Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture
In his introduction to Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, Will Brooker acknowledges the complexities of his announced subject: "'Carroll' and 'Alice' and what they mean to us" (xvii). Citing Virginia Woolf's argument that Lewis Carroll and his Alice books are impossible to pin down—ever changing as we try to make sense of them—Brooker suggests that analyzing the countless "texts" growing out of the "cultural myths" associated with "Carroll" and "Alice" would be a nearly impossible task. Consequently, Brooker addresses "a small sample" of Alice-related "texts" produced between 1990 and 2003, dividing them into nine categories—biographies of Carroll, newspaper and magazine articles, literary criticism, illustrations, fiction, film, videogames, fan clubs, and museums/theme parks (xv). Additionally, he focuses on "two contemporary traces of two specific discourses around Carroll and 'Alice'." In the first, "Carroll is a sainted innocent, his books are joyous nonsense and Alice is his muse," while in the second, "Carroll is a paedophile [sic], his books are dark allegories, and Alice is his obsession" (xv). Unfortunately, Brooker's narrow focus and thesis prevent him from saying much that is original or insightful about the meaning of either Carroll or Alice in popular culture.
I am not suggesting that this study has no redeeming qualities. Readers with little prior knowledge of Alice imitations and adaptations may enjoy some of Brooker's thick description of contemporary Alice texts. However, scholarly readers may conclude that Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture is a little like the "Caucus-race" in Carroll's Wonderland—a circular journey leaving participants with the question, "But who has won?"
Most of Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture follows a formula established in the first two chapters. In "The Many Lives of Lewis Carroll," Brooker begins his quest to discover Carroll's place in popular culture by examining some of the many biographies about him. He begins by discussing three "early" biographies of Carroll (actually published in the 1940s and 1950s). According to Brooker, Florence Becker Lennon's Lewis Carroll (1947) and Alexander Taylor's The White Knight (1952) generate an image of Alice Liddell as "Carroll's lost love, his unattainable infatuation" (3), while Derek Hudson's Lewis Carroll (1954) tries to return "Carroll to his original status as an almost totally sexless innocent" (3). All three of these biographies, Brooker contends, contain factual errors that [End Page 304] have been perpetuated by later writers. Having set up two conflicting images of Carroll, Brooker then analyzes six biographical texts, discussing their treatment of four specific subjects: Carroll's first Alice stories, told during an outing with the Liddell sisters; his subsequent estrangement from the Liddell family; his diary entries pleading for "divine forgiveness"; and his photography of nude children.
Because Brooker explores each of these topics separately it is difficult to keep straight the perspectives of individual biographers, other than to agree with Brooker's simplistic conclusion that "they present an unwieldy bundle of ideas about who Carroll might have been: variations, contradictions, different tellings of the same story" (43). Apparently, some biographies, such as Christina Bjork and Inga-Karin Erickson's The Story of Alice in Her Oxford Wonderland (1994) and Michael Bakewell's Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1996), perpetuate romanticized and erroneous myths about the "Golden Afternoon" when the fictional Alice first journeyed to Wonderland, while others, such as Morton Cohen's Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1995), suggest "the possibility that Carroll's relationship with children involved unrealized sexual aspects as well as emotional and spiritual pleasures" (43).
Chapter 2, "The Man in the Paper Hat," looks at representations of Carroll in contemporary popular magazines and newspapers. Brooker examines seventy-seven articles, mostly British and all generated through the LexisNexis electronic database. In his subsequent analysis, Brooker argues that these articles mirror the "twin contemporary readings" of Carroll—either romanticizing him or perpetuating the notion that he was a pedophile (53). Here, Brooker concludes that the "idea that Alice had adult overtones and a dark heart seems to have become key to the way the story resonates in the broader public imagination" (72).
Brooker's chapters on literary criticism, illustration, fictional sequels, and film adaptations are the least satisfactory of the book. "Analyzing Alice" focuses on critical essays by Zadie Smith, Will Self, Hugh Haughton, and Martin Gardner that appear in four contemporary editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and/or Through the Looking-Glass. Based on these essays, Brooker concludes that recent commentators agree that the Alice books "are concerned with the child's experience in an adult environment and with the process of growing up, with finding a sense of self" (93). Except for a few articles reprinted in Robert S. Phillips's Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-glasses (1971), Brooker provides no evidence that he has read any of the hundreds of articles on Alice in literary journals (many of which contradict his generalizations). In fact, Brooker openly admits that before writing this book, he knew very little about Carroll scholarship, although he tries to make a case for his current scholarly credibility by citing the exact number of books he has consulted in writing several of his chapters.
In addressing film adaptations of Alice, Brooker again demonstrates a lack of familiarity with existing [End Page 305] scholarship. To write this chapter, Brooker announces that he has read "eight academic anthologies on the process of adapting a work from literature to cinema"—108 essays in all (199). He decries the fact that only one of these essays deals with Alice adaptations, a fact that apparently allows him to discuss six film and television adaptations of Wonderland as if no one else has ever written about them. Once again, Brooker provides little context for discussing individual texts, nor does he provide a rationale for choosing particular adaptations over others produced during the same period. Since Brooker generally identifies specific films only by their directors, bouncing back and forth between them in his discussion, I was not always sure which film was under consideration, despite the fact that I have seen them all. Again, Brooker's objective is to determine whether or not these films present an "innocent" or sexually abused Alice. (In film adaptations, the "innocent" Alice generally wins hands down.)
Interestingly, in addressing early (pre-1990s) fictional sequels and imitations of the Alice books, as well as modern illustrators of Carroll's original, Brooker relies almost exclusively on two other scholarly books, Michael Hancher's The Tenniel Illustrations to the Alice Books (1985) and Carolyn Sigler's Alternative Alices: Visions of Lewis Carroll's Alice Books (1997). Brooker's own discussions of three Alice-related works of fiction and six contemporary illustrated editions of Wonderland again come off as superficial. Chapter 7, "Dark Wonderland," zeroes in on a single manifestation of Alice in material culture—American McGee's Alice, a videogame released in 2000. Not surprisingly, the thirty-six pages devoted to this game reveal that it is a violent and dark vision of Alice.
Brooker's final two chapters, which treat Lewis Carroll fan clubs and Brooker's personal pilgrimage to Carroll-related cultural sites, raise some interesting questions about fan culture, the subject of his other books for Continuum, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (2000) and Using the Force: Creativity, Community, and Star Wars Fans (2002, rev. 2003). Here Brooker breaks away from his formula, initiating readers into meetings of the Lewis Carroll Society and serving as a tour guide to Disneyland Paris, the "Alice Tea Shop" in Oxford, and Carroll's grave in Guildford.
If anything, Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture makes a case that both Carroll and Alice do continue to impact our culture through some rather diverse cultural manifestations. Hopefully, a future scholar will be more successful at coming to terms with Carroll and Alice or at least provide a more complex thesis than Brooker's proclamation that "'good' Carroll and 'bad' Carroll, 'good' Alice and 'bad' Alice—exist side by side" (xvii).
Joel D. Chaston is Distinguished Professor of English at Missouri State University, where he teaches courses in children’s, young adult, and British literature.