Still she haunts me, phantomwise.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 19, 2007 12:15 PM

So I'm an excellent example of the "marathon paper writer," as I started a paper at 11:00 or so Sunday morning and, with only three hours of breaks, finished at 4:00 this morning. What is that? Fourteen hours? Not bad for an eight-page research paper that I went through three thesis topics for because my sources couldn't support what I was trying to argue.

The paper was over Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there. My original argument was going to be about "themes of death" within Looking Glass - an easy enough topic, even if it was perfunctory and bland. But when I realized that I was going to have to write an eight page paper with sources supporting a very one-dimensional thesis, and that my grade was at stake if I chose to take the less work/less points approach. So I went to the polar opposite, claiming that Lewis Carroll was to the literary Alice as Charles L. Dodgson was to the real Alice - not creation-wise, but as far as narration and voice. My argument was that Charles Dodgson, the man, would break through the Carrollian façade. When he did, I was to write eloquently, he wasn't speaking the the literary Alice, but to the real child Alice he had befriended so long ago.

Basically, I went from one-dimensional to über-dimensional and gave myself a doctoral thesis in one fell swoop.

So I decided to still write about the breaking through of Dodgson in
Looking Glass, but I would write about his typically Victorian sentimentality. To give another dimension, I tied this to his cautionary voice in book, warning against the dangers of the world. I realized I had thinned my argument out again and limited what I could use.

Back to the drawing board I went at around 10:00 last night. I had written the first paragraph and also the passages I wanted to use, but that was it. I was frantic, because I knew I could very well stay up until my class at 9:00 this morning and not have the paper done. But then it hit me. I ran downstairs after I got out of the shower and fell upon my laptop in a typing fury. All in all, I changed about six words.

My original title-

The Fragility of Living in a Glass World:
Charles L. Dodgson's Subliminal Sentiment and Cautionary Wisdom in

Through the Looking Glass

transformed into -
The Fragility of Living in a Glass World:
Charles L. Dodgson's Subliminal Sentiment and the Passage of Time in
Through the Looking Glass

Oh and for the world of difference.

Carroll's tales are fraught with strangeness and absurdity, and he achieves much of this by toying with basic conceptions of time. But I'm not talking about Carroll the riddler, but Dodgson the sentimental fool who could not let go of his friendships with children, and was constantly rejected by them as they grew older.

Now the psychoanalyst will argue that this proves Dodgson was a classic case of Freudian sexual repression, and on that, I might agree. Dodgson went his entire life befriending children, mostly girls, and never married. But I would stop at accusing Dodgson of being a pedophile.

There's an anachronistic tendency to point to Dodgson friendships and odd hobbies, such as his taking photographs of nude girls, as pedophilia. This is a good way to quickly misunderstand the Victorian era. It was contradictory and obsessive. Charles Dodgson was probably no more a pedophile than the average man or woman (which I would hope means that he wasn't). Victorians were obsessed with innocence - especially men to girls. When they are young, girls seem sexless as opposed to boys, whose sex is obvious when nude. That's why boys were not often used in nude photography because, as innocent as they were, their purpose, their
vitality, if you will, was outward, and girls' sexuality was inward and contained. Even with all of this talk of sex and perfection, Victorians were surprisingly prudish about it, and often didn't believe it should be mentioned - whether in polite company or not.

It's an incredibly strange era with its high ideals and romantic ideology. Let me make this clear -
I do not agree with this practice, but I feel it's necessary to defend Dodgson from so easily being singled out as a pedophile when he was one of many Victorian period English men who sought this kind of perfection in children.

But this isn't to say Dodgson didn't love Alice as he might have a life companion, and I have found many scholars agree. He was especially fond of her, and wrote of her and to her often. His continued love of her may stem from the fact that his most famous works that made him successful and wealthy were written about, dedicated to, and titled after her. Even if he would have tried to avoid his feelings for Alice, he would have been hardpressed to find a refuge from his work and her name.

There are about four different passages within Alice that are unmistakably the voice of Dodgson and his longing for days past and a lament on the cruelty of time. Here are a few, with contextual introductions from my paper, for you to see. However, it is certainly in a reader's best interest to read these magnificent works of literature, and see what evidence there is (or isn't) for herself.

In Looking Glass, Dodgson’s admiration of children, especially for Alice, can be heard within the first words of the book, which are written as a poem:

Child of the pure unclouded brow

And dreaming eyes of wonder!

Though time be fleet, and I and thou

Are half a life asunder,

Thy loving smile will surely hail

The love-gift of a fairy-tale.

In the last stanza, Dodgson’s sentiment is unmistakable:

And, though the shadow of a sigh

May tremble through the story,

For “happy summer days” gone by,

And vanish’d summer glory-

It shall not touch, with breath of bale,

The pleasance of our fairy-tale

It is probably no small coincidence that “pleasance” was mentioned in the last line, as it was

Alice’s middle name.

Perhaps one of the most obvious passages dealing with both sentiment and time is within the Looking Glass chapter “Wool and Water,” when Alice and the Sheep are in the rowboat, and Alice has reached for the rushes:

What mattered it to her just then that the rushes had begun to fade, and lose all their scent and beauty, form the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while –and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet –but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about.

In the chapter “It’s My Own Invention,” Alice finally meets the White Knight, who is so very transparently Dodgson. This chapter is the most allegorical of Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson’s personalities and relationship. The White Knight is portrayed as kindly, clumsy but well-intentioned, and eccentric. The most revealing passage Dodgson writes in Looking Glass is before the White Knight sings his song for Alice:

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through The Looking-Glass, this was the one she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday – the mild blue eyes and the kindly smile of the Knight – the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her…. All this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shading her eyes, she leant against a tree…. listening, in a half-dream to the melancholy music of the song.

But the most poignant lies after the song when the White Knight and Alice must part:

“You’ve only a few yards to go,” he said, “down the hill and over that little brook, and then you’ll be a Queen—But you’ll stay and see me off first?” he added as Alice turned with an eager look in the direction to which he pointed. “I sha’n’t be long. You’ll wait and wave your handkerchief when I get to that turn in the road? I think it’ll encourage me you see.”

“Of course I’ll wait,” said Alice: “and thank you very much for coming so far – and for the song – I liked it very much."

“I hope so,” the Knight said doubtfully: “but you didn’t cry so much as I thought you would.

Based on the evidence I posted above, my conclusion is that Dodgson thought of the real Alice as a friend and as someone who could have chosen to spend her life with him. Dodgson's sentimentality is a mix between love and admiration for the child Alice. Curiously (or perhaps predictably), Dodgson's affections are almost always directed at the Alice that was, not the Alice that (would have been an) is.

No one has said it as poignantly as Donald Rackin in "Love and Death in Carroll's Alices":

The fleeting love that whispers through this scene is, therefore, complex and paradoxical: it is a love between a child all potential, freedom, flux, and growing up and a man all impotence, imprisonment, stasis, and falling down.

After all, from the beginning of Looking-Glass, Alice is meant to become a queen. This was set in motion far before she ever came across the White Knight. He was but a character in her story, in her dream, and, as dreams do, he was bound to fade from her.

The line in the title of this post is from the closing poem of Through the Looking Glass. It is in the midst of a poem commemorating the day that he began telling the story that became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He is remembering Alice as a little girl who would have been a young woman by the time he had written it. Already he had been left behind while in the throes of remembrance.

To close this entry, I'll quote from my paper again to give my final thoughts on Dodgson:

[It] speaks to the bittersweet emotion of yesterday’s memory long past and irretrievable to the man who wants them desperately.... [However] she was not to be stopped, and the White Knight is simply a casualty of her magnetic presence. The parallel is striking, as Dodgson always knew that Alice would grow older, and that she would ultimately leave him behind for those things she had always been destined. He was, after all, just a childhood friend.

2 Response to "Still she haunts me, phantomwise."

Sarah Says:

Fascinating foray into a life unlike and yet so similar to our own. Maybe it isn't accepted to take nude pictures of little girls, but the idea of trying to explore innocence never leaves. I think that your paper (finally) was probably terrific. :)

Jenny Woolf Says:

Thank you for a very interesting article.

I have just delivered the manuscript of a biography of Carroll. In it, I have considered some of the points you made. They are very good ones but I think you may find if you look more closely that the Alice of the books was not the Alice he wrote the story about.

Many people have noticed that Alice Liddell had short dark hair, whereas Dodgson was adamant that the Alice of the books should have long fair hair. This is an extremely obvious difference and yet it is surprising how often it is overlooked. Perhaps one of the reasons why it is overlooked is that Dodgson never commented on it himself.

Having been immersed in Dodgson for more than 2 years, I have discovered that he always meant what he said, but often failed to say what he meant.

So although he may never have told anyone why he wanted the Alice of the book NOT to be Alice Liddell, it is extremely unlikely that he did not have a specific reason for instructing Tenniel to draw someone different from her.

I've looked into this in my book, (which is as yet a few months from publication) but what do you think?

Jenny Woolf

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