04 July 2024

An end to another spell
in Wonderland and to
the Mad Hatter’s party while
painting the roses red

Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories begin on 4 July 1862 … is today's election going to put an end to the Mad Hatter’s party?

Patrick Comerford

I have voted, I have exercised my democratic right and I have fulfilled my civic responsibility.

I voted in Stony Stratford early this morning, and I plan to stay awake all night, watching the election counts and waiting for results. I may stay awake util well into the morning, hoping for and anticipating many Portillo moments.

I wondered two weeks ago whether anyone had noticed the coincidence that fact that the election date today (4 July) is also the date on which the Alice in Wonderland stories began. On a boat trip in Oxford on 4 July 1862, Lewis Carroll first told the ‘Alice’ stories to Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

We live in a political ‘wonderland’, filled with mad hatters, tea parties, and people who fail to look at themselves in the mirror, yet would bring us all down the rabbit hole.

Alice’s Day is an annual city-wide celebration in Oxford on the first Saturday in July of all things about Alice in Wonderland, and takes place this year on Saturday (6 July).

It commemorates the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when the Christ Church don and mathematician Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters Edith (then 8) and Lorina (13), daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a boat trip from Folly Bridge to Godstow, where they had a picnic.

The children begged him to tell a story, and to amuse them he told a story about a little girl, sitting bored by a riverbank, who finds herself tumbling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland.

He wrote up these tales of a girl called Alice and her fantastical adventures for Alice in a manuscript entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 1864 and published an expanded version as Alice in Wonderland in 1865, under the pen name Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. A sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, was published in 1871.

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.

In a paper in 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.’

But for 160 years or more, 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, Dodgson 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.

Painting the roses red … roses in a garden in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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.

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 in 2015.

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, on this election night, 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.

As I sit up late tonight and into tomorrow morning, I expect to see not so much white roses being painted red, but blue blotches on the map turn red. I expect more than one politician who was feeling smug until recently hear the democratic, 21st century equivalent of ‘Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head … Off with his head …’

It may even be a night that means those who were responsible for the Mad Hatters’ parties that we all saw during the Covid lockdown are forced to accept responsibility for their actions.

‘Off With The Heads!’ … the Queen of Hearts

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