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7.1 Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll, as we found out in previous chapters, is most famous for two books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). These books follow the adventures of a seven-year-old, Alice, who tumbles down a rabbit hole (Wonderland) and enters a magic mirror (Looking-Glass), entering a nonsensical world of the imagination. If you have not already read these classic books—or wish to reread them—you can access them at the following links:

http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CarAlic.html

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CarGlas.html

Once Alice tumbles down the rabbit-hole in Wonderland, she encounters a topsy-turvy world that is disconnected from the real Victorian world she is from. She forgets the lessons she learns in her world quickly and drinks from a bottle that is marked “DRINK ME,” which shuts her “up like a telescope.”Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. With Forty-Two Illustrations by John Tenniel (New York: D. Appleton, 1927; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1998), chap. 1, http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CarAlic.html. Undaunted, she then eats from a cake in a box marked “EAT ME,” which as you can guess, makes her quite large—nine feet tall, to be exact—which is so large that when she gets upset over her predicament and starts to cry, she creates an enormous pool of tears. As she starts swimming, having now shrunk to about two feet in height, she finds herself paddling with an odd menagerie of animals—a mouse, a duck, a lory, an eaglet, and even an extinct dodo bird.

Needless to say, the animals don’t like being so wet. How to dry off? Let’s listen in on the plans:

They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank—the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.

The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they had a consultation about this, and after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them, as if she had known them all her life. Indeed, she had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and would only say, “I am older than you, and must know better”; and this Alice would not allow without knowing how old it was, and, as the Lory positively refused to tell its age, there was no more to be said.

At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of authority among them, called out, “Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I’ll soon make you dry enough!” They all sat down at once, in a large ring, with the Mouse in the middle. Alice kept her eyes anxiously fixed on it, for she felt sure she would catch a bad cold if she did not get dry very soon.

“Ahem!” said the Mouse with an important air, “are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. Silence all round, if you please! ‘William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria—’”

“Ugh!” said the Lory, with a shiver.

“I beg your pardon!” said the Mouse, frowning, but very politely: “Did you speak?”

“Not I!” said the Lory hastily.

“I thought you did,” said the Mouse. “—I proceed. ‘Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him: and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable–’”

“Found what?” said the Duck.

“Found it,” the Mouse replied rather crossly: “of course you know what ‘it’ means.”

“I know what ‘it’ means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck: “it’s generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?”

The Mouse did not notice this question, but hurriedly went on, “‘—found it advisable to go with Edgar Atheling to meet William and offer him the crown. William’s conduct at first was moderate. But the insolence of his Normans—’ How are you getting on now, my dear?” it continued, turning to Alice as it spoke.

“As wet as ever,” said Alice in a melancholy tone: “it doesn’t seem to dry me at all.”Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. With Forty-Two Illustrations by John Tenniel (New York: D. Appleton, 1927; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1998), chap. 3, http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CarAlic.html.

The mouse believes that by telling a “dry” tale, he will dry off his companions. And what better dry tale to tell than one involving a history lesson, one about William the Conqueror (of the eleventh century). Carroll, of course, is having fun with the perception that history is boring, particularly when history becomes a series of factual dates that require memorization. In fact, much of Wonderland—as well as the sequel Through the Looking-Glass—finds Carroll satirizing various Victorian social issues, including the notion of the child (and gender roles), the purpose of literature for children, the debate over Darwinian evolution, the discussion over linguistic development, the controversy over religious debate (Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was a professor and clergyman at Oxford University), and the most productive educational methods. And we are only scratching the surface here.

In other words, if we read Wonderland as a historical text that illuminates the age in which Carroll wrote, then history is certainly not dry, nor is literature dry, for the two speak in dialogue with one another. Just as Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, you will be asked in this unit to enter the wonderland that is called New Historical criticism. Instead of being dry, we hope that we whet your appetite for writing about literature focusing on history and culture.

Your Process

  1. Has your experience studying history been similar to Alice’s? Or have you enjoyed studying history? Jot down your thoughts about studying history.
  2. Have you ever read a work of literature that made you think about a particular historical event or period? Describe this work and its connection to that historical moment.