37: TO CHORTLE IN YOUR JOY: THE GREAT EARLY BRITISH CHILDREN'S CLASSICS
May 24, 2014
#37: TO CHORTLE IN YOUR JOY: THE GREAT EARLY BRITISH CHILDREN’S CLASSICS. Few books of any description are surrounded by the jungle of explication that has grown up around the Alice books of Lewis Carroll. There are several full-length biographies, annotated and critical editions of the stories, selections of Caroll’s letters and diaries, tours of Carroll’s Oxford, and by now innumerable essays on every conceivable aspect of Carroll (or Charles Dodgson) as don, mathematician, photographer, church deacon, linguist, logician, weirdo and prophet; and of the Alice books as children’s lit, dream lit, satire, Victoriana, Zen koan, psychoanalytic palimpsest and nonpareil. And for all of that, some of it very good, some useful, much dull and disappointing, the Alice books—properly, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS AND WHAT ALICE FOUND THERE—retain not just their originality, their wit, and their power to amuse and bemuse, but their irreducible strangeness. No degree of familiarity—and over the years I’ve come to know them almost by heart—ever reduces the genuinely dreamlike comic irrationality; rather it becomes all the more potent and fascinating. In contrast with much twentieth-century Surrealism, with its violence, darkness and tiresome insistence on shocking the bourgeois, Carroll’s strangeness was a natural self, released by the circumstance of telling stories to three little girls on a boat trip down the Isis. In the circus-mirror vision of that self, all polite Victorian culture—its Mandarin courtesy, compulsive moralizing, leaden-footed didactic verse, its coffinlike repression—was blown up, distorted and exploded with a combination of mathematical precision and bubble-busting glee. It will never happen—not precisely like this—ever again. No one has ever successfully imitated Carroll, and no one ever will. He happened only once, a kind of happy accident of nature, for which may we ever be thankful.
If you want to tackle the now-vast literature of Alice—or just want to be able to catch some of the jokes now obscured by time—the best and obvious starting point is THE ANNOTATED ALICE, by Martin Gardner. The recent definitive edition (Norton, 1999,
hardcover) combines the original edition with MORE ANNOTATED ALICE and includes the text of both stories with the suppressed “Wasp in the Wig” chapter, the Tenniel illustrations, and an amusing plethora of notes, and it’s a splendid piece of work. Gardner also did an annotated edition of “The Hunting of the Snark,” (Penguin, 1974) in which he again proved himself Carroll’s perfect and inspired accompanist—as when, with Gardner’s assistance, the Billiard-Maker wanders out of the poem and into one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Greek Interpreter”; it’s a shame the whole thing isn’t included in the ALICE. (If Carroll were French the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade would have him all sewn up in a single volume, including his serious mathematical works, a box of which so disconcerted Victoria when she asked to see “more of the works of Mr. Carroll.” It wouldn’t be fun, but it would be complete, and it would be annotated to the nines.) Robert Phillips edited a collection of critical essays, ASPECTS OF ALICE (Penguin, 1974), though the fun factor isn’t all that high. One might’ve wished for something along the lines of Frederick Crews’s great book THE POOH PERPLEX, in which “several Academicians of varying Critical Persuasions” approach the Bear of Little Brain, with splendid comic results. Morton N. Cohen’s LEWIS CARROLL: A Biography (Knopf, 1995) is thorough, intelligent and copiously illustrated; Cohen also edited REFLECTIONS IN A LOOKING GLASS: A Centennial Celebration of Lewis Carroll, Photographer (Aperture, 1998), the best book I’ve seen on Carroll’s photography.
The Alice books have hit a record for attracting (and defeating) illustrators—see THE ILLUSTRATORS OF ALICE, edited by Graham Ovenden (Academy Editions, 1972) for a generous sample. That part of our vision of Alice is still formed by Tenniel, the PUNCH political cartoonist whose own pictorial strangeness is made up in part of the particular steel-engraved ugliness of much Victorian visual culture (I never read Alice as a child because my mother found Tenniel’s pictures too ugly and disturbing to have in the house). This is similar to the work of Edward Lear, whose books, like Beatrix Potter’s, are so closely tied to his pictures as virtually to defy reillustration. Lear’s verse has a different emotional feel than Carroll’s—a low tone of distrust (“they” and “them” in Lear’s limericks famously never mean you any good) and rapturous loneliness (in the songs particularly) mixed with a wonderful sense of silliness and a delighting energy of wordplay. Lear is sweeter than Carroll, and simply funnier—the nonsense botanies, for instance, or “The Story of Four Children Who Went Round the World,” in which sanity seems to be a home country left further and further behind.
For years THE COMPLETE NONSENSE OF EDWARD LEAR, edited by Holbrook Jackson and reprinted a million times by Dover, was the standard edition; but in 2001 the end-all Lear scholar Vivien Noakes published EDWARD LEAR: THE COMPLETE VERSE AND OTHER NONSENSE with Penguin, which was like Christmas for the Lear admirer—it augments the Jackson text considerably and supplies an intro and notes. A LITTLE BOOK OF NONSENSE: THE BEST OF EDWARD LEAR (Barefoot Books) is a pocket-size selection and a great book to go with you—a kind of portable dementia. There is a loving and exact assessment of Lear in Peter Levi’s Oxford lecture, in THE ART OF POETRY (Yale, 1991). W. H. Auden wrote a splendid sonnet on Lear, in his COLLECTED POEMS (Vintage) and reprinted in the Noakes edition—it takes one, as they say, to know one.
Of the three THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is the one that lands just over the edge of the twentieth century—1908, and enjoying its centenary as I write. It is also the one that most thoroughly disarms criticism—a piebald classic, it’s been called, with the puckish and affectionate comic chapters cheek by jowl with lyric stretches of Edwardian pantheism. But for all its being a thing of pieces, its temper of genial melancholy and its celebration of friendship, freedom and landscape makes it one of the most endearing and enjoyable books ever written. It is dangerously, as A. A. Milne pointed out, a book by which we may choose to judge our friends. It is the bedside book par excellence.
Carroll was a don, Lear a landscape artist, Grahame a Secretary of the Bank of England—none a writer by profession. But Grahame fell in with a literary set; he knew Henley, and did a sketch for the YELLOW BOOK, an innocent among the leering decadents. He published a book of Stevensonian essays, PAGAN PAPERS, and made his reputation with THE GOLDEN AGE and DREAM DAYS—humorous sketches on childhood, dry-eyed by Victorian standards but to modern tastes still thick with twee. Grahame, who I suspect would have been happier as a Victorian-style, gentleman’s club bachelor, fell into a strange and claustrophobic marriage and had a son, Alastair. The unhappy and half-blind boy later committed suicide, but in this interlude of happiness Grahame found his audience, as Carroll found his with Dean Liddell’s daughters, and began coining the bedtime stories of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad.
Toad is the book’s skittering id—the producer of its high comedy and trigger of most of the action, and his gawping, ricocheting character took over A. A. Milne’s version when Milne adapted the story for the stage. Badger is the bass voice, all maturity and good sense and the restorer of order. But the continuo of the book, like the ever-present murmur of the river they love, is the friendship of Ratty and Mole—a camraderie of complete innocence and selflessness. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is a surprisingly emotional book—many tears and cries of sorrow are in it—but it is also, finally, a celebration of friendship—the modest and quotidian courage that sets so much right.
As with Alice, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS has attracted its share of illustrators. Two editions stand clearly above the others and brought out the artists’ best—those of Arthur Rackham, who obviously found the book congenial, and Ernest H. Shepard, who also illustrated the Pooh books and other stories of Grahame’s. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is a splendid and special book no matter how you have it, but hold out for one of these. I know of only two biographies—an early one (1932) by Patrick Chalmers, not very good, and Peter Green’s KENNETH GRAHAME: A BIOGRAPHY (1959), reissued in 1982 in a slightly abridged and illustrated edition: BEYOND THE WILD WOOD: The World of Kenneth Grahame (Facts on File). This is much the better of the two, and includes some sensible criticism of Grahame’s work. But be prepared—it’s a sad story, and ends in unrelieved gloom.