Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll

Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2016) 296 pp. $35.00 Hb. ISBN 978-0-226-04150-6

Serious Lewis Carroll scholars have long since abandoned the simplistic image of Charles Dodgson as an unworldly eccentric who isolated himself by retreating into a world of childhood and, specifically, prepubescent girls. In fact, as Karoline Leach persuasively argued in her comprehensive deconstruction of the 'Lewis Carroll myth' (In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll [1999]), Dodgson was very much a man of the world – charming, gregarious, an enthusiastic theatre-goer and, above all, someone very much au fait with the intellectual and scientific debates of his day. As Beer writes: 'law, languages, theology, dictionaries, novels and poetry, stage plays, philosophical dialogues, natural history, and evolution are all abiding interests for him beyond his professional studies of mathematics and logic' (4). This revisionist biographical picture has been confirmed and filled out in more recent studies such as Edward Wakeling’s Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle (2015) and Charlie Lovett’s Lewis Carroll among His Books (2005), a study of Dodgson’s extensive private library on which Beer draws to good effect.

Few are better qualified than Gillian Beer to apply this revisionist biographical understanding to a close reading of the Alice texts. Since the publication of her ground-breaking and influential Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983), she has been well-known for her writing and teaching on the interconnections between Victorian literature and science. The aim of this long-awaited book (first announced more than ten years ago) is to 'reawaken some of the contexts within which the Alice books first lived and which they sometimes altered' (1). It is divided into eight discrete thematic chapters covering such topics as 'Games, Maths and Play', 'The Dialogues of Alice: Pretending to be Two People' and 'Growing and Eating' – a structure that reflects the development of the book out of individual, free-standing lectures and talks.

In 'Alice in Time', the first section, we encounter a theme that is to resonate at various points throughout the book: 'As Dodgson, Lewis Carroll was a devout Euclidean. As Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson stepped across those boundaries.' (29) In the Alice books, the salience of time is announced right from the beginning, in the form of the White Rabbit’s watch, – and, as Beer explores, dreams and games impose particular distortions on time in Carroll’s imagination. In particular, she relates these to contemporary theoretical speculations about time as the 'fourth dimension'. Beer is not the first to make these connections,1 but what she does bring here, as elsewhere, are sensitive readings of particular passages, attentive to the rhetorical hybridity of texts that appealed both to children and to adults (who had once been children): the effect of Alice’s rapid changes of size is to '[play] with our fundamental and universal experience of somatic time [. . .] It mimics the child’s experience of being out of scale in the power-relations of occupying space. But it also releases the child from the inexorable and sometimes painful temporal sequence that leads toward adult full growth.' (42)

An important point that emerges in the second chapter, 'The Faculty of Invention: Games, Play and Maths', is that many characteristics and conjunctions that we think of as being distinctly Carrollian were in fact very much part of the mid-Victorian culture in which Dodgson was immersed – it’s just that Carroll raised them to another level. For example, Beer quotes to good effect from the mathematicians J J Sylvester and W K Clifford, and from physicist James Clerk Maxwell (his comic verse), to show that 'poetry, play, and mathematics were recognized as closely allied' (46) in the intellectual milieu in which Dodgson moved. The same connectedness with cultural context – though here covering rather more well-trodden ground – also comes across in the following chapter on 'Puns, Punch and Parody', though as Beer points out, Carroll notably eschewed the racism, sexism and snobbery that characterised Punch’s parodies.

One of the most interesting and original sections in the book is the following one on dialogues in the Alice books. Backed by a wide range of reading, and with a telling use of comparative quotation, Beer shows how Carroll drew on a wide range of forms of literary dialogue familiar at the time, from the pseudo-Socratic to the pedagogical (which, she shows, was not above incorporating proto-Carrollian humour). In the following chapter, on the different ways in which Carroll uses and problematizes names in the books, one begins to feel the lack of a single sustaining argument or theoretical viewpoint: the points start to feel somewhat scattergun, like an expanded version of Martin Gardner’s classic The Annotated Alice.

The penultimate chapter, 'Dreaming and Justice', includes an interesting comparison between Carroll’s treatment of dream-narrative and that of his friend George Macdonald in Phantastes (1858). Unlike Macdonald, who was heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Carroll evokes no transcendental aspect to dreams and dreaming: the emphasis, instead, is on the immediacy of active response to sudden, instantaneous appearances and transformations. In the portion of the chapter on the theme of justice and fairness in the Alice books, Beer draws attention to Dodgson’s professional preoccupation with the mathematics of the voting system – a concern with procedural justice that manifests itself in the final courtroom scene of Alice in Wonderland. The parallel carnivalesque scene at the Alice through the Looking Glass is the feast at which the food comes to life: this scene (which Beer suggests might be linked to Dodgson’s interest in animal welfare) is one of the focuses of the final chapter, 'Growing and Eating'. With its overturning of hierarchies, it exemplifies well what Beer describes in her Introduction as Carroll’s creation of '[a] world sideways on, an egalitarian zone in which everything becomes possible and nothing is unlikely because all forms of being have presence and can argue' (4).

Beer chooses her themes well, and throughout makes interesting connections and comparisons that are supported by her wide knowledge of Victorian literature, both fictional and scientific, but some academic readers will feel frustrated that these apercus are not synthesized into more of an overarching argument. But then again, it could be argued, to pursue such a synthesis might be to go against the grain of Carroll’s monstrous and magnificent fictional assemblages.

Adam Lively, Middlesex University


1 See for example Elizabeth Throesch, 'Nonsense in the Fourth Dimension of Literature: Hyperspace Philosophy, the "New Mathematics", and the Alice books' in Cristopher Hollingsworth (ed.) Alice beyond Wonderland: Essays for the Twenty-First Century (Iowa: University of Iowa Press 2009) pp. 37-52