Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

How old was I when I first read that line? Nine? Ten? Ten sticks in my mind as the right age. 

I had discovered the small paperback on the bookshelf at my Aunt Jane's house. Aunt Jane, Uncle Frank, and their children lived in the house in the next yard over from the house next door when I was growing up. In the summer, it was as natural to be at Aunt Jane's, running after my older brother and cousins, as it was to be in our own backyard.

On hot days, we might retreat inside. My brother Dale would thunder upstairs with John and Robert to play with Matchbox cars on the bedroom floor. I was perfectly content lounging downstairs, reading stray comic books or the latest issue of Mad Magazine, and no doubt annoying my aunt Jane to no end with my presence. At times she would put me to work on simple chores; other times she would shoo me home when my stay went on too long.

Whenever I was in Aunt Jane's kitchen, I would scan the built-in bookshelf for things to read. 45 years later, I don't remember much about that shelf other than it had very few books of interest to a child, even one who read voraciously.

But the little dark blue paperback caught my eye. It was a small book, a child size book. I was younger when I first saw it. Although I was discouraged by the dense text, I liked to look at the detailed drawings every few pages: a rabbit in a waistcoat, a girl holding back a curtain to reveal a tiny door, the same girl pages later with an elongated neck.

The pictures fascinated me. Whenever I was at Aunt Jane's house and it got quiet and slow, I would pull down the little book and study the pictures over and over. Here were two identical, roly-poly little men; here were chess pieces with faces, clearly having a conversation.

What was this book?

The summer I was ten, I found out what the mysterious dark blue paperback was when I opened it and began to read it rather than just look at the pictures. Thus was I finally introduced to Alice.

I was hooked by the third sentence. Curiouser and curiouser, I plunged in headfirst and kept reading. The little blue paperback, which turned out to be an omnibus edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, came home with me, where it joined the pantheon of truly great books (meaning I read and reread them constantly) occupied at that time only by Little Women and the works of Marguerite Henry.

It has never left my "all time favorites" list.

I have lost count of how many times I have read the Alice books. When I was young, it was not unusual for me to finish and then begin them again immediately, much like the Torah reading cycle in synagogues. The little blue paperback came home with me, eventually traveling with me to college and beyond, crisscrossing the country as one of my most important books.

In fact, the little book survived for many, many years until my son Ben came along and read it to death. Already well worn and cracked at the spine, the book had no chance against his reading style, which seems to have consisted of massaging every last word off the page and into his very being. Ben was every bit as taken with Alice as I was and I later bought him a hardback copy because, as I wrote in the inscription, "everyone needs to know their way through Wonderland."

Everyone should know their way through Wonderland, but not everyone does. My dear Warren has never read the Alice books. Neither have his two children. I am not sure whether my brothers have read them. Sam has only read Through the Looking Glass.

I can't imagine life without Wonderland. 

In recent months, I have read two novels based on the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Lutwidge  Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and just finished two newer biographies about the unusual author of these fantastical works. The story of Lewis Carroll, fictionalized or not, is a tangled, confused tale.

I was trying to explain some of this to Warren the other night after he asked me about my reading. Lewis Carroll's life, as a real, historical happening, is murky. In the century plus since Carroll died, and the century and a half since Alice in Wonderland was first published, biographical portraits of him have run the gamut from gentle, quirky professor who loved children to emotionally disturbed misfit. After finishing Jenny Woolf's well-crafted biography, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, I suspect the truth contained threads of the entire continuum.

As Woolf adeptly points out, the original sources and record as to Carroll are slim at best. As an Oxford lecturer and deacon, Carroll led a circumscribed life in many ways. His family destroyed many of his personal records after his death. Other records have disappeared from view. Woolf, in fact, discovered Carroll's bank account record in 2005, untouched since 1900 when his estate was concluded, and was able to draw upon them in her research and writing. Modern Carroll biographers start from the thinnest of original sources, and that hampers us from our 21st century post in knowing the man behind the books.

Having read more about Lewis Carroll, I am torn whether to pursue him any further or just let him go.  I am not sure in my mind whether I want to learn more about the author and his tangled life. The truth is we shall never know Lewis Carroll, we shall never know Charles Lutwidge Dodsgon. The trail was obscure from the outset, and huge portions of it have been obliterated. With each passing year, Carroll grows fainter and fainter like a fading photograph, smaller and smaller like Alice eating the mushroom.

In the end, I am not sure it matters whether I know Lewis Carroll. It is Wonderland that beckons to me still. Regardless of how I arrive there, down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, I shall always return to Wonderland.


Sharon said...

I, sadly, have never read these books. I have, however, seen the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland and absolutely hated it. Something about the movie bothered me...not sure what. I'm sure the books are much better.

Jenny Woolf said...

Well, April, of course I am very interested in this post, and thanks so much for the comments on my book. It's always interesting to me to learn how people first heard about the Alice books. I think that perhaps the pictures do have a lot to do with it, as you say. YOu have to wonder just who all these people are and what they're doing.

I used to read it often as a child and I usually found it seemed different to me each time. I came to the conclusion that this related to the way *I* was changing and I also think it's got something to do with the way that people have such different reactions to the book. Sharon's response of finding it scary is not unusual (although she was of course responding to Disney's take on it).... hey this could go round and round in spirals....

Anyway thanks for the post. I'll link to it on the FB page for "Mystery of Lewis Carroll"

see you there! said...

I too loved Alice as a child and still have my hardbound copy. Neither of my girls seemed to share my interest, they were big Winnie the Pooh fans.

I've read a bit about Carroll, will have to look for Jennie's book.


Terri said...

Perhaps you and Warren should share a reading of Alice out loud to each other. DH and I have done that from time to time.

I often have a real struggle with modern day biographers who seem to focus on the sexual lives of those from previous centuries. The sexual focus is very late 20th Century.