- The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children's Literature
About a dozen years ago, Jan Susina and I spent an afternoon with the late Martin Gardner. As longtime admirers of Gardner's Annotated Alice, we relished the opportunity to talk with Gardner about his interest in Lewis Carroll and the research process he went through when he annotated Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I was reminded of that afternoon when I read Susina's The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children's Literature. Gardner and Susina rank among the foremost experts on Carroll, but their approaches to Carroll's Alice books are as different as a raven is to a writing desk. Gardner's approach is more micro in orientation. His pithy annotations explain the meanings of British terms and traditions referred to by Carroll or the connections between particular events in Carroll's life and specific scenes from his Alice books. Susina, however, takes a more macro approach; his new book places Carroll's writings within their historical and literary contexts. As a scholar of Victorian culture and history, Susina provides contemporary readers with insights into the sources that Carroll drew upon when writing his Alice books, and as an authority on the history of children's literature, he sheds light on the influence of the Alice books on more recent children's literature and other forms of culture intended for children.
As Susina acknowledges in his introductory chapter, Carroll's Alice books transcended the didacticism that typified much of nineteenth-century children's literature, but Susina argues that viewing Carroll as an author who transcended [End Page 390] his times can lead to misinterpretations of his life and work. As he states in his introduction, "Carroll was very much a proper Victorian" (4).
Susina devotes several chapters to examining how Victorian culture and values influenced Carroll's career. In a chapter on Carroll's juvenilia, Susina shows how these early writings were shaped by his experiences growing up in a close-knit Victorian family. He then demonstrates how echoes of these early writings reverberate throughout the Alice books. In another chapter, Susina examines the connections between Carroll and the Victorian writers of literary fairy tales, paying particular attention to Carroll's relationships with George MacDonald and Charles Kingsley. He argues that as writers Carroll and MacDonald "encouraged and supported one another" (30), but he maintains that Carroll was more strongly influenced by "Kingsley's The Water-Babies than any of the fairy tales in MacDonald's Dealings with the Fairies" (32).
Throughout much of his book, Susina examines how Victorian attitudes toward social class shaped Carroll's worldview and permeate the Alice books. As Susina points out, the character of Alice is portrayed as a "member of the privileged class" (33). His thoughts on this topic are crystallized in a chapter titled "Coffee or Tea: The Two Nations of Victorian Children's Literature," where he contrasts Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Hesba Stretton's Jessica's First Prayer, which came out just two years after the publication of Carroll's first Alice book. Although both works were popular children's books during the Victorian era, Carroll's book is still read today, while Stretton's has largely been forgotten. Susina argues that one of the reasons for this is that Stretton's book deals with the concerns of the impoverished children of London, while Carroll's book does not even acknowledge "the existence of poor children" (111). Susina suggests that Carroll's book, for all of its topsy-turvy qualities, is less unsettling to contemporary readers than Stretton's tale about poverty, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families. As Susina perceptively observes, the differences between Carroll's book and Stretton's book play themselves out in the world of beverages. Carroll's book is steeped in the upper-class traditions associated with tea, while Stretton's book is tied to the working-class's consumption of coffee. Susina argues that "the very use of coffee and tea in...