23 June 2015

Finding theological and political
significance in the garden roses

A budding red rose in the back garden this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

“If any one of them can explain it,” said Alice, “I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.”

I am smothered with hay fever for the last few days, aggravated by time spent in Christ Church Cathedral during the Dublin Garden Festival last weekend and time spent in the last few days in the gardens at home and at work, enjoying the summer sunshine and the roses.

I was reminded this morning, as I talked about the roses, that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the most famous book about roses and gardens. After a couple of alternative titles for Lewis Carroll’s story were rejected – including Alice Among the Fairies and Alice’s Golden Hour - his first Alice book book was published by Macmillan on 26 November 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The entire print run sold out quickly and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland became an overnight publishing sensation, among both children and adults. The book’s first avid readers included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde.

It was quickly followed by Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There in 1871. It has never been out of print since then and has been translated into at least 176 languages.

Lewis Carroll is the pen-name chosen by the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, the Latin for Lutwidge, his middle name, while Carroll is an Irish surname similar to Carolus, the Latin form of his first name Charles.

In this anniversary year, it should not be forgotten that Charles Dodgson had strong Irish family connections, and that he came from a clerical family rooted in the Church of Ireland family and with Tractarian sympathies.

Lewis Carroll, or the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was the great-grandson of Charles Dodgson (1722-1795), who was nominated Bishop of Ossory 250 years ago in succession to Richard Pococke. He was consecrated in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin, on 11 August 1765 by William Carmichael, Archbishop of Dublin.

Ten years later, he moved from Kilkenny when he became Bishop of Elphin on 12 April 1775. King George III congratulated him on this promotion, saying that he ought indeed to be thankful to have got away from a palace where the stabling was so bad. He died in Dublin on 21 January 1795 and was buried at Saint Bride’s Church.

Lewis Carroll’s father, the Ven Charles Dodgson (1800-1861), was a Vicar in Cheshire and Yorkshire before becoming Archdeacon of Richmond. In the great theological debates in the 19th century, Archdeacon Dodgson was a High Church Anglican, inclining to Anglo-Catholicism. He was a college friend of Edward Bouverie Pusey, and an admirer of John Henry Newman. A supporter of the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, he contributed the volume on Tertullian to Pusey’s series, Library of the Fathers, and in all wrote 24 books on theology.

His son, Charles Dodgson, was regarded as “stiffly conservative” in in his theological views at Oxford, his diary is interspersed with private prayers, and when asked about his beliefs in 1897 said he was a member of the Church of England, adding: “I owe all to him who loved me, and died on the Cross of Calvary.”

Christ Church College, Oxford ... as a Fellow, Charles Dodgson was ordained a deacon on 22 December 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As a Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, he was ordained a deacon on 22 December 1861. But a year later, when the time came to be ordained priest, he appealed to the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell (1811-1898) for permission not to proceed. This was against college rules and Dodgson faced expulsion. However, Liddell changed his mind overnight and allowed Dodgson to remain without becoming a priest.

Why did Dodgson decide against ordination to the priesthood? Some suggestions say his speech impediment explains his reluctance, as he had a difficulty in reading lessons and prayers and in preaching in his own words.

Certainly, Dodgson remained active in ministry: he preached regularly and was a friend and admirer of the theologian FD Maurice.

Whatever the reason, his stammer, which was so marked that he often stumbled over his own name, was an inspiration for the Do-Do in Alice, and Alice herself was Liddell’s own daughter, Alice Liddell (1852-1934).

Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories begin on 4 July 1862 and were first published 150 years ago in 1865

Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories begin on 4 July 1862, in a journey on a rowing boat on the River Isis from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow for a picnic outing. Since then, 4 July has been marked as Alice Day.

Alice Pleasance Liddell, who was then 10, asked Charles Dodgson to entertain her and her sisters, Edith (then 8) and Lorina (13), with a story. As the Revd Robinson Duckworth rowed, Dodgson entertained the girls with stories of a girl, named Alice and her adventures after she fell into a rabbit-hole.

The fictional Alice has earned a place in literary history that can be compared with that of Dante’s Beatrice, famous for being a muse, a receptacle for the male imagination.

But for the past 150 years, critics and analysts have argued with one another about whether the Alice stories are about sex, drugs, politics, racism, the class system or psychiatric care, or all of these in various combinations, or merely an in-house commentary on the internal politics of Oxbridge college life.

Are they the most popular fairy tales in the English language?

Or are they social satire?

Francine F Abeles’s edition of Dodgson’s political pamphlets presents a man who was fundamentally concerned with fairness. Summoning his mathematical abilities to issues related to electoral politics, he simultaneously made important contributions both to political science with his proposals for proportional representation and to mathematics with ideas that we now know as game theory.

From 1881 to 1885, he engaged with important political debates of the day, including the extension of the voting franchise, the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons, and proportional representation to ensure consensus and minority representation.

In a letter to The Spectator in 1875, he warned that secular education would inculcate attitudes that led students to tolerate oppression, injustice and slavery. He also protested against the abuse of animals, the existence of slavery, the mistreatment of factory workers, and the degradation of women.

He looks at reality through the eyes of a child, for whom adults are cruel, childlike, irresponsible, impulsive, and self-indulgent. Through Alice’s eyes, he sees these characteristics in authority figures and in royalty. And so he questions the authority of adults and of royalty and mocks the commonly-held prejudices of his day.

Alice could be read as a political allegory or satire, with Wonderland a symbolic England, ruled tyrannically by the Queen of Hearts, who represents Queen Victoria.

White roses on the lawns in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In an article in Punch in 1928, CW Giles suggests Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass provide a commentary on the War of the Roses (1455-1485), in which the House of York, symbolised by the White Rose, and the House of Lancaster, with the emblem of the Red Rose, fought for the English throne and political power.

The Queen of Hearts – the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass who demands red roses – is the Lancastrian Queen Margaret. She is the wife of Henry VI, the ineffectual Red King, and demands the execution of the captive Duke of York, the knave in Wonderland: “Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head.” And again: “Off with his head and set it on York gates.”

He identifies the Duchess of Wonderland with Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, Queen Margaret’s mutual enemy. Shakespeare tells how the Queen boxed her ears, whereupon the Duchess vowed: “She shall not strike Dame Eleanor unavenged.”

The sequel is in Wonderland on the croquet-ground, where Alice asks the White Rabbit, “Where’s the Duchess?”

“Hush! Hush!” said the Rabbit in a low hurried tone ... “She’s under a sentence of execution.”

“What for?” said Alice.

“She boxed the Queen’s ears,” the Rabbit began ...

The Duchess doses the baby with pepper and then chastises him for sneezing. For Giles, the baby is Richard of Gloucester, who eventually takes the throne as Richard III.

The baby is transformed into a pig, and Richard III’s emblem is a boar – which also gives us the York ham.

If Richard III is the baby, then the White King is his elder brother, Edward IV. The King’s messengers, Hatta and Haigha – the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in Wonderland – are of course of the White Rose faction: the Hatter is Warwick the Kingmaker and the March Hare symbolises the Yorkist claim to the throne based on the descent from Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to Richard II.

The fall of Humpty Dumpty, attended by the army of the White King, may refer to Richard III, who is portrayed in history and by Shakespeare as being hump-backed, and who was defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. He was reburied in Leicester Cathedral earlier this year.

In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty discusses semantics and pragmatics with Alice:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

But perhaps these tales should be read as commentaries on British politics at the time and on the failings of the British justice system of the day, with the willingness of politicians to change colours whimsically.

We see the violence built into the Victorian justice system displayed by the aristocracy of Wonderland, the Duchess and the Queen, and the mangling of justice in the trial:

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.

“I won’t!” said Alice.

The royal gardeners paint white roses red in order to appease the Queen and to avoid decapitation. The Hatter is imprisoned before his trial “and of course the crime comes last of all,” says the Queen.

Painting the white roses red may suggest that people have to hide what they truly are in order to avoid loss or gain political advantage and promotion hastily.

Alice also provides hints of Charles Dodgson’s sympathies with the Tractarians and John Henry Newman.

At one point, the knight raises his hands in excitement, instantly rolls out of the saddle, and falls headlong into a deep ditch.

“Alice ran to the side of the ditch to look for him. She was rather startled by the fall, as for some time he had kept on very well, and she was afraid that he really was hurt this time. However, though she could see nothing but the soles of his feet, she was much relieved to hear that he was talking on in his usual tone.”

In The Idea of a University (1852), Newman suggests that the quintessential Victorian gentleman should “submit to pain because it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable, and to death because it is his destiny.”

When Alice meets the White Knight on the seventh square, he tries to hold himself in Newman’s resigned, complacent dignity and also as a romantic representation of a chivalric hero. However, his complete lack of riding ability and amusing, failed inventions render his attempts at maintaining a gentlemanly air ludicrous to Alice. This general incompetence makes Alice accept his romantic representation of chivalry as satiric.

Even the White Knight recognises that his life of chivalry is a lonely isolated one, as he comments on what he interprets as Alice’s sadness at their departure. He tries to comfort her with a song, which he says is “very, very beautiful” and very sad.

Alice recalls “the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight – the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her.”

The episode may be a commentary on Newman’s departure from the Church of England for Roman Catholicism, his subsequent isolation from his former colleagues and friends in Oxford and how he bore this, and on Newman’s hymns, especially Lead kindly light, first published in 1834, which ends with the lines:

and with the morn those angel faces smile,
which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

However, in a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Professor Richard Jenkyns of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, said Alice in Wonderland is “probably the most purely child-centred book ever written.” He argued that its only purpose “is to give pleasure.”

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