Lewis Carroll Week: The Wrap Up

Well, that week flew by, didn’t it? So what did I take away from reading all these books? I think the main thing is, that whatever my opinion may be about the man Lewis Carroll – or rather Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, as he was really called – his importance to the development of children’s literature as we know it today can’t be denied. The second thing I’ve learned, is that I definitely need a plot to my stories for me not to go crazy. I really didn’t enjoy the fact that there wasn’t a true plot to Alice in Wonderland, I guess I need the structure of a plot to find my way through a narrative. Lastly, I’ve learned that you can overdose on a certain author or subject. While I really enjoyed preparing for this week, after I finished my final book last week, I was secretly a little relieved I didn’t have to read anything Lewis Carroll anymore, at least not in the near future!

What was really cool was that the British Library announced that they were giving away the digitalised version of Alice’s Adventures Underground – the original manuscript hand-written and illustrated by Lewis Carroll himself – for free for two weeks from September 19th. How perfect was that timing?! So go grab it before the offer runs out!

So before we really wrap this week up completely, here is an overview of this week’s posts:

Lewis Carroll Week: An Introduction
Lewis Carroll- Alice in Wonderland
Michael Bakewell – Lewis Carroll: A Biography
Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on Floor to Ceiling Books
Thomas Hinde – Lewis Carroll: Looking-Glass Letters
Kate Sullivan (ed.) – (re)Visions: Alice
Lewis Carroll Week: The Wrap Up

Whew, that’s more posts than I counted on when I started preparing for this week! But I had a lot of fun preparing them for you and I hope you enjoyed my Lewis Carroll Week!

Kate Sullivan (ed.) – (re)Visions: Alice

Candlemark and Gleam’s new (re)Visions series, is a concept in which classic works of speculative fiction are reinterpreted by modern authors. I think this is a very interesting idea, especially as they also include the original work, so the reader can read both the original and the inspired works in sequence. The first work tackled in the series is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

In (re)Visions: Alice, in addition to Lewis Carroll’s original Alice in Wonderland, we find novella’s by Kaye Chazan, Amanda Ching, Hilary Thomas and C.A. Young. They each provide wildly different takes on Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but each of them has their own charm and originality. From works set in what seems to be Carroll’s time, to a Noir thriller, to a story set in contemporary times, each of them succeeded in drawing me in, even if some did so more fully than others.

The first novella is Kaye Chazan’s What Aelister Found Here. Set in London, in 1888, it tells the tale of a young, adventurous boy, who runs away from his rural home to the big city of London. There he meets a mysterious Duke, who becomes his benefactor, seemingly driven by amusement at Aelister’s insistence he wants to learn to be like him and by kindness. Or is he? The story moves from being a straightforward story about a runaway to a more and more magic filled narrative; nothing is as it seems at first glance. Chazan manages to make Aelister both an unpleasant little boy and a sympathetic protagonist. I enjoyed this story, especially its descriptions of 1888 London. At the same time, there were some elements to the story that couldn’t be developed as much as I would have liked, due to the length of the novella format. Chief of these were the card magic that Aelister and the Duke share and the connection to Jack the Ripper. I truly would have liked to have seen more of both. But I enjoyed Ms Chazan’s writing and story a lot and the final reveal of the novel made me smile in an aha-moment.

The second novella is House of Cards by Amanda Ching. Again set in Victorian times, we visit the house of the Liddell family, get to know the person behind the Red Queen and the reason why Alice shouldn’t be in Wonderland. A mix of three POV’s, that of The Red Queen, Mary Ann, servant to the Liddells and that of the village’s gravedigger, the story consists of a narrative interspersed with flashbacks. At first it wasn’t clear to me that some parts were flashbacks, but as the story reached its conclusion, it became clear. While I enjoyed reading the Red Queen’s POV and seeing a more sympathetic portrayal of her, I found Mary Ann’s perspective less enjoyable, both because of what she is put through (rape and rejection) and the choices she makes afterwards. Despite this, the story was interesting and especially the incorporation of the Cheshire Cat in the real world was very clever. In the end the question remains whether magic is real or whether a delusion of insanity.

The third novella, Hilary Thomas’ Knave, is set in a Noir Wonderland and its protagonist is Jack Knave, head of security for the Red Queen. Delightfully noir and gritty, the story reminded me of a 1940’s detective or the atmosphere of the film The Black Dahlia. I really enjoyed this take on Wonderland. All the characters were turned into a part of the criminal society of Wonderland. The story was action-packed and wryly funny. Jack was a strong protagonist, bordering on a caricature of the gruff private eye, but never quite crossing the line. The Alice of this tale is the strongest one I’ve seen so far in fiction or film, she’s a ‘dame’ who knows her mind and she plays the game beautifully. While the shortest of the bunch, for me Knave was the one with the most impact. I really enjoyed Ms Thomas’ writing and would love to read more of her work.

The final novella in (re)Visions: Alice is C.A. Young’s The World in a Thimble. The story of gallery owner Toby, who finds himself stuck in an unfamiliar version of Wonderland. One where there is carnivorous furniture, a talking fountain and lots and lots of cats that are capable of the ‘Cheshire’ trick. This story is most unlike Carroll’s Wonderland, because it has the clearest ‘moral’, where Carroll wrote a story devoid of the ubiquitous Victorian moral to a children’s story and just wanted to entertain his little readers. During his adventure in Wonderland Toby learns to be a man, not a mouse and finally learns to stand up for himself. I liked this aspect of the story. I thought Mr Young’s vision of Wonderland delightful and very unique as it has the same whimsical feel, but shows us no locations we’ve seen before. Another well-written and engaging story to round out the anthology, The World in a Thimble is a satisfying final story to a very satisfying book.

As a whole, the (re)Visions: Alice anthology works very well. As with any collection of stories, there are highlights and less brighter lights, but as far as I’m concerned, no true duds. While Hilary Thomas’ Knave was my absolute favourite, all the other stories were good reads as well. Of course, favourites will vary for every reader, but the stories are definitely worth reading. In all, Candlemark and Gleam have hit upon an interesting concept for a series and I’m curious to see where they will take it and who they’ll tackle next.

This book was sent to me by the publisher.

Thomas Hinde – Lewis Carroll: Looking-Glass Letters

‘The proper definition of “Man” is an animal that writes letters.’

A fascinating insight into the life of Lewis Carroll and the story behind such classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, through Carroll’s own letters and diaries.

In his Lewis Carroll: Looking-Glass Letters, Thomas Hinde gives a nice summation of Lewis Carroll’s life, though far less in depth than the Bakewell biography. As such this isn’t a work that should be read as the definitive source of information on Lewis Carroll, then again, that isn’t what the book sets out to do. Instead the book gives us glimpses of the complicated man that was Lewis Carroll, through letters and diary entries. While it does give us a window into Carroll’s inner life, at the end of the book Carroll is still a mystery and the reader as only encountered the tiniest fraction of the facets to the man’s personality.

A plus of the book is the large number of illustrations, not just drawings but also paintings and photographs. They provide further background to locations described in the book, gives some of the people mentioned faces and shows us what photography, the medium closed to Carroll’s heart next to writing, looked like in the late nineteenth century. We also see the different iterations of the Alice illustrations, both by Carroll himself and the official illustrator, John Tenniel.

The letters and diary fragments are certainly interesting, if at times a little random. While the letters in the sections regarding his early school life and his academic career are mostly relevant and to the point, the letters and fragments included in the later sections are sometimes not as relevant to the subject, or the point they are meant to illustrate isn’t really clear. This is a shame as it can be a little distractive from the narrative flow, if you can speak of such in a work of non-fiction.

In my opinion, while the author takes no overt stance on the matter, the issue of Carroll’s little girl friendsis treated in an ambivalent manner. On the one hand the tone of the Carroll letters to little girls is mostly avuncular, on the other hand when the matter of Carroll’s nude photography is discussed, the author posits that Lewis must have derived some pleasure from it. While this is no more explicit than any of Bakewell’s remarks, the contrast of the author’s remarks and the selected letters, to me, is rather marked.

In all, it’s an entertaining read, which serves as a look into Carroll’s inner world and as a nice addition to the information I found in the Bakewell biography. However, if you’re really looking to learn about Lewis Carroll, I’d recommend reading the Bakewell.

Meanwhile…. On Floor to Ceiling Books

Today I’m guest blogging over on Amanda’s blog Floor to Ceiling Books. Amanda is one of my bestest blog buddies, so when she was looking for guest posts to tide her blog over during her holiday, I couldn’t not help out! Since I wanted to include a film review in my Lewis Carroll Week and I usually only blog about book and reading related stuff on here, it was a great convergence of circumstances. So run on over to Floor to Ceiling Books to read my review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And while you’re over there, why not check out some of the other guest posts Amanda’s got lined up for you!

Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet. Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky.” 

Throughout her fantastic journeys, Alice retains her reason, humor, and sense of justice. She has become one of the great characters of imaginative literature, as immortal as Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Gale of Kansas.

Through the Looking-Glass is the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, based on the scraps of stories told to the Liddell girls, but not included in the first book. Carroll started it in 1867, the year he finished Alice in Wonderland, but it would take him until 1870 to finish it.

Through the Looking-Glass is as strange a tale as Alice in Wonderland, though the story is more linear and clearly based on a chess game, which gives it context and something of a plot to follow. As with the previous book, the story takes the shape of a dream. This time Alice doesn’t drift off next to a burbling river, but next to a cosy fire snuggling with one of her kittens. She needs to travel from the Looking-Glass house (check name in book) to the other side of the river, so she can become a queen. As such, book has a clear goal and as in a chess game every episode has an “opponent” for Alice to “defeat”.

Besides the scraps of stories left after Alice in Wonderland, Carroll also incorporated some of his other, often poetic, works in the book. Carroll’s more well-known poems are in here, such as ‘The Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ They form separate stories told to Alice during her travels through the Mirror world. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is presented both as a mirror poem and a completely mystifying text composed of mainly made up words, which even Alice has to admit she doesn’t understand, the poem does convey a story. The precise meaning of the story might be a little obscure, but it is reminiscent of the sort of epic poetry such as Beowulf, where the hero of the story defeats the monster and is received as a hero upon his return. But where Beowulf is history transformed into legend to illustrate the characteristics of a worthy leader of men, ‘The Jabberwocky’ seems to lack such depth, Carroll added no moral to the story. In comparison, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems to have a clearer ‘moral’, where it ot for the fact that Carroll mostly didn’t seem to believe in adding such morals to stories. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is strange and alienating in its vocabulary, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is far more familiar in tone. Both characters are pretty much bad eggs, luring away the little oysters just to eat them, though one could pose the question why the elder oyster, who seems to be aware of their intent, doesn’t warn the younger ones. Which raises the question whether he isn’t just as culpable as the titular characters. Eventhough, at first glance, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems the less complicated of the two, if you consider the poems carefully, there are underlying themes to both of them.

The characters are again fabulous and inventive. I particularly loved the insects (probably the only time in history these words will leave my keyboard): The rocking-horse fly, the Snap-Dragonfly, the Bread-and-Butterfly. and the way he’s incorporated the mirrored nature of the Looking Glass World is genius. Though at the same time, I’m having a hard time imagining how some of it would work, such as, for example, the needing to cut the cake backwards in the Lion and the Unicorn scene. It makes sense in the context of the story, but how it would actually work is beyond me. Another brilliant mirroring is the White Queen’s memory. Instead of remembering what has just happened, she remembers what is to happen in the future. So she’s constantly referring to things that have not yet happened, which confuses poor Alice to no end. Funnily enough, this concept was easier to wrap my head around than the backwards cutting of the cake!

I honestly liked Through the Looking-Glass far better than I liked Alice in Wonderland, mostly due to the fact that there was something actually resembling a plot to it. As with Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature, and children’s literature in particular, should read.

Michael Bakewell – Lewis Carroll: A Biography

In this new biography Michael Bakewell explores the highly complex and often contradictory character of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who was as strange and singular a ‘fabulous monster’ as any of the creations of his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. Dodgson has the reputation of being a stamming recluse, who spent his whole life within the confines of Christ Church, Oxford, but he was an astute, exacting and highly professional man of business where the publication and marketing of his own work was concerned, an inveterate theatre-goer, a tireless pamphleteer on such topics as vivisection and proportional representation, and a highly skilled and imaginative photographer who used his camera to bring him into contact with the great Victorians he particularly wanted to get to know.
According to Bakewell, everything that Dodgson was, everything that he became, stemmed from his Rectory childhood, from which he never escaped. To adults he was an elderly child, to children one of themselves. His constant need for the company and love of little girls was the joy and the tragedy of his life, and the story of his child-friendships is the backbone of this fascinating book examining in detail his love for Alice Liddell, for the child-actress Isa Bowman, for the angel-faced Enid Stevens and for dozens of others.

I always find it hard to critique a biography, it’s either well researched and documented or it’s not. So that leaves one to  look at the angle the writer uses to approach his subject and how he handles it, how successful the approach is and whether a biography is readable for a lay person, i.e. not so technical and dry that you get mystified and thirsty by just opening the book. I found Bakewell’s biography of Lewis Carroll very readable and never so focused on discussions of the literary merits of Carroll’s work that someone not versed in those theories wouldn’t understand. Instead Bakewell focuses on how Charles Lutwidge Dodgson became Lewis Carroll. He sketches a dichotomy in Dodgson’s character, on the one hand an eternal child, on the other a shrewd business man and a social activist. And he takes an unflinching look at Dodgson’s dubious interest in little girls.

The book left me profoundly disturbed, or rather Dodgson did. I found some (if not most) of his interactions with the girls inappropriate, though I have to say that being a mum to a little girl didn’t help Dodgson’s case at all. If someone approached my daughter in that manner they’d be walloped into next week. So one can hardly say I’m an unbiased judge. Still, the way Dodgson ignored parents’ rules regarding contact with their children, whether visiting the Liddell children despite Mrs Liddell forbidding it or the way he always tried to push parents to take his photography of their girls further towards nudity, was completely disturbing and, in my opinion, made Dodgson completely untrustworthy. However, I admired Bakewell’s ability to discuss Carroll’s little girl friends, without either excusing or condemning his behaviour. While I never got the impression that the author condoned Dodgson’s behaviour, he never explicitly states that the behaviour is wrong. He manages to stay impartial or at least give an objective account of what he’s found.

Setting Dodgson’s proclivities aside, an aspect of his life I found fascinating was his career as an Oxford Fellow. The look at Victorian Oxford and its academic practices and society was captivating. Completely different from the contemporary university setting I’m used to, it made me wonder whether this manner of academia was typical of Oxbridge universities or whether universities in my native Netherlands were governed in a similar manner. What is definitely clear from Bakewell’s work though, is how well-suited this environment was for a dreamer and eternal child like Dodgson. In a way, he never had to grow up as long as he remained at Christ Church. He had a fixed set of responsibilities and a lot of time to do as he pleased. The only hitch in Dodgson’s perfect retreat, was the expectation that at some point, he would have to take Orders and be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He never got farther than the rank of Deacon, both because he was afraid because of preaching because of his stammer and he didn’t want to give up the sinful pleasures of a civilian life, such as going to the theatre. On top of that, he’d begun to have doubts about the strength of his faith. Bakewell manages to show us Dodgson’s inner struggle on this subject and give us a window into his troubled conscience.

The book is an illuminating and interesting biography, which highlights more than just Carroll’s predilection for little girls. Its look at Victorian academic life and the glimpses it provides of Victorian publishing are very interesting, but in the end Lewis Carroll: A Biography left me conflicted about its subject. And that might be Bakewell’s biggest achievement with this book, providing such a balanced view that it’s left up to the reader to make up her mind about Lewis Carroll. As an example of a well-written biography, this is a work that can take pride of place. For those of you interested in the creator of Alice in Wonderland, this book is a great starting point to discover who Lewis Carroll was.

Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

Source of legend and lyric, reference and conjecture, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is for most children pure pleasure in prose. While adults try to decipher Lewis Carroll’s putative use of complex mathematical codes in the text, or debate his alleged use of opium, young readers simply dive with Alice through the rabbit hole, pursuing “The dream-child moving through a land / Of wonders wild and new.” There they encounter the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, and the Mad Hatter, among a multitude of other characters–extinct, fantastical, and commonplace creatures. Alice journeys through this Wonderland, trying to fathom the meaning of her strange experiences. But they turn out to be “curiouser and curiouser,” seemingly without moral or sense.

For more than 130 years, children have reveled in the delightfully non-moralistic, non-educational virtues of this classic. In fact, at every turn, Alice’s new companions scoff at her traditional education. The Mock Turtle, for example, remarks that he took the “regular course” in school: Reeling, Writhing, and branches of Arithmetic-Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Carroll believed John Tenniel’s illustrations were as important as his text. Naturally, Carroll’s instincts were good; the masterful drawings are inextricably tied to the well-loved story. (All ages) –Emilie Coulter 
(Description taken from Goodreads) 

Before reading the book, I’d only ever seen the Disney film and that was last seen twenty years ago. Despite that lapse of time, I still recognised a lot of it in the story. This either means that either Disney was very true to the book or my memories of the film are so fragmented that I only recognised its and the book’s iconic scenes, such as the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the Hare, the Caterpillar and the Red Queen’s game of croquet.

Alice in Wonderland is a strange story. It’s funny and entertaining, but it has no plot whatsoever and doesn’t really make much sense. It’s a link up of seemingly loose scenes and encounters Alice has once she goes down the rabbit hole. Considering the origins of the story, this isn’t all that surprising. Carroll first invented the tale while telling stories to the Liddell sisters while on a series of afternoon boating expeditions. Alice is based on the second sister, Alice Liddell. Her insistence that the stories should be put into proper book form, was the impetus for Carroll to actually write the stories down and see them published.

The characters of Alice in Wonderland are fantastic and fabulous. They are what make the book shine, from the huffy mouse Alice meets in her pool of tears, to the dodo and the owl that tell tales to get them dry, to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Duchess and her cook, they are all distinct and weird. My favourite ones are the Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. The Rabbit because he’s what I remember first and foremost about the film; the entrance of the Rabbit and his little song. I can still hear it in my head to this day. On top of that he is such an officious little soul in the book, he makes me smile every time. And the Cheshire Cat, because, well, who doesn’t love the Cheshire Cat? To me he is one of the epitomes of felinity, with his casual mysteriousness and smugness. He always made me grin in the film and continued to do so in the book.

The story seems simplistic, but that’s probably only on a surface read. From what I’ve read in the Bakewell biography of Carroll’s life, there’s a lot beneath the surface. Carroll, under his true name of Dodgson, was an enthusiastic satirical pamphlet writer, and no doubt this facet is also present in his Alice in Wonderland. Still, it was meant primarily as a children’s book, so whether its intended readership was supposed to get the references is doubtful. I know I didn’t, though that is probably partially due to the fact that I’m not familiar with most of Carroll’s contemporaries and the contemporary issues.

While Alice in Wonderland is fun and fantastical (in the broadest sense of the word) I didn’t really like the book. I guess I just couldn’t handle there not being a plot to the book. Despite this, I can appreciate the literary merits and importance of Carroll’s seminal work, as a classic of English literature and as the first true children’s novel. As such it is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature and children’s literature in particular, should read.

Lewis Carroll Week: An Introduction

This week will be all about Lewis Carroll and his most famous creation, Alice. Why a week about Lewis Carroll, you might ask? Well, though I’ve seen the classic Disney film many times as a child, I’ve never read either of the books. However, I did have a biography of Lewis Carroll and a collection of his letters, which I bought in my first year of university during a book sale, but I never read them either. Both of these found their way on my Way Beyond Retro-list to finally read at some point.

After my first theme week earlier this year, the Dracula one, I thought it might be fun to do another one. And as I had these Lewis Carroll books lying around and I could borrow the Alice books from work, it was easy to decide that the theme should be Lewis Carroll. And once Amanda from Floor to Ceiling Books asked for guest posts for her holiday in September, the timing couldn’t have seemed better.

So the idea for my Lewis Carrol theme week was born. What can you expect this week? On:

  • Monday: A review of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
  • Tuesday: A review of Michael Bakewell’s biography of Lewis Carroll.
  • Wednesday: A review of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and over on Floor to Ceiling Books a review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film.
  • Thursday: A review of Thomas Hinde’s Lewis Carroll: The Looking-Glass Letters.
  • Friday: A review of (re)Visions: Alice edited by Kate Sullivan, an anthology of Alice inspired novella’s, and a wrap up post for the entire week.

And there you have it, the schedule for this week. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed putting the posts together!