Spirited and suspicious of authority, Lewis Carroll's greatest creation has much to teach us today, says Philip Hensher.
By Philip Hensher
Published: 6:50AM GMT 02 Mar 2010
A middle-class child, even one born in the 1960s, had one thing drilled into him or her. When a grown-up was good enough to entertain you as a guest, you produced a ritual phrase when you left: "Thank-you-for-having-me-I've-had-a-lovely-time." Possibly the same phrase survives, even now, among old-hat tendencies of parenthood.
So imagine the delight for a child when he read, in a book published 100 years before he was born, a seven-year-old heroine's thoughts on leaving a tea-party. "At any rate I'll never go there again. It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life."
The hosts – a Mad Hatter, a March Hare and a Dormouse – behave abominably, first offering their seven-year-old guest wine, and then telling her there isn't any. "Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it," Alice says, before an argument breaks out about who has behaved worse.
Even as a child, one could see that social encounters had rules, and that these were being joyously broken on every side. The two Alice books are wonderful rude assaults on propriety and authority, but they are now very old, and unquestionably somewhat demanding books. Have they gone into the sort of antiquity that a child will no longer understand or appreciate? Or do we need their spirit and clear-sightedness more than ever before?
Tim Burton's ferocious film of Alice, which opens this week, reminds us of the continuing life of these great classics. They have always been stage and film favourites. With their episodic structure, and numerous vivid walk-on parts, they have often been used to offer star actors cameo roles. In the Burton adaptation, Barbara Windsor is the Dormouse, Johnny Depp the Mad Hatter, Matt Lucas Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and so on.
In a celebrated television adaptation of 1966, Jonathan Miller cast Leo McKern as the Ugly Duchess, Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar and, unforgettably, Malcolm Muggeridge and John Gielgud as the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. These theatrical adaptations began in Lewis Carroll's lifetime. But what of the books – these often difficult, complicated books, full of abstruse philosophical ideas and learned vocabulary? They may no longer be children's books: they might never have been.
WH Auden, one of many serious admirers of the Alice books, wrote that there "are no good books which are only for children". Certainly, the ideas and reversals of logic in the books, as well as many of the allusions, sail right over children's heads. Probably not one reader in 10,000 now recognises what any of the many poems are parodying.
Alice, as well as being foul-tempered and exceedingly bossy, is a freakishly well-read seven-year-old, reflecting on what she had "so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials". Even she is bewildered by legal arguments about whether you could cut the Cheshire Cat's head off, seeing that there is no body to cut it off from, and learned discussions about whether "I say what I mean" is the same, in terms of logic, as "I mean what I say".
Students of logic have revelled, over the past 150 years, in that discussion, which takes place at the Mad Hatter's tea party. The founding text of linguistic semantics is Humpty Dumpty's assertion, in Through the Looking Glass, that "When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less," after Alice objects that "'Glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument.'" The books are on Humpty Dumpty's side in this argument, not on Alice's.
One of their main joys is in their fantastic punning. When the Mock Turtle says that they called the turtle who ran the school under the sea Tortoise – "We called him Tortoise because he taught us" – it will make even a small child laugh. The conger-eel who taught "Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils" may be one for the parents. This aspect of the books, and Humpty Dumpty's explanation of "Jabberwocky", inspired James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, and indeed allusions to Carroll run right through that austere masterpiece.
The books appeal to children because of their naughtiness, and their completely disrespectful attitude to anything resembling authority. Before Carroll, most literature written for children was heavily didactic and aimed at improving children. Alice is different. "I've a right to think," she says "sharply" to the Duchess, who is rather too keen on drawing absurd "morals", as pre-Carroll children's literature tended to: "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it." Alice speaks rudely to the Queen of Hearts, and when the Queen yells "Off with her head", deals with her by saying "Nonsense!"
Is Alice a cynic? Certainly, she takes a much more tough-minded view of the world she finds herself in than most modern child characters would be allowed to. When the Duchess's baby turns into a pig in her arms, she cold-heartedly abandons it, reflecting sensibly that "if it had grown up, it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think."
She contradicts queens to their faces. She is snobbishly amused that anyone should mistake her – Alice! – for a housemaid – "How surprised he'll be when he finds out who I am!" And the comedy in her conversation with the Caterpillar comes from both characters assuming, angrily, that the other ought to be answering to them.
Much of this high-handedness undoubtedly derives from Lewis Carroll's model, Alice Liddell, whose whole family was formidable, starting with her socially ambitious mother. When Alice in the book complacently anticipates a time "when I'm a duchess", there may be a dig at the Liddells, who invited and obtained the attendance of Prince Leopold at the wedding of their eldest daughter. It is not often remembered that Mrs Liddell had forbidden Charles Dodgson, the real mathematician and Christ Church don, the company of her daughters some years before the Alice books were written. Is there some resentment at exclusion, in addition to a well-advertised nostalgia, in these books?
Dodgson, these days, would undoubtedly be on the sex offenders register, with his enthusiasm for photographing naked little girls. His tastes were deplorable – the Liddell sisters could look after themselves, but the Victorian culture of artistic paedophilia destroyed many other lives, such as Ruskin's object of fantasy, Rose La Touche. Nevertheless, Dodgson's obsession with little girls does seem, unusually, to have had an empathetic side. The Alice books are full of a sardonic rage against authority when it is unaccountably and wilfully exerted, and the Red Queen is at once governess, mother and, as lawyers say, the Crown.
That hasn't dated one iota. In the 21st century, the authorities are insisting on their right to photograph us naked before allowing us to travel. They attempted to detain civilians for months on end without bringing any criminal charge. They hope to oblige us to carry identity cards to show to figures of authority, perhaps in case, like Alice on more than one occasion, we forget our own names.
They are behaving, in short, like Victorian governesses with their mantra "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Perhaps in the age of Guantánamo Bay, the Queen of Hearts's dictum "Sentence first – verdict afterwards" does not seem quite so evidently nonsensical as it did 100 years ago.
There are insistent political allusions in the Alice books, most famously when (in Tenniel's illustration) Disraeli and Gladstone appear in the railway carriage in Through the Looking Glass. But the most enduring of its messages is the one that says that power, exerted unjustly, can be countered by the word "Nonsense!", by the shaking of the Red Queen until she turns back into a kitten. That is a message which goes on having some significance to a small child being ordered about, as well as to a citizen in 2010.
The most subversive sentence in either Alice book is this: "'That's the judge,' she said to herself, 'because of his great wig.'" The logician, the unimpressed child, and the perpetrator of nonsense wonderfully join in that word "because"; and we see that a judge is just a man who has put a big wig on.
These books teach children that one day, they will step across a brook and find that a crown is, in the end, quite easily acquired with all its apparent authority and power. They can still teach the rest of us that, too.