of Medicine and the Liddells’ doctor.” Then he immediately continues with another reference, without telling the reader why there would be a connection. This happens several times, which is a shame.
In that light, it is also rather frustrating that Hunt hardly ever mentions his sources, and that it is generally unclear whether his statements are his own findings and conclusions, or whether they are of others, published previously (I am assuming the latter). There is a list of notes in the back of the book, but all the things I would have liked to look up, were not connected to a citation. This unfortunately reduces the book’s credibility.
So I would say this book gives a nice introduction to the existence of several layers of references in the ‘Alice’ books, and succeeds very well in getting the message across that they are so much more than funny nonsense. However, many examples of references should be taken with a grain of salt and because of the lack of citations, it is less suitable for a more serious scholars.