There is something profound about the places in which writers find the peace and inspiration to create. I remember a teacher once saying that some Renaissance painters used to keep jewels near their palates to freshen their eyes once in a while. I like to think of the tea cups of cafes and perhaps the setting of the library serving the same purpose- innocently inspiring new ideas every day.
I recently had the chance to visit the Lewis Carroll gardens when staying with friends at Sussex Square in Brighton, England, just around the corner from the apartment where the famous creator of Alice in Wonderland stayed. A special key was needed to enter the garden, which was surrounded by dark hedges and a wrought iron fence. My friends and I rushed in as the sun was setting and just as my camera battery ran out. These two things frustrated me at first, but in fact made the garden visit all the more magical. I darted through thick hedges, trying to keep my friend’s red coat in sight, as we searched for the famed Rabbit Hole.
The Rabbit Hole itself is a not actually the miles-deep hole that Alice fell down, but a quite horizontal brick tunnel that leads from the park to a terrace overlooking the sea. You’re ushered out by a glance back at the bright white houses sharply rising over the crisply cultivated garden, down a corridor just long enough for six impossible thoughts, and through a small door. I was told by a new friend, ironically I thought, that the terrace at the end of the tunnel, just outside of the garden, was not a safe place for a girl on her own.
Wanting to find an account of his stay in Brighton, I set out on a library search for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the mathematician, cleryman and writer who would have preferred that we didn’t know he was Lewis Carroll. There are quite a few accounts of his work, as well as biographies of his life that include some dark details:
Lewis Carroll- a Biography by Morten Norton Cohen is a probing look into the darker side of the author. He kept a large collection of photographs of his young girl friends, and was likely in love with a young girl named Alice Liddell from the time she was about eight years old. He loved creating puzzles and new formulas for solving logistical problems. I had always thought that the odd little comments that Alice or the Mad Hatter made were satirical, but after digging a bit it seems to me that these were actually the author’s true voice, perhaps misunderstood for the better.
The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester is a biography that just came out last year. He focuses on Dodgson’s love for photography to give a fresh, modern, and honest perspective on Alice in Wonderland from the photos Dodgson took, as well as a biographical look at Alice Liddell- “the Real Alice.”
The annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is the concorded Bible of Alice in Wonderland, with every odd, dark and creepy detail carefully numbered, with illustrations from the book compared with original drawings and plenty of scholarly analysis. The cache of characters to consider is vast- the Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Queen… You can see all of them on screen in two versions:
Alice in Wonderland(1951)
This is the classic animated movie that gave us the iconic little blonde girl in a blue and white dress, the white rabbit and the cheshire cat. In my mind this movie falls under the category of movies that everyone knows, whether they like it or not. For example, our beloved Karen here at the library, though she claims to not be a fan of Alice in Wonderland, loves to say “Off with their heads!”- quoting the shamelessly irritable Queen.
Alice in Wonderland (2010) A later, harsher, somewhat more psychadelic take on Wonderland (Underland.) I saw this in 3D in the theater when it came out, and had alternately a turning stomach and furrowed eyebrows. The tempo of Tim Burton’s style has always eluded me a bit. Several times I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to laugh or be competely horrified. In either case, I was certainly mesmerized, and very much impressed by the actors’ performances. I have to say that I enjoyed the DVD at home much more than the 3D in the theater. It’s clever and psychologically probes into the issues that created the Wonderland characters.
I have to conclude, after looking into the details of the life of the writer and considering a story that seems playful and innocent on the very surface, but could actually be incredibly dark, that Lewis Carroll himself might be the very character you would not want to meet in the dark corridor of the Rabbit Hole in Brighton. At the same time, what if his relationship with Alice could have been a truly innocent friendship of silly words and fresh douses of logic applied to the rules of Victorian society? It’s stunning to note how many references there are to Alice and the rabbit hole- from Tom Petty’s music video of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” to a documentary on quantum physics to the latest Stephen King novel (“11/22/63”). According to our Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks, even Yellowstone was almost named Wonderland. In all of these things, we get a little glimpse of the inspiration for the ideas that have sent so many of us floating down the Rabbit Hole.
Miriam Lee is the Technical Services Assistant at Oliver Wolcott Library, who always thinks six impossible things before breakfast.
‘ “Somehow,” said Alice, “it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t know exactly what they are!”‘