- Nothing Better, or Nothing Like It?
In the mid-nineteenth century, Alfred Crowquill's Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England was published. Produced in a somewhat exotic format–the long, narrow fold-out strip known as a panorama–Crowquill's work offers a child audience the basic facts about the life and reign of each English monarch (and Oliver Cromwell) accompanied by comic verses that satirise their reigns, and hand-coloured illustrations that lampoon their physical appearance. The poem for Henry IV, for instance, is as follows:
Henry the Fourth usurped the throne, and bloody statutes made, That all should burn who interfered with priestcraft and its trade; But he at last took ill they say, and took much doctor's stuff, And quickly went, as nurses say, out like a candle-snuff.
Crowquill's caricature of the hapless king shows him in a fez and shawl, steaming a cold away over a tureen marked PHYSIC, with a medicine bottle at his side.
What could Crowquill's Comic History, a piece of nineteenth-century ephemera for children now almost forgotten (it is held in only a few libraries), have in common with Lewis Carroll's Alice books–those beloved, indeed omnipresent, relics of Victorian childhood? This is the sort of [End Page 287] question encouraged by Gillian Beer's erudite and capacious new study, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll, which reads Carroll's works alongside their contemporary influences, sources, and contexts. Beer's connective faculty can spur associations for a reader who looks at both the Alice books and contemporary texts: while Crowquill's Comic History is not mentioned by name, Beer does discuss Crowquill as Carroll's favourite caricaturist. She also points out Carroll's travestying of children's histories, such as Havilland Chepmell's Short Course of History, in the 'Pool of Tears' chapter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: an approach to children's culture which parallels Crowquill's. In fact, once looked for, such comparisons begin to proliferate: from Crowquill's bluff quip about Henry IV going out like a candle and Carroll's more anxious jokes about Alice doing the same, to the visual parallel between the carefully labelled medicine bottle in the Henry IV image and the famous DRINK ME vial that begins Alice's adventures in earnest (and that recurs across Alice in Space), to experimentation with the appearance of the book or page, as in Carroll's mouse's-tail concrete poem and Crowquill's unfolding panorama.
In order to chart connections and provoke her readers to make new ones, Beer frames Alice in Space in a deliberately loose, non-teleological manner, as an investigation of the ways in which the Alice books 'interact with some of the most stimulating discussions of the mid-Victorian period' (p. 25). Carroll's catholic frame of reference is reflected in Beer's catholic set of organising concepts. She covers, in successive chapters, time; games and space; puns and parody; dialogue (philosophical, pedagogical, and of course Alician); names; dreams and justice; and finally growing and eating. A tight overarching argument is not what the book proffers, or is intended to proffer. Instead, Beer encourages the reader to luxuriate in the surprising array of discourses contained in the Alice books.
Each of the references Beer explores is highly suggestive. The reader learns, for instance, that the nineteenth-century mathematician W. K. Clifford is responsible for multiple types of corkscrew–the improbable shapes modelled by his non-Euclidean algebraic insights, but also a calisthenics routine performed at Cambridge to great applause: 'It consists in running at a fixed upright pole which you seize with both hands and spin round and round descending in a corkscrew fashion' (Clifford, quoted on p. 53). Beer's method is to use these details to read Alice afresh. Clifford, and nineteenth-century geometric algebra more generally, lead Beer to new insights into the Alice books, in particular, the reason corkscrews are mentioned in Through the Looking...