Alice is a wonderful one hundred and fifty years old

In 1865 a book appeared “of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” It has inspired numerous adaptations for stage and screen and has been illustrated among others by John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake, and Salvador Dalí.

“All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.”

The journey began at Folly Bridge near Oxford and ended five miles away in the village of Godstow (location of the famous 17th century Trout Inn). It was a river journey undertaken by two brothers, one a mathematician and the other a clergyman, together with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church.

During the trip, the mathematician outlined a curious story featuring a bored little girl named Alice who was considering “whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.”

Three years later, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had elaborated the story into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, publishing it under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The book is a play on words and logic that has captivated the imagination of adults and children alike. Even the pseudonym is a puzzle: Charles Lutwidge in Latin = Carolus Ludovicus, translated back into English = Carroll Lewis and then reversed = Lewis Carroll.

TenielOne hundred and fifty years after its publication, English speakers still marvel at the book’s topsy-turvy inventions and re-read their favourite passages. Here is mine in celebration. Alice has bumped into the Duchess again (who is a kind of Victorian Mrs. Malaprop) and who, true to form, is finding a moral in everything:

‘I dare say you’re wondering why I don’t put my arm round your waist,’ the Duchess said after a pause: ‘the reason is, that I’m doubtful about the temper of your flamingo. Shall I try the experiment?’

‘He might bite,’ Alice cautiously replied, not feeling at all anxious to have the experiment tried.

‘Very true,’ said the Duchess: ‘flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is – “Birds of a feather flock together.”‘

‘Only mustard isn’t a bird,’ Alice remarked.

‘Right, as usual,’ said the Duchess: ‘what a clear way you have of putting things!’

‘It’s a mineral, I think,’ said Alice.

‘Of course it is,’ said the Duchess, who seemed ready to agree to everything that Alice said; ‘there’s a large mustard-mine near here. And the moral of that is – “The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.”‘

‘Oh, I know!’ exclaimed Alice, who had not attended to this last remark, ‘it’s a vegetable. It doesn’t look like one, but it is.’

‘I quite agree with you,’ said the Duchess; ‘and the moral of that is – ”Be what you would seem to be” – or if you’d like it put more simply – “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”‘

‘I think I should understand that better,’ Alice said very politely, ‘if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.’

‘That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,’ the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.

‘Pray don’t trouble yourself to say it any longer than that,’ said Alice.

‘Oh, don’t talk about trouble!’ said the Duchess. ‘I make you a present of everything I’ve said as yet.’

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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