Through the microscope

The Alice Companion
September 11, 1998

Basil in Blunderland, the title of Cardinal Hume's promotional video, is one of the more recent examples of how the Alice books have become an enduring and universally recognised metaphor, though one imagines that their author, a young fogey avant la lettre, would have grumbled about the lack of clerical gravitas. The continued fascination that the two books exert is further attested by the publication of three major biographies of Lewis Carroll over the past three years and now, in the centenary year of his death, by this outstanding compendium of literary detection in the form of The Alice Companion.

The first decision that confronts its reader is whether to select a la carte or to go for the groaning table d'hote. One can either dip into the Companion for topics of likely interest or simply start with "Acland, Sir Henry Wentworth" (who, the authors argue, is the probable inspiration for the White Rabbit) and read through to "Zoomorph" (those graphic representations of people as animals which fill Sir John Tenniel's illustrations). I advise the latter option, not least because the subject headings do not always indicate what you might expect to find there. For example under "Bible, The Holy", the authors account for the absence of bishops on the Looking Glass chessboard. The heading "Elsie" reveals, as we might expect, that when pronounced this name is the homophone of 'L.C.' denoting Alice Liddell's older sister, Lorina Charlotte. We would not, however, anticipate the digression that follows on the distant relationship between the Liddells and the present Queen Mother.

It is difficult to imagine how a guide to the Alice books could be more helpfully organised. The tight web of allusion, association and inference spun by Carroll challenges even the most persistent of cryptographers. Moreover, an over-determined identification of the dramatis personae of Carroll's books with those of his biography is likely to be frustrated by what Jones and Gladstone describe as "the complexities of Carroll's methods of concealment".

While acknowledging the validity of the many alternative readings, the Companion approaches the Alice books with a bias towards their satirical intent. Persuasive arguments are constructed, as Roy Porter puts it in his introduction, "from firm facts to the slithiest of suppositions". The article on "Anagrams" illustrates the approach at its "slithiest": "Carroll records the shriek of the Gryphon... as 'Hjckrrh!' All the letters 'Hjkr' are to be found in the names John (Jh) and Ruskin (Rk) which leaves the letters 'Chr' unaccounted for. Ruskin's pet-name to his child friends was 'St Chrysostom'. The first three letters of 'Chrysostom' "release the consonants Chr into the Gryphon's cry."

Taken in isolation, the argument sounds a little far-fetched, but corroborating evidence is available in the article "Gryphon", where we learn that "Alice Liddell was Ruskin's student at Oxford. Ruskin lauded the artistic superiority of carved Lombardic gryphons in medieval Verona". Attention is also drawn to the Gryphon's "Ruskinian views about Beauty and Uglification".

Another interpretational difficulty raised by The Alice Companion is the lack of detailed information about the fraught collaboration between Carroll and Tenniel. Were the resemblances to contemporary personalities in Tenniel's illustrations the result of authorial prompting? In some instances there is textual support, for example Bill the Lizard looks like Disraeli in Tenniel's depiction while the inky activities of his tail slyly recall Carroll's disapproval of Disraeli's popular novels. On the other hand, Tenniel's White Knight is clearly a work of self-portraiture while in the text, a parody of Tennyson, the ennobled medievalist on the Isle of Wight, is almost certainly intended.

As Carroll cryptographers, Jones and Gladstone have sharp eyes for detail. The most notable lapse is the assertion that "it was Julius (Charles Hare) and his brother Augustus (1792-1834) who, in 1843, helped Alexander Macmillan and his brother buy the Cambridge bookshop". Augustus Hare did indeed die in 1834, leaving us to wonder what posthumous form of assistance he rendered on this occasion. Nor was Augustus, as claimed here, a "Cambridge" theologian, having been both an undergraduate and fellow of New College, Oxford.

The Companion includes a wide range of critical comment on the Alice books. Occasionally one feels that important names have been introduced for their own sake rather than for any significant insight. W. H. Auden, for example, is represented by some fairly pedestrian observations. Bertrand Russell, who commented perceptively on the Red King's dream, is not mentioned, nor is Saki's The Westminster Alice.

It is a pity that the authors were unable to include the two biographies of Carroll by Donald Thomas and Michael Bakewell, published in 1996. Had they done so, they might have revised their view that the 1995 biography by Morton Cohen "will be hard to displace as the standard one", for despite this verdict, they do (rightly, in my view) criticise Cohen's inadequate treatment of Carroll's involvement in Oxford controversies, on which Bakewell is particularly informative. The Companion is also silent on Cohen's flimsy hypothesis of a rift between Carroll and his father. The article on Carroll's biographers concludes: "Whether the future will see major advances in understanding Victorian child love remains to be seen." Such an advance is to be found in the Thomas biography.

William Empson, quoted in the Companion, feared critical analysis would "destroy the atmosphere of the books altogether". Yet even the most cursory adult reading of Alice must surely impress upon the mind that the Alice books operate at a far deeper level than a mere jeu d'esprit. The Alice Companion provides a wealth of evidence to support what we already sensed, that the books are the product of one of the most unusual and fertile imaginations in English literature.

Ronald Warwick is a freelance lecturer and writer.

28Reference books mary evans Did Disraeli inspire Tenniel's depiction of Bill the Lizard?

The Alice Companion: A Guide to Lewis Carroll's Alice Books

Author - Jo Elwyn Jones and J. Francis
ISBN - 0 333 67349 2
Publisher - Gladstone Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 320

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