The Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books would not be good company. She is pedantic, humourless, irritable and finds fools where others would find engaging eccentricity. It’s odd, then, that she is seen as an emblem of the liberated imagination as well as one who is endowed with fluent social skills. In the Sixties she should have been seen as ‘uptight’, yet was credited by Jefferson Airplane, in their stirring 1966 acid anthem ‘White Rabbit’, with being an intrepid psychonaut leading the children of emergent consumerism out of their conformist slumber:
And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call
When she was just small
Carroll’s heroine is being confused with the spirit of the book in which she serves as an unenthusiastic navigator. While Alice certainly embodies Carroll’s antipathy to the stuffy formality of Victorian life, she lacks the playfulness and abandon with which she is commonly credited. The paradox that prompts this upbeat misreading may reside in the fact that the logic of many of the Wonderland characters is not actually nonsensical but excessively logical, to an absurd degree. This is not the same as their being wild, wacky or anarchic but seems to have been taken as evidence of such a condition.
The purportedly trippiest, most psychedelic encounter in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is between Alice and the Caterpillar. The latter smokes a hookah pipe and is seated on a mushroom – that’s got to be trippy, right? Probably wrong. The Caterpillar asks plodding questions and says nothing that is at all wise or excitingly unwise. The only direct advice he gives is ‘Keep your temper’, hardly a siren call from the healing maelstrom that is imagined to lie beyond sense.
Alice is constantly shifted across the line so that she becomes an eager participant rather than a small and conventional girl who falls down a hole by accident and at best puts up with the mayhem she encounters down under. Somehow her characteristic consternation and vexation have been systematically overlooked, perhaps because readers take up the invitation to identify with her but do not share her antipathy to inflexible logic, which is seen as pleasing nonsense. Her own misgivings are ignored as the reader simply invents a surrogate who is more tolerant and adventurous.
Tenniel has much to answer for here, of course. He supplies Alice with expressions that could be said, at a pinch, to service his employer’s need for a sensible, level-headed girl yet simultaneously equips her with a range of highly ambiguous looks that may be read as debauched abstraction, cool and sophisticated disdain or ravenous impatience – all of which are qualities of the pleasure seeker rather than the bluestocking.
It is the artists who eroticise Alice, if only mildly, who make her an active participant rather than a spectator. This tendency is to be found in the images of another distinguished Alice illustrator, Mervyn Peake (published in 1946).
Rene Cloke, on the other hand, is unambiguously illustrating for children and presents images (published in 1944) of a passive child subjected to a mad situation in a way that emphasises her unworldliness and vulnerability rather than her appetite for immersion.
Perhaps those illustrators who saw the books as charming fantasies gravitated towards depicting the child as captured by the events around her while those who sensed a darker psychology beneath the fantastical surface would produce an Alice who was the generator of her own dreams, one who would embrace rather than resist her imaginings. It could be argued, however, that if we have dreams because we do not wish to know about our darker selves then Carroll was merely being psychologically realistic when he made Alice so tentative and sceptical.