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The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England


The following essay first appeared in Knight Letter, the journal of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, Volume II, Issue 11, Number 81 (Winter 2008). We include it here – in a slightly shortened form – as an example of how The Age of Alice touches writers today.

The Invisible Teacher

By Nancy Willard

Every writer has his or her own way of learning to write. And there are two kinds of teachers. First, there are the visible teachers, who stand before us in the classroom, read our work, point out our strengths and weaknesses, and challenge us to write better. Second, there are the invisible teachers, those writers from whom we learn, quite unconsciously, what we may not use for years, until we need it. For me, that writer was Lewis Carroll. Before I tell you what he taught me, let me say a few words about how I happened to find him.

The rambling old house I grew up in was full of books, many of them left by the previous owner of the house, who had bought them to fill his empty shelves so that he would appear at least as well educated as his neighbors. Among the Victorian poetry anthologies with their pages still uncut and the beautifully bound sets of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, I found a treatise on the human body written for the young, which claimed that all my bodily functions were governed by magic dwarves. One dwarf inhabited my liver, another lived in the chambers of my heart. If I had a stomach ache, I could be certain that the dwarf who occupied my intestines was throwing a tantrum. An illustration showed him scattering gumdrops and chocolates still wrapped in foil, like a maddened child.

It was on one of these bookshelves in our house that I first met Lewis Carroll. I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on a summer’s day, when I was eight years old, curled up on our back porch in Ann Arbor, and I had just reached chapter four and was reading quietly to myself until I came to the following passage:

  “Now tell me, Pat, what’s that in the window?”
  “Sure, it’s an arm, yer honour!” (He pronounced it “arrum.”)
  “An arm, you goose! Who ever heard of one that size?
Why, it fills the whole window!”
  “Sure, it does, yer honour: but it’s an arm for all that.”
  “Well, it’s got no business there, at any rate: go and take it away!”
  There was a long silence after this, and Alice could only hear
whispers now and then; such as “Sure, I don’t like it, yer honour, at all, at all!” “Do as I tell you, you coward!” and at last she spread out her hand again and made another snatch in the air. This time there were two little shrieks, and more sounds of broken glass. “What a number of cucumber-frames there must be!” thought Alice. “I wonder what they’ll do next! As for pulling me out of the window, I only wish they could! I’m sure I don’t want to stay in here any longer!”

She waited for some time without hearing anything more: at last came a rumbling of little cartwheels, and the sound of a good many voices all talking together: she made out the words: “Where’s the other ladder?—Why, I hadn’t to bring but one. Bill’s got the other— Bill! Fetch it here, lad!—Here, put ’em up at this corner—No, tie ’em together first—they don’t reach half high enough yet—Oh, they’ll do well enough. Don’t be particular—Here, Bill! Catch hold of this rope—Will the roof bear?—Mind that loose slate—Oh, it’s coming down! Heads below!” (a loud crash)—“Now, who did that?—It was Bill, I fancy—Who’s to go down the chimney?—Nay, I shan’t! You do it!—That I won’t, then!—Bill’s got to go down—Here, Bill! The master says you’ve got to go down the chimney!”

“Oh! So Bill’s got to come down the chimney, has he?” said Alice to herself. “Why, they seem to put everything upon Bill! I wouldn’t be in Bill’s place for a good deal; this fireplace is narrow, to be sure; but I think I can kick a little.”

By this time I was laughing so hard that my mother came out to see if there was somebody with me. In all my reading of fantasy and fairy tales, never before had I come across a scene which included dialogue that was so strongly rooted in everyday speech. The speakers did not talk like characters in a fairy tale, they talked like real people. And only much later did I notice something even more remarkable: Carroll accurately reproduces the experience of hearing a group of people all talking at once.

Tenniel’s illustrations give us the pleasure of seeing the characters. But what made them come alive on the page for me was their voices, including the conversations that Alice had with herself as she fell down the rabbit hole. Since both my sister and I often talked to ourselves after our mother put us to bed and turned off the light, this did not seem to me so much a literary device as a realistic one. So you might say that one of the first lessons my invisible teacher showed me was the power of dialogue to tell a story.

Long before I even knew what dialogue was, I was drawn to stories written in such a way that I felt a real person was speaking to me. Indeed, some of my favorite writers were also storytellers. You have only to look at the opening sentence of “The Snow Queen” to know that Hans Christian Andersen was accustomed to telling stories to a gathering of listeners that he did not necessarily know: “All right, we will start the story; when we come to the end we shall know more than we do now.” In the notes he wrote on his own work, Andersen says, “I wanted the style to be such that the reader felt in the presence of the storyteller; therefore the spoken language had to be used. I wrote the stories for children, but older people ought to find them worth listening to.”[1]

Carroll’s audience was entirely different. He knew the children to whom he told the stories. These occasions were a private gathering, not a public event, and he did not feel the need to create the voice of a storyteller, and therefore when he includes remarks addressed to the listener, the tone he uses is far more intimate, suitable for a drawing room. Everyone will remember Alice’s reflections as she falls down the rabbit hole. She rehearses what she might say to the first person she meets, and she tries to curtsey. “Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand or Australia?” At this point the author breaks into the narrative with a challenge for the reader: “… fancy, curtseying as you’re falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?”

Having read in the etiquette books about the importance of a well-executed curtsey, I felt great sympathy for Alice.

Carroll’s asides to the reader not only bring us into the circle of listeners but they also give Carroll the chance to tell us more about Alice than she can directly tell us herself. You remember her attempt, as she is swimming in the pool of tears, to enlist the aid of a mouse. “O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!”

Carroll follows this with an aside, which like so many of the remarks he addresses to the reader, opens with a parenthesis:

(Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen, in her brother’s Latin Grammar, “A mouse—of a mouse—to a mouse—a mouse— O mouse!”) The mouse looked at her rather inquisitively, and seemed to her to wink with one of its little eyes, but it said nothing.

Many years after I’d first read AAIW, I took a course in eighteenth-century literature, and found when I read the fiction of Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding that I was already very familiar with their technique of interrupting the narrative with asides to the reader. Lewis Carroll had taught me well. I did not realize until I grew up that what Carroll was really teaching me was the art of conversation as a storytelling device. In the opening sentence of AAIW, Alice’s response to her sister’s book makes its importance clear: “what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” The old etiquette books in our house had a great deal to say on the subject of conversation, and indeed there was one book, What to Talk About: The Clever Question, entirely devoted to the subject. The preface described conversation as the art of drawing people together through a common interest in a variety of subjects. A good conversationalist does not talk excessively about himself.

Alice is especially conscious of this art whenever she encounters a stranger who has no regard for it, as in the opening of chapter five:

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice,

“Who are you?” asked the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Even less encouraging is Alice’s encounter with the White Queen in chapter five of Through the Looking-Glass. The White Queen has lost her shawl and Alice catches it and also catches sight of the Queen running through the woods. Alice goes to meet her with the shawl.

“I’m very glad I happened to be in the way,” Alice said, as she helped her to put on her shawl again. The White Queen only looked at her in a helpless frightened sort of way, and kept repeating something in a whisper to herself that sounded like “Bread-and-butter, bread-and-butter,” and Alice felt that if there was to be any conversation at all, she must manage it herself. So she began rather timidly: “Am I addressing the White Queen?”

“Well, yes, if you call that adressing,” the Queen said. “It isn’t my notion of the thing, at all.”

Alice thought it would never do to have an argument at the very beginning of their conversation, so she smiled and said, “If your Majesty will only tell me the right way to begin, I’ll do it as well as I can.”

In both the Alice books, the plot is not a series of events that keep us in suspense but rather Alice’s conversations with a cast of characters unlike any she—or the reader—has ever met. When the White Rabbit makes his appearance muttering, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Carroll hints in a parenthetical comment that the story he’s about to tell might be a dream: “when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural.” And in TTLG, when Alice finds herself dancing around in a ring with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the narrative briefly fastforwards to beyond the end of the story.

“But it certainly was funny,” (Alice said afterwards, when she was telling her sister the history of all this), “to find myself singing ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush.’ ’’

The scene ends with a query about the etiquette of conversation. Tweedledum and Tweedledee have suddenly stopped dancing.

Then they let go of Alice’s hands, and stood looking at her for a minute: there was a rather awkward pause, as Alice didn’t know how to begin a conversation with people she had just been dancing with. “It would never do to say ‘How d’ye do?’ now,” she said to herself: “we seem to have got beyond that, somehow.”

Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, we have all had the experience of eavesdropping on casual conversations. Lewis Carroll takes casual conversation to a new level, because his characters see conversation as a kind of game. They know the rules. Even when Alice is conversing with herself, she has a respect for facts and a curiosity that allows her to speculate on where she is and who she has become.

“I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think—” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “—yes, that’s about the right distance—but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice had not the slightest idea of what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.)

Falling down the rabbit hole with no notion of where you will land would terrify all of us. There are plenty of fairy tales in which characters find themselves falling into underground chambers, and the sense of danger is overwhelming. But two things defuse that fear here. The first is Alice’s level-headed response to the dangers of the unknown. The second is the reassuring presence of the storyteller himself. We hear his voice in his asides to the reader, reminding us that he is in charge of these events. And we are not surprised when at last we read “suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over. Alice was not a bit hurt…”

What’s remarkable about the Alice books is the number of alarming situations Carroll introduces and skillfully turns into events both curious and comic. When the Queen of Hearts shouts, “Off with their heads,” the order is never carried out, because this is child’s play. Alice knows this when she meets the Queen and says to herself, “Why, they’re only a pack of cards, after all. I needn’t be afraid of them!” The repeated image of games, whether croquet or chess or riddles, reminds us that the storyteller is in control here, not the Queen. But the Queen of Hearts is as mild as a kitten compared to the Jabberwock. We know that Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock was intended to be the frontispiece of the book, but Carroll had second thoughts about it. I quote from the letter he sent to about thirty mothers, soliciting their opinions:

I am sending you, with this, a print of the proposed frontispiece for Through the Looking-glass. It has been suggested to me that it is too terrible a monster, and likely to alarm nervous and imaginative children; and that at any rate we had better begin the book with a pleasanter subject. So I am submitting the question to a number of friends, for which purpose I have had copies of the frontispiece printed off.[2]

There are a number of ways Carroll creates a comfortable distance between his monster and those nervous and imaginative children. Take, for example, his vocabulary. The nonsense vocabulary of “Jabberwocky” does not impede the action, it protects us and diverts us from the gory details. Alice’s response to the whiffling burbling fire-eyed Jabberwock and its demise is a model of common sense: “… somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate—.” Second, the monster exists only on the pages of the book Alice holds up to the mirror. It is not rampaging around the garden of live flowers. Third, the Jabberwock has been tamed by the meter and stanzas of the poem in which he lives. If you can sing it, clap it, or recite it, you have conquered the Jabberwock.

One advantage of using conversation as a narrative device is the opportunity to include poetry. When Tweedledee entertains Alice with a recitation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” he is surely aware that the death of the oysters at the hands, paws, and jaws of the Walrus and the Carpenter is not a pleasant tale, but this aspect goes almost unnoticed when sung or recited in a poem. When my son was very young, we had a recording of TTLG read by Cyril Ritchard, and we played it so often that I could not get certain stanzas and phrases out of my head.

‘A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
  ‘Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
  Are very good indeed—
Now, if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
  We can begin to feed.’

When my son was little, I used to read aloud to him every night. And what did I read to him? The books I had loved as a child. If I had not reread the book since my own childhood, I would ask myself, before I read it to him, what scenes or characters I remembered. Later I would ask myself what scenes I’d forgotten. The scenes and characters I never forgot told me something about what makes a good children’s book. Since I have never stopped reading the Alice books, I have to ask myself the question differently. What scenes or chapters did you reread over and over when you were a child? That question is easy to answer: the third chapter in TTLG, called “Looking-Glass Insects.” The extended conversation between Alice and the Gnat raises a question that probably very few of us have ever thought to ask: Why do insects have names?

“What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where
you come from?” the Gnat inquired.
  “I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained,
“because I’m rather afraid of them— at least the large kinds.
But I can tell you the names of some of them.”
  “Of course they answer to their names?” the
Gnat remarked carelessly.
  “I never knew them to do it.”
  “What’s the use of their having names,” the
Gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”
  “No use to them,” said Alice, “but it’s useful
to the people that name them, I suppose. If
not, why do things have names at all?”

Learning the names of animals and flowers and stars was certainly familiar to me as a child. My father was a professor of chemistry with a strong interest in the natural world, especially butterflies, minerals, and fossils, and much of his pleasure came from identifying them. Because my father was a great deal older than my mother, and because my sister and I were born very late in his life, he did not relate easily to small children. One way I could get his attention was by sharing his passion for identifying things. Identifying a butterfly meant naming it. Swallowtail. Monarch. Mourning Cloak. Painted Lady. Skipper. Naming it did not help you to see or admire the butterfly, only to recognize it. But if you could identify it, you could begin to understand its place in the natural order of things.

So the question-and-answer conversation between Alice and the Gnat was familiar to me. Having warned Alice that further on in the wood things have no names (notice that he does not say lose their names), he urges her to “go on with your list of insects: you’re wasting time.” Alice names three common insects, but the Gnat’s description of their exotic equivalents in the Looking-glass world suggests that looking-glass insects were invented by human hands and are entirely dependent on human activities. Here is the conversation between Alice and the Gnat. (I have omitted the comments on what Alice is thinking):

Alice: Well, there’s the Horse-fly.

Gnat: All right. Half-way up that bush, you’ll see a Rocking-horse-fly, if you look. It’s made entirely of wood, and gets about by swinging itself from branch to branch.

Alice: What does it live on?

Gnat: Sap and sawdust. Go on with the list.

Alice: And there’s the Dragon-fly.

Gnat: Look on the branch above your head, and there you’ll find a Snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plumpudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.

Alice: And what does it live on?

Gnat: Frumenty and mince-pie.

Alice: And then there’s the Butterfly.

Gnat: Crawling at your feet, you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

Alice: And what does it live on?

Gnat: Weak tea with cream in it.

The tone of this exchange is academic, rather like an oral exam. When I was a child, its impersonal scientific tone inspired me to make a little guide book to the fauna of the looking-glass world, in case I ever did find a way of getting there. In the meantime, I had a great longing to construct some of these insects so I could see them for myself. The bread and butter and tea and a lump of sugar would be easy to assemble, but the plum-pudding and holly and the raisin burning in brandy could only be had at Christmas, and I was pretty sure that frumenty, whatever that was, was not available in Ann Arbor.

Carroll locates the wood where things have no names not far from the tree under which the conversation with the gnat has taken place, and the description is brief: “it looked much darker than the last wood.” Because Alice is fond of talking to herself, the reader sees through her eyes the experience of names disappearing. And here is how she describes it:

“Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the—into the—into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the— under the—under this, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it’s got no name—why, to be sure it hasn’t!”

Alice’s experience here is quite unlike the inability to remember a name that many older people experience. A name that slips from your memory is still there, and what can’t be immediately called up will eventually return. But entering the wood where things have no names is a different kind of loss. It is as if the air itself cannot hold the names. The wood has made all the inhabitants equal, and with their names erased, conventional ways of seeing each other have also vanished. As Carroll describes it, the human child and the fawn are walking in a kind of Eden, where the lion lies down with the lamb. It is Alice’s response to all this that hides the dark side of the woods.

Earlier I mentioned Carroll’s skill at walking a fine line between what might amuse children and what would almost certainly terrify them. It’s likely that many children would prefer to face the Jabberwock than find themselves lost and alone in a familiar place that has suddenly turned hostile. I discovered George Macdonald at about the same time I discovered Lewis Carroll, and will never forget the scene in The Princess and the Goblin in which the princess Irene loses her way in her own home. We are told that she opened a door which showed her

a curious old stair of worm-eaten oak, which looked as if never any one had set foot upon it. She had once before been up six steps, and that was sufficient reason, in such a day, for trying to find out what was at the top of it.

Up and up she ran—such a long way it seemed to her! until she came to the top of the third flight. There she found the landing was the end of a long passage. Into this she ran. It was full of doors on each side. There were so many of them that she did not care to open any, but ran on to the end, where she turned into another passage, also full of doors. When she had turned twice more, and still saw doors and only doors about her, she began to get frightened. It was so silent! And all those doors must hide rooms with nobody in them! That was dreadful. Also the rain made a great trampling noise on the roof. She turned and started at full speed, her little footsteps echoing through the sounds of the rain—back for the stairs and her safe nursery. So she thought, but she had lost herself long ago. It doesn’t follow that she was lost, because she had lost herself, though.

She ran for some distance, turned several times, and then began to be afraid. Very soon she was sure that she had lost the way back. Rooms everywhere, and no stair!… Nothing but passages and doors everywhere! She threw herself on the floor, and began to wail and cry.[3]

At first glance, this scene has a good deal in common with the room at the bottom of the rabbit hole in which Alice finds herself.

… she jumped up on to her feet in a moment: she looked up, but it was all dark over-head: before her was another long passage, and the White Rabbit was still in sight, hurrying down it. There was not a moment to be lost: away went Alice like the wind, and was just in time to hear it say, as it turned a corner, “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” She was close behind it when she turned the corner, but the Rabbit was no longer to be seen: she found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof.

There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked, and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.

Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass: there was nothing on it but a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first idea was that this might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!

Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw.

The difference here is not so much in the details of place as in the reactions of the characters to their new surroundings. In Macdonald’s story it is the emptiness and the silence which frighten the princess. She is, it seems, the only living thing in this place and there is no one who can help her. Alice’s circumstances are more complicated. Having drunk the contents of the bottle she finds on the table, she shrinks to a height of ten inches and is unable to reach the golden key. Though she weeps with frustration, she pulls herself together. “Come, there’s no use in crying like that!” said Alice to herself, rather sharply. “I advise you to leave off this minute.”

What follows is a comment from the author, which interrupts the narrative and defuses the sense of isolation and helplessness:

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.

The underlying subject here is the power of play, both formal, as with cards and croquet, and make-be-lieve, or pretending. It’s Carroll’s way of reminding the reader there is a way out, and Alice has already found it. She will find it again in the first chapter of TTLG, when, addressing herself to her cat, she wishes that she could get into the Looking-glass house.

“Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—.” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt way, just like a bright silvery mist.

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.

So far we’ve talked mostly about what I learned from Carroll about writing narrative. But teachers know that what our students learn from us is not always what we set out to teach them.

Now let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, when I was eight years old, I was afraid of the dark. My sister and I had identical mirrors in our bedrooms, which our mother had chosen for us. The mirrors were circular and so large that I could see almost, but not quite, my entire little bedroom in it. Alice’s sentiments in TTLG were very close to mine when she remarked, “I can see all of it when I get upon a chair— all but the bit just behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit!” I never paid much attention to the mirror during the day—after all, I didn’t need a glass to tell me what I looked like. But at night the sweep of lights from passing cars seemed to light the reflected room from the inside. And I had heard stories of people who, looking into a mirror at night, saw not their own reflections but the faces of the dead. What better place for a ghost to dwell than that little bit of the looking-glass room I couldn’t see?

My mother reminded me there were both good ghosts and scary ones. She often spoke of a night, the week after her own mother’s funeral, she felt someone pulling the covers over her shoulder, and when she opened her eyes she saw the ghost of her mother standing at her bedside. She shook my father awake.

“Mother’s in the room with us.”
My father was a man of good sense.
“If it’s your mother she won’t hurt you. Go back to sleep.”

The only person I could think of who knew about mirrors from the inside and could help me was Alice, who, unfortunately, was only a character in a story. This Alice was not a real person. Of course Lewis Carroll was a real person, but I didn’t even know what he looked like. But did that really matter? Hadn’t he taught me that the way out was only the other side of the way in? Just before she jumped through the looking-glass, didn’t Alice say, “Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it”? Let’s pretend—Let’s pretend—I knew those words long before I’d read AAIW. Those were the words I needed to make me believe that nothing in the mirror could harm me. Night after night, as I dropped off to sleep, how comforting it was to think of Lewis Carroll, standing in the bit of my looking-glass room hidden from view, forever invisible to me but present nevertheless, watching over me and keeping his eye on the dark.


  1. Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, translated by Erik Christian Haugaard, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1974: “The Snow Queen,” p. 234, and “Notes for My Fairy Tales and Stories,” p. 1071. Back
  2. Note 32 on Chapter 1, Through the Looking-Glass, in The Annotated Alice, introduction and notes by Martin Gardner, Forum Books, The World Publishing Company, 1960. (All quotations from the Alice books are taken from The Annotated Alice.) Back
  3. The Princess and the Goblin, Strahan and Co,1872, reprinted, David McKay Company, 1920, pp. 15-17. Back