Why Alice (again)? What more can be said about Alice? In addition to the countless biographies, critical works, and popular writings, including Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, some of the landmark explorations of the Alice books include investigations into the the curious Alice (Nina Auerbach), the autonomous Alice (U. C. Knoepflmacher), the aggressive Alice (Marah Gubar), Alice as fetish (Carol Mavor), Alice as Other (James Kincaid), and Carroll as Alice (Catherine Robson). Outside of humanistic studies, neurological studies have coined and pursued the "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome," and scholars such as Evelyn Fox Keller, Helena Pycior, and Melanie Bayley have explored Carroll's applications of math in the Alice books. More recently, in another full-length Alice study, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst promises to reveal the The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland (2015).
In this book, however, Gillian Beer demonstrates that there is still plenty more to mine. What's extraordinary about this study is not just the extensive scope of its historical contexts and its ambitious array of rich new materials, but also its interweaving of topics as varied as Euclidean geometry, post-1850 relativism, Darwinian taxonomy, the anti-vivisection movement, symbolic logic, John Tenniel's illustrations in Punch magazine, and a recipe for mock turtle soup (featuring a calf's head). By excavating the multiple layers of social contexts that would have been familiar to the first readers of Alice but are now unfamiliar to us, Beer shows how the Alice books participate within a network of nineteenth-century epistemological systems.
In this cross-disciplinary study, Beer locates Carroll within a broad discursive conversation, exploring historical contexts that have not been previously addressed in a substantial way by other critical works. Rather than re-examining Carroll's photographs and the status of the Alice books in the context of children's literature (and Victorian literature in general), she highlights instead what she identifies as Carroll's intellectual preoccupations, particularly those that "troubled Carroll's imagination" (21). The Alice books, Beer argues, offered Carroll an opportunity to confront them.
Central to both the argument and the organization of this book is the concept of space. Using Henri Lefebvre's definition of space, which is "neither a 'subject' nor an 'object' . . . but a social reality--that is to say a set of relations and forms" (qtd. Beer 21), Beer shows us how the Alice books engage with the world dialectically, and even thematize the dialectical nature of experience itself. These dialectical relations play themselves out in the figures of the author and Alice, in the production of knowledge, in the reader's experience, and in the form of the fiction itself. Beer argues that the world in which Carroll engages is "not so much the carnivalesque 'world upside down' as the world sideways on" (4)--not an inverted world, but a world "endoubled" (a word that crops up more than once in this book). For Beer, Dodgson-Carroll is the central "endoubled" figure. While Charles Dodgson was an intellectual conservative, Lewis Carroll plays the "Joker" as "Writer" (52), working "askance all such debates, inverting, playing, alluding to and dropping, ideas caught up from current arguments. He took systems and destabilized them. Like Alice, he looked for rules, but, unlike her, he flouted them" (142).
Seminal to Beer's argument is the first chapter, which shows how Victorian science and industry disrupted the stability of time. According to Beer, the Victorian world bred epistemological tensions while undergoing intense intellectual growth and disturbance. Until the early nineteenth-century, Euclidean geometry was thought indisputable; it organized space and time through rules that governed the world. But as Beer shows, the stability of Euclid was widely challenged in England by such nineteenth-century innovations as the railway timetable (which changed standardized time), the new technologies of photography and chronometers, post-Euclidean elliptical geometry, speculations about intersecting parallel lines and the fourth dimension, the intersection of time and space in the then-controversial laws of motion, and scientific inquiries into the operations of space and time in dreams.
Dodgson himself was a staunch believer in Euclidean mathematics. (In 1879, he even published a defense of Euclid against the prevailing predominance of anti-Euclidean teaching.) But in the fictional world of the Alice books, Beer argues, he suspended his Euclidean beliefs in order to experiment with them. "As Dodgson," Beer writes, "Lewis Carroll was a devout Euclidean. As Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson stepped across those boundaries" (29). So while Carroll uses the laws of space-time in Wonderland, he also constructs alternatives with such things as a slow motion fall down a rabbit hole, a gravity-defying Alice coupled with a gravity-following jar of marmalade, an infinite tea-party, a watch that tells the day of the month but not the "o'clock," multiple puns (which cause the reader to pause) producing a "hiccup" in time (38), and the temporal doubling of the adult reader who, while reading, experiences past childhood from a future perspective. "Time here," Beer argues, "as in mathematical manifold, makes Euclidean sense only locally; the whole resists resolution. The various forms of time in the work will not lie still together; they are rumpled and energetic, endlessly alluring Alice" (41). Rather than resolving these tensions, Carroll keeps them in friction, in perpetual motion.
The thematically-organized chapters are chock full of--practically bursting with--all kinds of rich cultural matter. In each of them, working both inside and outside the Alice books, Beer makes different disciplines and different discursive traditions converse with each other. Because the argument is so finely woven, figures such as Euclid and Darwin recur in different chapters with regard to different themes, certain scenes from the Alice books are re-read through the lenses of different disciplines, and certain points recur with respect to new episodes. At times the historical "stuff" of the chapters threatens to overwhelm the argument, and occasionally I found myself wanting a quicker return to the Alice books themselves or a deeper extension of a particular reading, but instead I encountered another layer of history. In this way, however, the book reflects Carroll's own eclectic thinking, and its historical excursions seem a small price to pay for such a treasure trove of findings.
In exploring what she calls the "different forms of knowledge that ripple through [Carroll's] texts" (77), Beer fascinatingly reveals the untroubled permeability of the walls between disciplines and how much even seemingly competing discourses work in tandem. By locating Lewis Carroll among so many of his contemporaries, Beer demonstrates that they shared his transdisciplinary thinking and practices. In chapter two, for example, Beer argues that Carroll's contemporaries considered the "faculty of invention" compatible with the laws of logic: "Poetry, play, and mathematics," she tells us, "were recognized as closely allied at this period" (46). Indeed, the mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan argued, "All that is thinkable is possible. All that is impossible is unthinkable . . . We cannot know the impossibility of anything that we can conceive without contradiction" (qtd. Beer 48). By thus implying that even fantasy may assume a kind of logical reality, De Morgan laid the grounds for reconciling science and imagination.
Besides showing how the Alice books reflect the interdisciplinary thought of Carroll's contemporaries, Beer contends that his fictional world is radically egalitarian: if systems of knowledge are not stratified, neither are the child and the adult, nor the human and the animal. As Darwin's evolutionary theory upsets the stability of classification, Carroll, in turn, "dissolve[s] boundaries between species" (210) while also blurring the line between what's food and what's not (or more appropriately, who's food and who's not). In chapter four, Beer shows us how practitioners of different disciplines in Victorian England not only thought alike, but borrowed forms of expression from each other; their scientific dialogues, for example, are "larded with passages of poetry" (129), and Alice's conversations with herself reflect the pedagogical trend of learning through philosophical dialogue. Parody and allusion, which Beer treats in chapter three, work in a similarly dialogic way. By recalling a past text, the present text makes the production of meaning both "continuous and different" (85). For Carroll, even dreams can be as meaningful as reality. His dream-world, Beer contends, is not spectral, but material: a potentially autonomous world with its own systems of logic and order.
In the final chapter, Beer argues that the Alice books highlight not only the abstract but also the embodied: the space of and in Alice's body and mind, as well as her "growing and eating," which Beer links to larger discourses of food and etiquette. She also argues that for the child reader, the linguistic play--with its puns, homophones, and neologisms--re-enacts the oftentimes perplexing experience of learning to read, and besides reproducing the disorienting (and at times threatening) experience of growing up, the narrative re-creates Alice's bodily sensations, as when she reports that the "DRINK ME" drink had "a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast" (qtd. 226). The Alice books, Beer contends, aimed to create visceral experiences for their readers.
Likewise, by recalling the cultural conversations that the Alice books echo, Beer's book re-creates something of what Carroll's original readers felt. She juxtaposes, for instance, the Mock Turtle scene in Wonderland with a Victorian recipe for Mock Turtle soup. Its main ingredient is the Mock Turtle, whom Alice encounters in sentient (and literalized) form, and whom, as Beer points out, Tenniel draws with a calf's head:
Sir John Tenniel, The Gryphon and Mock-Turtle
Wood- Engraving by Dalziel (1865).
Image furnished by The Victorian Web
According to the recipe, the Mock Turtle must first be parboiled, then chilled, then trimmed ("particularly the cuticle about the mouth"), then "cut into pieces an inch square," and finally cooked in its stock which has been strained, de-greased, and clarified (237). Reading this protracted (and kind of sickening) recipe entails a double-take; even as it may turn our stomachs, it prompts us to reopen the book to discover what we missed.
Beer herself, however, seems to miss or at least suppress one important feature of the Alice books when she insists on the "absence of the erotic" (73) in them. Even her own comments on the text point to its presence. Alice, she writes, is a figure whom knights fight over (70), whose "body stretches and swells and contracts" (174), who is mistaken for "a serpent, a servant, a fading flower, a dream figment, a monster" (143), and a flower distinguished from another because her own "petals" are "tumbled about" (146). Even though Beer sometimes seems to insist that Alice is literally aged seven and that the books "dwell in childhood imagination" (249), they also signal the inevitable advancement of puberty. Beer's own extratextual evidence includes the incestuous cannibalism in the poems of the younger Dodgson; Lewis Carroll's dream of an "endoubled" female figure, "Polly as a child and Polly as a woman"; and "his delight in the company of young girls" (214), which "acknowledges mysteries that can never be broached" (223). Yet, Beer claims, "Alice undressed is not to be imagined" (146). How can this hold up when we well know that Carroll had at least several young girls undress before the camera and was deeply fascinated with Alice Liddell, in a relationship that was ultimately severed?
The friction implied by the Alice books between the Victorian investment in childhood innocence and pre-Freudian notions of childhood sexuality seems to exemplify just the sort of problem that Beer is pursuing in this book. Yet she ignores this particular problem. While she builds upon Melanie Bayley's studies of Victorian mathematics and Harriet Ritvo's work on animal studies and classification, and spends quite a while historicizing Deleuze's famous psychoanalytic reading of the Alice books (64), she overlooks scholarship on the erotic in Victorian representations of childhood, such as the studies of Kincaid and Mavor. Their work could be fruitfully complemented by the relational historicism that Beer produces here.
Nonetheless, this book achieves what it sets out to do. It "opens out the field of knowledge inhabited by our nineteenth-century contemporaries" and shows how the Alice books "have enough energy to keep making fresh associations" and "fresh spaces" (247). In doing so, the book inspires more work on Carroll's relation to his time. The looking glass, Beer suggests, is a mise-en-abyme providing "reflections" that "can continue into infinity" (171) and thus works in some ways like Beer's book itself. By showing how the multiple layers of Carroll's world reflect and reconfigure the culture of his time, Beer broadens and deepens the seemingly endless ways in which we can think, research, and write about the Alice books, and extends multiple pathways to do so. In this book, Beer brings to life the compelling power the Alice books have to signify and resignify, reigniting our desire to re-read them and renewing our sense of marvel at how much these books hold and how much we can do with them.
Donna Paparella teaches English literature and writing at Hunter College, CUNY and Barnard College, Columbia University.