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Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art
Juliet Dusinberre. Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. xxi + 352 pp.
Alice to the Lighthouse argues that "[r]adical experiments in the arts in the early modern period began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children" because like the Modernists, Carroll and other writers for children are fundamentally interested in "the question of mastery over language, structure, vision, morals, characters and readers." Many Victorian children's books--especially those chosen for children by their parents--were profoundly didactic in nature, preaching lessons such as those Carroll mocked through his moral-spouting duchess [End Page 543] and Alice's careful check for a poison label before downing a bottle of shrinking-potion. Dusinberre is unsurprised to discover that children don't much like being preached at; she transforms that insight into a general study of condescension in narrative.
Nineteenth-century novels for adults, like those for children, assume that readers need careful guidance in order to understand a text. Consequently, narrators frequently intrude to interpret, to point readers' attention to symbols or images, or to look ahead toward important issues down the road. Modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, Dusinberre argues, followed Roger Fry's advice to paint only what they could see and formed equal partnerships with readers instead of dictating to them through officious narrators. Dusinberre captures this relationship best in a scene from Laura Ingalls Wilder's 1934 By the Shores of Silver Lake in which Laura, describing a scene to her blind sister Mary, refuses to characterize a well-known road as stretching into the nearby town when she can see the road only as far as the top of the hill. Modernist writers also refuse to connect the dots for their readers. For them, words are paint that the writer patterns into a design the reader must interpret. But readers and writers alike require the clear eye of a child in order to connect: an eye that observes without judging and that is free of conventional constraints. Dusinberre implies that children's books influence modernist texts in a one-way relation; given her tacit argument that Wilder is a better modernist than Willa Cather, perhaps she could have complicated that view.
Dusinberre tackles a large body of children's and adult literature in her text, from the books suggested in her title to Mark Twain, E. Nesbit, and a host of happily forgotten Victorian children's stories. She is at her best in the sustained close comparison of Cather's and Wilder's pioneer stories that concludes her book. The early parts of the book, by comparison, promise more than they deliver, largely because Dusinberre there avoids in-depth reading of the primary texts she approaches. While such a strategy makes sense in more theoretically oriented introductory chapters, I found myself wanting a weightier analysis of word-play in Alice, for example. Unfortunately, Alice and To the Lighthouse suffer most from the flitting quality of the first three-quarters of the book, a problem that also plagued the 1987 first edition. (The 1999 edition is "reissued with alterations.") Dusinberre's argument promises so well that it is a pity she [End Page 544] doesn't engage deeply with these texts. Perhaps she makes this choice in an enactment of what she labels Virginia Woolf's "refus[al] to impose herself on the world she created," a choice Dusinberre sees as equivalent to "protests which many adults had made [. . .] about the relation of author to child reader." That revolt, Dusinberre suggests, is part of a modernist "revolt against [Victorian] metaphors," which Carroll had made possible by "exposing metaphors, and thus revivifying language and opening a window on experiences which could not be prepackaged and labeled as literary and therefore respectable."
University of Michigan