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  • Secrecy and Autonomy in Lewis Carroll
  • Susan Sherer

Victorian novels quiver with morbid secrets and threatening discoveries. Unseen rooms, concealed doors, hidden boxes, masked faces, buried letters, all appear (and disappear) with striking regularity in the fiction of Victorian England. So many of these secret spaces contain children, and especially little girls, little girls in hidden spaces. The young Jane Eyre sits behind a curtain in the hidden window seat, escaping the vindictive wrath of John Reed. Repulsed by her angry brother, Maggie Tulliver flees to the house attic, fantasizing that her family will fear that she has died. Little Dorrit withdraws from the common space of the Marshalsea into her private room above the prison, and Little Nell hides behind trees and walls, silently observing clandestine meetings. Finally the seven-year-old Alice falls down a rabbit-hole into a Wonderland, the dreamspace of her own psyche.

Of these images, none can be more embedded in our cultural imagination than the child Alice dropping into the subterranean well of Wonderland. Indeed, of the many celebrated scenes in the Alice narratives, the most memorable, most potent, most quoted is Alice’s initial descent to the bottom of the rabbit-hole. The lastingness of this scene seems even greater when we realize that, although neither Carroll in Alice’s Adventures Underground nor Tenniel in the first edition of Wonderland illustrated the moment with a picture, it still became (along with the Mad Hatter’s tea party) one of the signature images of the Alice stories. Why, we must ask, did the Victorians retain, with a powerful tenacity, this vision of a little girl moving through a tight space toward the hidden world of Wonderland?

The answer to this question is not—at least not wholly—that the scene simply represents a child’s metaphorical progress through the [End Page 1] birth canal 1 and that this, in turn, symbolizes some kind of rite of passage, a movement towards some deeper knowledge. For then how do we explain Alice’s conspicuous lack of internal development in both stories? Indeed, for a narrative that thematizes motion, Alice’s psychical growth remains disturbingly static. Throughout both narratives, Alice displays little emotional variation, for when she is not frustrated or anxious, she is, for the most part, vapid or expressionless. In fact, one is immediately struck by her coolness and indifference as she drops through the rabbit-hole. 2 Thus, because scene changes in Wonderland and Looking-Glass rarely betoken any emotional or intellectual modulations, Alice’s falling into Wonderland signals no internal transition.

But the image does relocate her body and within this fictive world, location is everything. The scene gestures Alice’s departure, her separation, her movement towards an autonomy of which every child dreams when, in play, retreating to a hidden space. A child’s impulse to hide, to create a secret space, is one of the most compelling of all human wishes, the wish for autonomy and autarchy—“to be cut off from the word and yet owner of the world.” 3 Throughout Victorian literature, the fantasy of autonomy sets children dreaming of far-away worlds and hidden gardens. The young Cathy and Heathcliff flee to the isolated moors, filling the open, empty space with dreams of unrestricted freedom. Little Dorrit envisages the locked garden behind the Marshalsea as an alternative world to the foul prison atmosphere. And what are the Brontës’s Angria and Gondol but disconnected, self-governing realms imagined from the standpoint of childhood powerlessness? The image, then, of Alice’s fall begins to fulfill this powerful wish for autonomy, which culminates, finally, in Alice’s self-coronation at the end of Looking-Glass. Yet it is only within the child’s willing imagination that a secret space can encroach so closely upon autonomy, for as we shall see, secrecy and autonomy are irreconcilable not only in the demanding world of realism, but even in the more elastic world of Carrollian fantasy.


Alice’s descent into Wonderland and her entrance into the Looking-Glass kingdom would seem like ripe metaphors for Carroll to explore the thoughts and fantasies of Alice’s psyche. What could be more...

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