Only Connect ~ Banning Alice

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70One of my local Oxfam Bookshops has started to host a fortnightly session with a local author.  Last week it was Gaynor Arnold whose first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, was nominated for both the Booker and the Orange prizes.  However, the book she chose to talk about last Wednesday was the more recent After Such Kindness which I reviewed here. As you may know, this novel is centred around the relationship between Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, although the names are changed and Arnold is actually exploring considerably more than simply that one friendship.  After she had talked about the book and read various extracts the conversation opened up and the first topic raised was whether or not, in the light of Dodgson’s reputation, we should be giving copies of Alice in Wonderland to today’s children.

Yes, it took my breath as well – at least it did until I realised that this is only the same conversation that we were having some days back about whether we should allow what we know about modern authors to colour our response to current works.  The general tenor of that discussion seemed to be that while in general people felt that we shouldn’t be swayed by personality there were times when we just couldn’t help it.  Should Lewis Carroll be one of those occasions?

Well, the thought of denying anyone the delights of the world of Wonderland or the realm on the other side of the Looking Glass distresses me no end, especially as there is nothing in the books which reflects any of the anxieties that have been voiced about Dodgson’s behaviour where small girls were concerned.  But the woman who raised the question clearly thought otherwise.  Perhaps there was something in her own background that prompted her response; I have no way of knowing.

As we chewed this over we found ourselves considering several factors.  First, of course, there is the temporal distance.  Dodgson is not a modern author who can be thought of as attempting to sway current opinion in favour of any views he might or might not have held. We are not going to see him popping up on our televisions to advocate photographing young girls in suggestive poses.

That temporal distance is also relevant when we think of changing attitudes towards women in general.  As I said when I reviewed After Such Kindness, Arnold is not primarily interested in the Dodgson/Liddell relationship but rather she is looking at it in the light of

all the other men who see Daisy as simply a puppet put on this earth that they might further their own desires through her regardless of the damage that she thereby suffers. This is true of her father, of her husband and eventually even of the eminent doctor who is supposed to be helping her.

Dodgson’s actions pale into insignificance when compared with some of the other mistreatment that Daisy, the Alice character, suffers at the hands of men who should be far more concerned about her welfare.  While attitudes towards women still have some way to go I hope we have moved on a distance compared with our Victorian forebears.

One other very interesting response, however, was whether this was a relevant issue, given that the Alice books don’t really appeal to children.  Rather they are among those children’s classics that now-a-days we only come to appreciate fully as adults, when we are more capable of recognising the sophisticated linguistic humour with which they are charged.  I know this was true for me where Winnie-the-Pooh was concerned and I have a suspicion that the same applied to Alice.

Now, I don’t have children to be able to say if this would be the case today but I do know that Alice was not a book I ever chose to read to any of the classes I taught.  However, having said that, I don’t remember ever reading any of the classics to children.  I was always busy introducing them to modern authors in the hope that having enjoyed one of their books the children would then go out and look for others as those writers continued in their careers.  So, I wonder what your memories are in relation to this.  And, if you do have young children in your sphere at present what are their reactions to Alice?  Is it a book they read with pleasure or do they put it to one side because its real worth pass them by?

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30 thoughts on “Only Connect ~ Banning Alice

  1. I know that I read Alice as a child but have no real memory other than of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and a sense that I enjoyed it. I’ve since read it several times as an adult and found it to be both very funny and erudite. I think it would be a shame not to introduce children to the book – as you say, there’s nothing in it to indicate Dodgson’s proclivities.

    1. It’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that stays with me as well, Susan. Is this because I love nothing better than afternoon tea, or do I love afternoon tea because of the Tea Party. I suppose this will remain as obtuse as all the other riddles asked at the wonderful literary event.

  2. It’s such a tricky area, and maybe a question of degree? I could never, for example, listen to music by lostprophets. But there is a distance from Alice and it’s easier to divorce the author from the story.The loss of Alice from the literary canon would be just awful.

    1. Yes it would Karen, wouldn’t it and I think the distance is a deciding factor. I have no idea who lost prophets are so I’m off now to look them up 🙂

      1. You don’t want to look up lostprophets – they’re a band my kids used to like whose lead singer was convicted of terrible things. They’re persona non grata in our house now.

  3. I loved Alice as a kid, especially the linguistic stuff–oddly (or perhaps aptly) it was the mathematical and logical content that escaped me as a child! But I do find the Dogson/Alice Liddell relationship a bit…well…dodgy (pardon the pun.) I understand that adult men and female children’s relationships were construed differently in the past than they are now; Francis Kilvert’s diaries, in which he repeatedly “falls in love” with little girls in a not-specifically-sexual-but-still-quite-sensual way are a good example of the historical distance between Then and Now, for me. But Dodgson does seem to occupy a slightly less innocent space–I think it’s the naked photographing. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in the books that seems sexually predatory to me, so I wouldn’t consider them candidates for removal from reading lists.

    1. One of the points that Arnold made, Elle, was that when asked none of the dozens of little girls that Dodgson had befriended had a bad word to say about him so perhaps the difficulties are all in the eyes of adult beholders. But I agree, the photography does leave a nasty taste.

      1. Yeah–it’s one of those bits of history that I *wish* I could have been a fly on the wall for, just to see what actually *happened*.

  4. Fascinating question. I do think that the distance which exists now between the author and the stories of Alice make an enormous difference to how we feel about the books now. I think denying children Alice would be a crying shame.

      1. I don’t think so. The language is a little difficult and old fashioned for EAL children. We have some versions of the books which the children read themselves.

  5. I enjoyed it as a child and my two boys rather liked both the Alice books as well – I think that’s the puzzle and mathematical aspect of it which appealed, the nonsense rhymes. They also put on a play of Alice and my older son played the Mad Hatter (and had a great time watching the film with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter). It’s like the Shakespeare plays – so many different interpretations.

    1. I think that may be the nub of the matter, that there are so many possible interpretations and some children find that difficult. I’m glad your boys enjoyed it, though.

  6. Well, my granddaughter not only read it, but liked it so much she had an ‘Alice’ party for her birthday one year – I drew the Cheshire Cat for the kids to pin the tail on the cat. And I wouldn’t like to think children were deprived of the innocent pleasure of reading the Alice books (which I loved and read over and over again).

    1. I think if you get the ‘Alice’ bug you really do get it. I have a friend like that. Whole rooms in her house are dedicated to it.

  7. I don’t remember reading Alice, but my father brought home a beautiful edition of Through the Looking Glass (a present from a trip) when I was seven or eight. I loved that story, and still prefer it to Alice – and I still have the book. I was thinking of Francis Kilvert as well, as I was reading this. I don’t think Dodgson’s behavior is any reason to restrict or ban the books, since as others have said, there is nothing in the books themselves.

    1. Yes, Lisa, Kilvert was mentioned in the discussion as well. I too preferred ‘Through the Looking Glass’. Particularly the Anglo-Saxon messenger with his Anglo-Saxon attitudes. I didn’t like then, and don’t like now, the thought of a dormouse in my teapot!

  8. How intriguing – but isn’t this almost exactly the same situation as your book club, when one member disliked the author of a book and told you all not to read it? As I said then, I’m not for banning books over issues that concern the author’s character.

    1. Pam didn’t tell us not to read it, what she said was that she had difficulty reading it because of her experience of the author. The woman in the Alice discussion was being much more sweeping.

  9. We read Alice and Through the Looking Glass out loud to our kids, and they both liked them very much, especially the bits of poetry. My daughter, who is more of a rereader, reread them as an older teen.

    1. I wonder if reading them out loud is a very different experience, Jeanne, especially as you have an adult their to help you negotiate any difficult bits?

  10. I would think so. We could read out loud to them things that they couldn’t yet read on their own. I don’t remember that many questions about Alice or TTLG but there probably were some.

  11. I read bits of Alice when I was a kid and watched a movie of it other than the Disney one. I didn’t like it much. Sure there were bits I did like, the rabbit, the eat me/drink me, but for the most part it scared me. The Red Queen and Tweedle Dee and Dum gave me nightmares. When I finally read Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as an adult, I loved them both. Not sure I’d give the books to a child to read. A teenager, sure, but under ten, only a more Disney version.

    1. I think more children are scared by Alice than we realise, Stefanie. As adults we tend to put our own appreciation onto our expectations of what our children will like and perhaps give the book to them sooner than some are ready for.

  12. My daughter is five; last year she came across the Disney cartoon of Alice (!) and she loved it. We’ve read bits of the book, but I think it’s still a bit too difficult for her. Interestingly, she wasn’t interested in reading it chronologically, but in picking out episodes. One problem is the Tenniel illustrations, their aesthetics don’t appeal to a little girl surrounded by Disney princesses (I wage a losing war against Disney princesses).

    My position generally is that if you start choosing to read books or look at paintings or listen to music only created by people of whose morals you approve, no matter what the content of that work of art, then you are going to have a lot of free time for gardening and miss out on a lot of beauty and creativity that doesn’t actually reflect its creators’ offensive traits. I think anyway that the work of art becomes to some extent separate from the creator, and the reader or viewer partially recreates it. Having written that, I do understand why people might reject something made by someone they despise, especially if they have suffered a trauma similar to something inflicted by the creator. I wouldn’t argue with someone who refused to listen to Wagner, for instance, although I do enjoy listening to his music myself.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen a BBC 4 series called ‘How to Be a Bohemian’, but this came right up against this subject with a discussion of Eric Gill. Fiona McCarthy was adamant that you can separate the artist and even the subject from the work of art. Victoria Coren Mitchell could not view a portrait of the artist’s naked daughter objectively, because she knew about the abuse behind it. Both sides of the argument were compelling.

    Sorry, this is a veeery long comment.

    1. No need to apologise, Helen. I haven’t seen the BBC 4 Series and will try and find it on the net. However, I am struck by what you say about both sides of the argument being compelling. I think the position I’ve settled into where this is concerned is that I am happy to let people think both ways. If you do feel that you can’t read a work because of the writer’s beliefs and actions then that is fine, if you feel you should never take the writer’s personal life and opinions into account then that is fine too. What I’m not happy about are those people who have said categorically that everyone should swing one way.

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