Laura White, The Alice Books and the Contested Ground of the Natural World

Laura White, The Alice Books and the Contested Ground of the Natural World(Oxford: Routledge 2017) xvi + 250 pp. £105 Hb. ISBN: 9781138630826

The application of scholarly detective work to the life and literature of Lewis Carroll has resulted in an influx of research on his exploration of science. The idea that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) were subversive comments upon the science of their day is not a new one. Nonetheless, recent works have advanced readings of what Carroll’s nonsense is saying with more nuance than ever before. Laura White’s book is a product of this subtle understanding of Carroll. White argues that, rather than invoking unsettling Darwinian or what we might now call Anthropocenic concepts, ‘Carroll’s anthropomorphism about animals and food is meant to be funny and ultimately consoling, and to confirm the Christian view of humankind as the crown of creation’ (4). The worlds of the Dodo, the Looking-Glass insects, and tragically naïve oysters may appear to be places where survival of the fittest reduces humans to voracious walruses (and carpenters); however, White suggests that the reader who believes in the animalistic baseness of humanity is the butt of Carroll’s jokes.

In the first chapter, White affirms that we can interpret the nonsense of the Alice books (despite this being a sacrilege to some). She observes that Carroll’s ‘open and intensely creative mind’ was nonetheless ‘paired with a disposition loyal to the precepts of order, logic, and virtue’ (28). His playful manner meant that the Alice books avoided didacticism and obvious allegory, but Carroll’s core of conservatism inevitably attacked those with ‘reformist views that urged a softening of the divide between humanity and nature’ (31). The rest of the book offers a convincing argument for this position, combining close readings of Carroll’s writings, mainly in the Alice books, with scrupulous reference to his life and to Victorian society. White acknowledges the unfortunate impossibility of including reference to other works belonging to this contemporary trend in criticism, such as Gillian Beer’s Alice in Space (2016) and Jessica Straley’s Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature (2016), although it turns out that these two books chime in largely harmonious ways with White’s own conclusions.1

The second chapter shows how Carroll’s love of natural history was no obstacle to his criticism of ‘the emergence of the natural and physical sciences, both as academic empires and as larger social agents’ (42). As a mathematician and logician, he considered himself a man of science; this science, however, was ‘a better science, because it is a provable one’ (51). White demonstrates that Carroll’s well-known anti-vivisection campaigning formed part of his larger scepticism towards both secularism and what he saw as the excessive valorisation of seekers after scientific knowledge. Among the targets of his squibs were the construction expenses of the new Oxford University Museum of Natural History, later a favoured haunt, and the generous physics laboratories funded by the Clarendon Trust.

In the remaining chapters, White seeks to distance Carroll from what we, as modern-day readers, may see as sympathetic interpretations of the Alice books. She points to the prevalence of anti-evolutionary texts in his library, his apparent lack of controversial books of any sort (including nearly all of Darwin’s works), his generally sarcastic references to natural selection, and his pleasure upon reading St George Mivart’s On the Genesis of Species (1871), as evidence for only the most minimal acceptance of elements of evolutionary theory. Carroll’s parodies of evolutionary theory (and particularly its harshest, most Darwinian manifestations) mock ‘the seeming irrefutability of its claims’, its ‘tautologies’, ‘idealistic faith’ in progress, and especially ‘its necessary agnosticism’ (70-71). His nonsense, White argues, is intended to reaffirm the boundaries between humans and other animals that contemporary developments were eroding.

One of White’s recurring points is that the Victorians were not us. Quite simply, they found the deaths of animals funnier. What might strike us as somewhat gruesome acts of predation – ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, for instance, or the many references in the Alice books to animals being devoured – comfortably sat in Carroll’s category of ‘real and innocent pleasure’ (119). Likewise, White is doubtful about earlier readings which see Alice’s occasional hunger as a hint at cannibalism. Certainly, Victorian readers betrayed little recognition of these potentially disturbing undertones. These moments are not post-Darwinian satires of ‘human beings as just one sort of organism in a chain or organisms’, White contends, but instead are jibes at those who ‘forget the clear dividing line between animals and people’ that Carroll saw as intrinsic to his Christian faith (109). His anti-vivisection activity was compatible with such a belief: humanity’s right to inflict death upon animals was not accompanied by a right to inflict pain, except in very special circumstances. White suggests that ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ foregrounds the fact that the story’s dark implications are ‘farcically enacted through the mechanism of anthropomorphism’ – this being the only time when we might feel sympathy for the feelings of oysters (138). Carroll’s ‘black humour’ runs through allusions to conventional natural history illustrations of snakes stealing birds’ eggs (195) and the impossibly self-destructive Looking-Glass Insects, which parody the ‘arbitrary just-so reasoning’ he found in Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection (200).

The book under review is indebted to much recent insightful scholarship on Carroll, such as Rose Lovell-Smith’s work on the resonances of the Alice books with the natural history tradition. This being said, White’s thesis often constructively opposes past interpretations, especially in relation to Carroll’s treatment of natural selection. Her conclusions are persuasive and valuable, and will allow many readers to return to the original texts in search of new meaning. If any point rings less true it is the tantalising but not entirely convincing suggestion that the feast scene at the end of Looking-Glass was intended to evoke the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (205). Generally, White’s handling of Carroll’s references to contemporary people, places, and concepts wisely avoids committing to such absolute parallels. The result is an enjoyable read for scholars of Victorian literature and science, and one that is especially vital for those interested in children’s literature. In a coda, White reiterates that the Alice books ‘have become darker texts than they were when Carroll first wrote them’; all the same, we may find ourselves continuing ‘to laugh at the relish with which the child-oysters are polished off’ (218). White’s study is an important reminder of the necessity of holding close the difference between a Victorian text’s original situation and its ever-evolving afterlife.

Richard Fallon, University of Leicester


1 Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll<(Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016); Jessica Straley, Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016)