- Pushing at the Boundaries of the Book:Humor, Mediation, and Distance in Carroll, Thackeray, and Stevenson
Alice pushes at the boundary of the book as she travels through the looking glass. John Tenniel’s twin illustrations of her journey in the first edition of Through the Looking Glass (1872) occur on either side of a single page (see Figs. 1 and 2). The mirrored orientation of the two images means that each pair of objects is printed back-to-back. Only Alice travels in one side and out the other, her head piercing the page. Her extended right hand presses on the surface of the looking glass, which ripples before giving way. That ripple on the surface of the page suggests that the page, like the looking glass, is a semipermeable membrane that the right reader can enter. Indeed, on the other side of the looking glass, Alice meets creatures out of storybooks, such as Humpty Dumpty and the Tweedles, whose stories she recalls. As readers follow Alice’s immersion, they too must place a hand upon the page—but the page turns precisely because they encounter solid resistance.
Alice’s journey through the page literalizes the metaphor of reading as immersive that has characterized descriptions of Victorian reading starting in the period itself. Yet calling attention to the mechanism of immersive reading paradoxically breaks the illusion. Nicholas Dames addresses this issue in the works of W. M. Thackeray and others by arguing that Victorians conceived of attentive reading not as a steady state but as cycling between intense involvement and contemplative reverie (82–83). This intriguing theory takes on additional ramifications when considered in relation to Victorian children’s literature, especially humorous material such as Carroll’s Alice books. The conceit of the child reader enables an additional level of play. Naturally, the cautionary notes sounded by Jacqueline Rose and James Kincaid about the problematic roles of child muses also apply [End Page 258] to implied child readers, but so does Marah Gubar’s response that authors, aware of their own totalizing authority, created space for collaboration (Artful Dodgers, passim), in this case with and among child and adult readers. In addition to Carroll, two authors of humorous children’s texts who made their reputations by writing for adults, William Makepeace Thackeray and Robert Louis Stevenson, use humor and depictions of reading to represent both the immersive Wonderland of fiction and the material, mediated pleasures of getting there.
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Depictions of reading within these works reveal a surprising acceptance of the distancing mediation of print. Much work on children’s humor focus [End Page 259]
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on the oral, as in Roderick McGillis’s claim that the humor in children’s nonsense is fundamentally embodied (258). As Catherine Robson powerfully demonstrates, oral language learning registers on children’s bodies, and many considerations of humorous nonsense by Carroll and others assume the context of orality (Deleuze 187; Lecercle passim). But these works by Thackeray, Carroll, and Stevenson emphasize unique qualities of printed books, sometimes even while insisting on their own orality. Laying bare the distance between the printed word and the spoken word, these texts reveal the artificiality of the reading process, which affords the opportunity for humor but also makes the [End Page 260] pleasures of reading seem more wonderful. As critics such as Ivan Kreilkamp and Deborah Vlock have shown, Victorian print culture as a whole owed much to oral performance genres but remained ambivalent about this debt. Oral analogies offered a sense of immediacy not only between performer and audience but within audiences as well—particularly useful during the rise of what Richard Altick termed the “mass reading public.” The audience for these books was divided not merely by age, but also by class, gender, geography, and time. Yet Thackeray and Stevenson make divided readership a subject of humor, acknowledging distance while treating it lightly. This metatextual humor presents mediation itself as a laughing matter. Calling attention to print in this context poses...