Reviews 2011

The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature

The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature. Jan Susina. New York: Routledge, 2010. 232 pages. $118 (hardback).

Does the world really need another book on Lewis Carroll? Jan Susina implicitly raises this question in the acknowledgements to his new book, The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature when he notes his debts to the long line of Carroll scholars who have come before. It is a daunting task, indeed, to embark on a new work on Carroll in the shade of Roger Lancelyn Green, Morton N. Cohen and Martin Gardner, not to mention the myriad others who have contributed books, articles, essays, and other important critical scholarship on this most enigmatic writer. Susina wisely does not try to compete with the extensive research others have already conducted on the Alice books, Carroll’s photography, or Carroll’s relationship with his illustrators or the stage. Rather, his slim volume sheds light on all these issues and others, keeping the focus firmly on “Carroll’s adventures as a children’s writer” (2). In twelve short chapters, Susina illuminates Carroll’s juvenilia, his relationship to the literary fairy tale, the importance of letters in his work, his creation of the Alice industry, genre-crossing in Sylvie and Bruno, a variety of recent Alice phenomena, from video games to hypertext to Jon Scieszka’s picture book version, and several other important topics.

This approach produces, as Susina openly admits, “a bit of a mischmasch,” a book with short, interlinked chapters that—again, as Susina says—need not be “read . . . in a linear fashion”; rather, readers “can choose their own adventure by reading the chapters in a sequence of their own invention” (3). In other words, the book, like Carroll’s famously episodic work itself, has a thematic unity rather than a linear one. While this makes for some repetition, especially for the doggedly linear reader who moves straight through the text, it may make the work more useful in the long run for scholars who are likely to dip into it for their own purposes, gleaning useful nuggets from Susina’s thorough and insightful scholarship.

For my own purposes, I found Susina’s Chapter 8: “Coffee or Tea: The Two Nations of Victorian Children’s Literature,” particularly enlightening. The chapter follows a discussion in Chapter 7 of the famous image of Alice Liddell as beggar maid or “street Arab,” in which Susina contextualizes the image within a larger Victorian fascination with images of poor children. Noting that Carroll’s photograph takes its place alongside “the sentimental representations of street children of Dickens or Stretton, rather than Mayhew’s investigative reporting,” Susina then moves to a discussion of the ways “Victorian children’s book authors choose to address . . . the condition of poor children” (104, 107). Coffee and tea come to symbolize, in this chapter, the larger issues of social class that Carroll ignores in the Alice books. His tea-drinking heroine is, as we have long known, clearly marked throughout both texts as a product of the educated upper middle class, with a “developed sense of entitlement and superiority based on class privilege: ‘Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible’” (110). Susina contrasts Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its popular contemporary, Hesba Stretton’s Jessica’s First Prayer, a novel that “sold ten times as many copies as Carroll’s . . . during the Victorian period and inspired the creation of the street arab genre,” but is almost entirely unread today (109). While Alice consumes almost nothing in her sojourn in Wonderland other than the magical foods that change her size, Jessica “longs for a cup of coffee and a stale bun for her single source of nourishment for the day” (113). Linking tea and coffee to social class, Susina notes that coffee was less expensive than tea in the eighteenth century and that, by the mid-nineteenth century, “tea had become the more social beverage,” while “coffee was . . . associated with trade and commerce” (114). Thus the Mad Hatter’s tea party (along with the game of croquet and Alice’s associations with the titled aristocracy) marks the novel as a product of, and for, Alice’s own class.

Susina’s great contribution here, it seems to me, is that by situating the Alice books alongside Jessica’s First Prayer—by setting up the tea-or-coffee dichotomy—he is able to make an important claim about the oft-repeated truism that Wonderland “almost single-handedly helped to revise the nature of children’s literature in the nineteenth century” (108). It did so, Susina here claims, by ignoring poor children. That is, didactic books like Jessica’s First Prayer and other important predecessors and contemporaries, including Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, are centrally about the children of the poor. Their didacticism is part and parcel of their social conscience. Carroll, whose books are part of the move in children’s literature from ‘instruction’ to ‘delight,’ is able to make this move in part because of his upper-middle-class snobbery, his assumption that his own audience is already well educated.

Susina concludes this chapter by repeating that the success of the Alice books “helped liberate children’s literature from the overt moralism of earlier forms of children’s literature”—but he importantly qualifies what has most often been seen as a narrative of progress by his further insight that “it also [thus] helped inscribe the upper-middle-class child as the primary site of literary exploration in children’s texts” (114). This latter legacy of the Alice books bears further examination and discussion.

Susina does not rest here, however—the book as a whole goes on to provide interesting links between Alice and the Christmas pantomime tradition and, in the last three chapters, the Alice books and many of the larger trends in children’s consumer culture today. Carroll invented the dust jacket and oversaw aspects of his books’ production which few contemporary authors can influence. It is Lewis Carroll, not Walt Disney, who pioneered the practice of ‘detaching’ a character from an original text and producing “spin off” products including The Nursery Alice, an effort to put Alice on stage, a never-published Alice puzzle book, and a variety of non-book products (including a table-cloth, parasol handles, and a—filled—biscuit tin). This creation of an “Alice industry” paved the way for contemporary adaptations of the Alice books into filmed and, especially, computer-based versions, including the hypertexts Susina discusses in Chapter 11. (It’s too bad the book was obviously completed before the iPad version of Alice—I would have liked to hear Susina’s take on this most recent adaptation.)

While the hypertextual organization of the book does, as I noted above, lead to some repetition of material from one chapter to another, there are more than enough useful insights in The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature to send any Carroll scholar—or, really, anyone interested in children’s literature and culture, from the nineteenth century to the present—back to the books. And that, it seems to me, is why this book does indeed belong on my shelf: because it can return us, once again, to the books that inspired it and that it so usefully illuminates.

Elisabeth R. Gruner
University of Richmond, USA