by Marie Munkara
Written by the English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and published on the 26th of November 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (later known as Alice in Wonderland) was given to me for my tenth birthday. By this age I was rarely without a book in my hand. My first “real” book at the age of seven had been Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and from there the whole collections of both Famous Five and Secret Seven had been devoured before making way for the likes of The Silver Brumby. So needless to say it was with great excitement that I turned the first page of my new acquisition, but that was where the excitement began and ended.
If Alice in Wonderland had been my first book I strongly feel that it would have put me off reading for life because this was to become the most hated book of my childhood. Hated because I could never keep track of the vast array of characters that flitted aimlessly around and overlapped into a blurry melange of confusion. Nor could I keep up with plots that were so convoluted and densely woven together that it was difficult to penetrate their depths to find a loose end to unravel. Every time I picked up the book it was necessary to reread the last page in an attempt to refamiliarise myself with the chaos. This only added to my misery by extending the length of time needed to finish the damned thing. Then with all those weird riddles and poems flung into the mix this book became almost too much to bear. But I am pleased to say that although it was a monumental struggle I persevered and many months later reached the end of the book vowing never to open its stultifying pages again.
Now fast forward a few decades later to where I am an adult and am having an innocent discussion with a friend about books that we are currently reading. I’ve read this and this and this I say and didn’t like that one but loved that one, how about you. Oh I’ve read that and that and I thought I’d read Alice in Wonderland as well. There is a pause as time stands still and then all those ugly Alice in Wonderland childhood memories come rushing back to slap me around the face. I look at my friend to see if he’s pulling my leg but no he’s not, he’s deadly serious. He can see the questioning look in my eyes and goes on to explain himself. I could never finish the book as a kid so I thought I’d have another go at it, he says. Well that’s it, my tongue finds itself and off it goes on a rampage. All my Alice in Wonderland angst tumbles into daylight from the dark recesses of my mind where I thought I’d buried it all those years ago inside a block of concrete. My friend lets me rave until exhausted I pause for a sip of wine. Read it he says simply, I was surprised and you might be too.
I vow to stick to my childhood promise with myself. I will never touch that book again. And I’m good at keeping my promises to myself but for some reason I struggle with this one. Maybe the passage of time will reveal now what my childish perceptions couldn’t back then. I do a bit of Googling and am interested to note that the book had been written for ten year old Alice Pleasance Liddell, daughter of Henry Liddell the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church. Apparently Alice and her sisters Lorina and Edith loved it so much that Carroll decided to extend the 15,500 words that he’d originally written to 27,500 words and have the manuscript published. But after reading this I am immediately confronted by the fact that ten year old Alice supposedly took great pleasure in this book while my ten year old self hated it. This begs the question – is this book everything that it has been made out to be, or is there something that I missed all those years ago when I struggled through the quagmire of words. And could the hundred-year age gap between Alice Liddell and myself and our different continents and upbringing explain anything or was I just a dumb kid who wasn’t yet intellectually equipped to read such a book? I decide to break my vow to myself and read Alice in Wonderland again just to see if a ten year old could really understand this book. Maybe my friend will be right.
He was right. I am surprised and also jubilant as my rereading has shown that this is a book for adults not kids. My ten year old self, sweet innocent little Alice Liddell and countless kids around the world who have read or attempted to read this book would have been totally unaware of the subliminal messages hidden in its text. We wouldn’t have known that the caterpillar smoking his hookah on the mushroom was indulging his opium habit. And the mushroom that the character Alice broke off one side to get smaller or the other side to get larger displays the hallucinogenic properties of a magic mushroom. And the Cheshire Cat grinning from ear to ear is so much like my brother when he’s stoned. I wonder if Lewis Carroll was smirking to himself when he penned his words, because he certainly got away with it. No-one ever pulled him up and questioned the amount of drug use in his children’s book. It was never banned like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was never reclassified and shifted from the children’s section to general fiction. People have just bought it and continued to foist it onto generations of kids. But maybe the kids of this current generation are a bit more savvy about drugs than I was and can see this book for what it is. I’d like that.
I still hate this book but in a different way now because Lewis Carroll’s gobbledygook wasn’t clever it was a deception. And just like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I wonder what Alice in Wonderland might really stand for.