- “To Talk of Many Things”: Chaotic Empathy and Anxieties of Victorian Taxidermy in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The eponymous heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) traverses a mad dreamscape, one in which playing cards are employed as gardeners, flamingos serve as croquet mallets, and white rabbits wear waistcoats. For the Victorian Alice, the fantastical absurdity of Wonderland lies in the notion that the capacity for consciousness, identity, and employment extends from human to animal to object. At precisely the same time that Carroll was dreaming up these categorically confused characters, the world of Victorian taxidermy was undergoing a series of crucial changes that saw seemingly straightforward animal bodies designed for the natural history display evolve into charming and charismatic anthropomorphic creatures. When placed in the larger context of the Victorian preoccupation with natural history and the rise of anthropomorphic taxidermy as a popular entertainment, Carroll’s representation of a tangled hierarchy of consciousness can be understood as a subversion of the nineteenth century’s appetite for a categorical and governable natural world that must, in some way, address the ever-shifting role of the human within that world.
This paper will argue that the modes of being as understood by the Victorians—namely, those of human, animal, and object—exist in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as products of an imagined process of assembly and disassembly. By exploring three distinct representations of “assembled” identity in the text—the human-object, the animal-object, and the human-animal— I will demonstrate that Carroll extends the capacity to be rendered down into parts (and, by extension, to be reassembled into alternative shapes) to all three imagined categories of being, removing the delineating lines between human, animal, and object in such a way that the individual features of each particular group become interchangeable with those of other groups. The result of this is twofold: first, it enables us to read the epistemic anxieties inherent in the display and organization of the Victorian natural history museum into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, particularly as they are reflected in the evolution of taxidermy from a purely categorical, instructional tool that insists on the separation of identities, into the realm of anthropomorphism, which imagines a kind of blended identity. Second, by engaging with these anxieties and extending the capacity for objecthood to all categories of being, [End Page 47] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be situated as a key text in the evolution of the Victorian it-narrative and its increasing concern for the faculty of empathy, allowing for a kind of “object identity” to exist without the structures of human ownership.1 This paper thus identifies Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a vital intersection between two evolving modes of Victorian observation—the human observation of the animal-object and the imagined reversal of that gaze in the animal-object’s observation of the human. In understanding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a product of these two prototypical Victorian approaches to increasingly tenuous hierarchies among human, animal, and object, we must read Wonderland as both the result and the embodiment of an extended rearrangement and reconfiguration of the catalogue of life in the nineteenth century.
Critics have long noted that Lewis Carroll had some interest in natural history, and particularly so during Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s period of production: he was a regular museum-goer, and his diary records his desire to “borrow a Natural History to help in illustrating Alice’s Adventures” (Diaries 193), though the potential influence of taxidermy on his work has thus far been overlooked. Arguably this influence began in 1851, when he was said to have attended the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. The Great Exhibition is particularly notable for introducing the Victorian public to the anthropomorphic taxidermy of Hermann Ploucquet, whose animal tableaux involving “frogs having a shave, kittens serving tea, and a marten acting as a schoolmaster” (Morris 4–5) were immensely popular with the Victorian public; the Illustrated London News published illustrations of them, and Queen Victoria herself wrote of them in her diary (8). It seems only logical to assume that...