One 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?