Well the problem for me, anyway. Not for Martha Kearney whose TV documentary on Saturday explored The Secret World of Lewis Carroll. Nor for her interviewees, including Philip Pullman and Will Self, or the millions of other fans who’ve made sure the book’s stayed in print ever since its publication 150 years ago. With more than 20 TV and film adaptations, and its translation into 174 languages, there can’t be many strangers to the White Rabbit or the Mad Hatter.
All of which makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. I remember wanting to love the book when I first read it around the age of nine, and the excitement I felt coming across those already familiar characters. And while I liked some of the parts – the Cheshire cat disappearing from his grin, the dozy dormouse, the flamingo croquet mallets – I disliked the sum of the parts. To me it read like a cheese dream, a random cobbling of nasty little scenes where everyone is mocking or tricking or bullying everyone else. Call me a wuss but it left me cold if not shivering. I found the description of Alice swimming through her own pool of tears somehow revolting, not to mention the casually chilling transformation of the Duchess’s baby into a pig. Then there’s the Duchess herself, with her mood swing from the bully who advises Alice to ‘speak roughly to your little boy and beat him when he sneezes,’ to the friendly guest at the Queen of Hearts’ croquet party.
I’m sure Lewis Carroll was making clever points about how grown-ups can seem unpredictable to children, and playing brilliant little logic games, but they didn’t work for me as a child, and still don’t nearly forty years later. It’s not the ideas themselves – swimming through a pool of your own tears could be a wonderful image – it’s the way they’re put together. The book seems all head and no heart (though I do like some of the poems: How Doth the Little Crocodile, Father William and, from Through the Looking Glass, Jabberwocky and The Walrus and the Carpenter).
But I shouldn’t be too hard on Alice. It’s easy to criticise with hindsight, and I’m sure the book was miles ahead of its time. And it’s helped me to understand better what I’m looking for in a story: a mood or taste that comes not just from the words but also from the spaces between them. It’s the taste of Alice I can’t stomach. Not because it’s dated; A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of my favourite stories, along with Little Women, which was published 3 years after Alice.
One of the TV fans talked about Carroll‘s brilliant ability to get into the mind of a child. Not this one. And while we’re at it, what is ‘a child’? Isn’t s/he just a human with very small toes? I’ve never heard critics talk about getting into the mind of a grown-up. That’s presumably because every grown-up mind is different. Surely it’s the same for children. Some like Yorkie bars, some like Curly Wurlys. Some love Taylor Swift, some prefer Rihanna. Some love Alice in Wonderland, some love A Wrinkle in Time, some love them both. I love books with their hearts coming out of their ears. Like:
The King of the Copper Mountains (Paul Biegel)
The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
Flat Stanley (Jeff Brown)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Little House on the Prairie series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
And anything by Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, David Walliams, CS Lewis, Eva Ibbotson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Morris Gleitzman and lots more I can’t think of right now.
Can anyone tell me what I’m missing with Alice?