[Originally posted 4 July 2009]
Long summer dream
Sliding round my mind
Those long summer dreams
Are leaving me behind
Hot summer day
Carry me along
To its end where I begin.
Sliding round my mind
Those long summer dreams
Are leaving me behind
Hot summer day
Carry me along
To its end where I begin.
It’s a Beautiful Day
ne hundred fifty five years ago the Civil War was raging in North America, the Taiping Rebellion was cooking away in China, and France was busy intervening in Mexico. In England Victoria was already a quarter century into the interminable reign that would wind up gasping in the very foothills of the twentieth century. And on 4 July a mathematician set out on a river excursion with a fellow clergyman and three little girls, a trip that would change the face of English literature forever.
Charles Dodgson, soon to be known to a wider public as Lewis Carroll, was already an accomplished story-teller that July day in 1862 when he started to entertain the three Liddell sisters—Lorina (13), Alice (10), and Edith (8)—with an improvised adventure featuring a girl named Alice. He had entertained his own sisters with stories and drawings when younger, and had moved on to amuse other children as time passed; we may assume his art improved with practice. These tales, as Dodgson put it, “lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon.”
What happened on this particular afternoon to make things different? Ten-year-old Alice Liddell begged Charles Dodgson to write the story down—and, as things turned out, she was persistent enough to get him to actually do it. In the first burst of enthusiasm Dodgson wrote out the headings for the book—soon to be titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground—the very next day, but how far he got past that is unrecorded. He did not start writing the extant manuscript until November of that year, and he finished it in February of 1863. Illustrating it took still longer, and it was not until 26 November of the next year, 1864, that he finally presented it to Alice. By then he was already hard at work on a revision that would become the published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Now it would be naive indeed to suppose that Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is an exact transcript of the story Charles Dodgson told the Reverend Duckworth and the three Liddell sisters that 4th of July. (And of course nobody does make that supposition.) The author himself tells us that “In writing it out, I added many fresh ideas, which seemed to grow of themselves upon the original stock”. On the other hand it must have borne some passing resemblance to the story as originally told.
The question that I have wondered about for years, nay decades, is just this: What exactly was the tale that Charles Dodgson told that 4 July now over a century and a half ago? Obviously there is no way directly to find out, short of coming up with a time-machine and some sort of audio recorder, but there are hints and indications. First, we may start with what the author tells us, “I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” As the long fall, the arrival in the little hall, and the attempts to get out through the small door into the garden all follow reasonably naturally from this, we may reasonably assume that they had some counterpart in the Ur-Alice.
On the other hand there is material that seems unlikely to have belonged to the original spoken story. The Mouse’s tale, for example, that weaves tail-like across the page. This is a visual joke, and while we can imagine Charles Dodgson perhaps indicating by gestures what Alice was picturing, it seems more naturally at home in the written manuscript. Again, “the driest thing I know”, lifted from Chepmell’s Short Course of History, is a joke more likely conceived in the study than while rowing up the Isis on a hot summer day.
And another thing—the it-was-all-a-dream conclusion. Did Charles Dodgson reach a conclusion on this expedition? Several things make this unlikely. Alice Liddell tells us, in her recollections as quoted by Dodgson’s nephew, that he would break off a story in the middle saying, “That’s all till next time,” to which the girls would reply, “Ah, but it is next time.” That this may well have been one of those occasions when the story did not continue at once we have Dodgson’s own diary entry for the 6th of August, over a month later, when he tells of continuing his “interminable fairy-tale of Alice’s Adventures”—some indication that this was an ongoing performance. And it’s very tempting to suppose that he told the girls the episode of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon after the Liddell sisters sang “Beautiful Star” for him on 1 August 1862; the song is burlesqued as “Beautiful Soup.” (On the other hand it is possible that Dodgson’s burlesque of the song inspired the sisters to sing it for him correctly, or even that the two had no particular cause-and-effect relationship.) Another song (“Sally Go Up”), burlesqued in the same scene however, the Liddell sisters sang the very day before the 4 July expedition. Maybe “Beautiful Soup” was one of the additions to the written tale.
One odd feature of the book is worth noting here—there are two distinct parts to it. In the first part Alice is constantly changing size; at first she has no control over the situation, but then, thanks to advice from a caterpillar, she acquires the parts of a magic mushroom that allow her to control her own size. In the second part of the book, however, this is all forgotten. Once Alice finds her way into the garden the mushroom is never mentioned again, and in the original story her size (as far as we can tell) stays constant. (In the published version she starts growing uncontrollably during the trial scene.) She is said to be fifteen inches high in the MS (a foot in the published version), but the fact is that it is difficult to tell exactly what size she is. She interacts with playing cards as though she were in the same size range (three inches, maybe?), but the game of croquet is played with ostriches for mallets and hedgehogs for balls—are we supposed to picture them as miniature ostriches and hedgehogs? Or are the cards gigantic? The size thing, which is such a major feature of the first part of the book, has gone completely out the window by this point.
The point where this change happens has its own interest. Abruptly, just after the encounter with the pigeon in the MS (just after the Mad Tea Party in the book), Alice sees a door in a tree. She goes inside and finds herself back in the dark hall with the little door to the garden where she had been at the beginning of her adventures. This time, thanks to the magic mushroom, she is in control of her size and manages to make it through the door into the garden with ease. And it is from this point on that the mushroom and the size changes so evident up till now are forgotten.
It’s very satisfying that Alice manages to achieve the goal that frustrated her earlier, but it’s also arbitrary. The door in the tree that leads to the dark hall comes from nowhere; it has been prepared for in no way, and it’s really unnecessary. To put it another way, if Alice had never got through the door into the garden, but instead had further Pig and Pepper style adventures, we would never have noticed the omission. If Alice had come to the garden via another route, we as readers would have been perfectly happy. It is true that getting into the garden is the one element of the story that provides anything resembling purpose—but it’s hardly a major element. In fact Alice’s determination to somehow get into the garden is only mentioned once between the two hall episodes—just after the pigeon encounter.
While I’m not pretending to have exhausted the possibilities here, there is one plausible reason from the author’s perspective why it may have been necessary to return to the little hall and the exit to the garden: because that’s how the story already went. If, to put it as simply as possible, in an earlier version of the story Alice had made it out into the garden at the end of the first hallway episode, and had subsequent adventures there; and if Dodgson had decided to add at this point some of those “fresh ideas, which seemed to grow of themselves upon the original stock” that take Alice away from the hallway, then it would be necessary at some point to get Alice back to the hallway to continue with the earlier version of the story.
Let’s see how this plays out, then. On this hypothesis the pool of tears, the encounter with the mouse et al (including both the driest thing I know and the mouse’s tale mentioned above as unlikely to have been part of the original oral version), the adventures at the white rabbit’s house, the encounter with the caterpillar (including the advice about the mushroom), and Alice’s confrontation with the pigeon who thinks she’s a serpent—all these will have been additions to the earlier story. It is these adventures that contain and elaborate on the changing-size motif. The reason, then, that the mushroom and size-changing aspects of the story disappear when Alice gets to the garden is simple. They weren’t part of the earlier version of the story. Once Dodgson gets back to the earlier version of the story those elements disappear precisely because they were later elaborations.
Another point: one of the things that irritated me about the hallway episode when I was a child is this: Alice, when she’s nine feet tall, is able to unlock the door and peer out into the garden. But, when she accidentally shrinks down to about three inches and runs back to the door, it’s once again locked and the key is back again on that glass table. Now that just seemed plain arbitrary to me. How did the door get itself locked again? (Yeah, I know it’s a dream, but still—) And for that matter why on earth didn’t Alice either hold onto the key, or put it down somewhere where she could reach it when she was small enough to get through. Hell, why hadn’t she simply left it in the keyhole? We are supposed to imagine, apparently, that after looking out through the door she relocked it and thoughtfully placed the key back on the glass table where it would be inconveniently out of reach the next time she was small enough to get out through it—and all this without a word of narrative to support it.
Now let’s suppose for a moment that the original narrative had gone something like this:
As she said this, she looked down at her hands, and was surprised to find she had put on one of the rabbit’s little gloves while she was talking. “How can I have done that?” thought she, “I must be growing small again.” She got up and went to the table to measure herself by it, and found that, as nearly as she could guess, she was now about two feet high, and was going on shrinking rapidly: soon she found out that the reason of it was the nosegay she held in her hand: she dropped it hastily, just in time to save herself from shrinking away altogether, and found that she was now only three inches high.
“Now for the garden!” cried Alice, as she hurried back to the little door, and then she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flowerbeds and the cool fountains.
Although as I've mentioned size is ambiguous in this final section, at three inches Alice would have been a reasonable height to interact with playing cards. (The ostriches and hedgehogs are unreasonable whether Alice is three inches or fifteen inches high, however.)
So as I’ve indicated this hypothesis explains quite nicely some of the features of the narrative that are otherwise puzzling. Is there any reason to suppose, however, that Dodgson would be likely to work in this manner—slicing a narrative open to insert new material?
Yes, there is. The Hunting of the Snark grew from three fits to eight by the addition of episodes between the opening two fits and the closing one. Sylvie and Bruno clearly shows signs of this same hollowing-out process; the original plot-line, abandoned after chapter 12 of Sylvie and Bruno, resumes abruptly at chapter 20 of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, picking up with the same themes and plans that had vanished in the previous volume. In each case Dodgson cut the work apart to insert new material into the innards, though in the case of Sylvie and Bruno at least some of the new material was actually older than the surrounding text into which it was inserted. And in the change from the MS to the printed version of Alice’s Adventures itself we can see the process continuing; the new Pig and Pepper and Mad Tea Party episodes are added between the pigeon and second hallway episodes. And with their insertion we can see how material becomes displaced from its original context.
In the MS we find:
It was so long since she had been of the right size that it felt quite strange at first, but she got quite used to it in a minute or two, and began talking to herself as usual: “Well! There’s half my plan done now! How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another! However, I’ve got to my right size again: the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden—how is that to be done, I wonder?”
Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a doorway leading right into it. “That's very curious,” she thought…
In other words we are reminded immediately before Alice sees the doorway leading her back to the hall of her intent to get into the garden. But in the book we have:
“…how is that to be done, I wonder?” As she said this, she came suddenly upon an open place, with a little house in it about four feet high.
Two chapters later, after the Pig and Pepper and Mad Tea Party episodes Dodgson returns to this moment:
“At any rate I’ll never go there again!” said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”
Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a door leading right into it. “That's very curious,” she thought.
Note how he gets here. Dodgson has taken the original phrase “Just as she said this” and used it twice in the resultant text, leaving on it (“As she said this she came suddenly upon…”) and then returning to the original text with it (“Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees…”). In the process of making this insertion the original preparatory text about Alice’s plan to get into the garden has become separated by two chapters worth of material from its payoff (the door in the tree), and that small duplication shows us exactly where the incision was made.
Now there’s no exact verbal duplication that seems to mark the point of the original incision (nor does there have to be, but it’s helpful when there is), but I suggest that “as she hurried back to the little door” (original episode) may well be parallel to “then she walked down the little passage” (second hallway episode). The reference to the little passage is wrong in any case; the door was behind a curtain and led to a little passage out into the garden; there was no little passage leading to the door. I suspect Dodgson here engaged in a little careless rewriting.
And another thought: we know that Dodgson continued working on the story even after the MS had assumed its final form. Note where he added the two new episodes (Pig and Pepper and the Mad Tea Party): directly at the end of the earlier new material, by this hypothesis. True, not all the new material was added here; he expanded the trial scene considerably, for one thing. But it is interesting; it is as though the MS froze the story at a particular moment in time as it was being developed. Dodgson starts writing the material for the insertion; he cuts it short so that the MS actually gets finished and he can present it to Alice; but for the book he simply keeps on going from that same point.
Okay, I could continue elaborating on my thoughts, and in fact have started and abandoned a couple of paragraphs that do just that, but there’s a barbecue waiting for me down the street and I want to get this published some time in the foreseeable future. So let me cut to the chase. Is there any remote chance that the tale as I’ve recovered it, shorn of the various parts I’ve mentioned as probable additions, represents what Charles Dodgson told Alice and her sisters that long-ago 4th of July?
Probably not. It might be a stage closer, but, well—the thing is, there was almost certainly at least one manuscript between the MS we have and the story as it was told. In pre-computer days it was standard to create a manuscript (rough draft) before typing up or hand-lettering the presentation copy. Everything about the extant MS (including the fact that it was a presentation copy) suggests that it is a final copy, and Dodgson will have prepared it from a rough draft of some kind. That rough draft will have been where he worked out the changes and revisions that created the present tale. The earlier version that I have tentatively reconstructed, even if it be valid, is just as likely to have been an earlier MS draft as the oral story itself.
And another thing—there were months between Charles Dodgson’s first telling of the story and his creation of the extant MS. Months to forget, to alter, to blur the details of the original story. Now we can assume that he had something to go by—he himself tells us he wrote out the “headings” for the story the very next day, and with any luck he will at least have had that to go by.
Now here’s my fantasy of how we might have at least the outline of the story as told on 4 July 1862. (There are too many speculative elements now for me to even call this a hypothesis.) We know Dodgson wrote out the “headings” for the story the next day. Canon Duckworth tells us that Dodgson told him “that he sat up nearly the whole night, committing to a MS. book his recollections of the drolleries with which he had enlivened the afternoon.” Now maybe Canon Duckworth is confused, and the MS he’s thinking of was the one we have, the presentation copy to Alice, and he was just flat wrong about when it was written and how long it took. But what if his story is correct? The MS book in this case would be a lost rough draft, precisely the sort of thing that could have formed the basis for the final MS copy we actually have, and exactly the sort of thing that my reconstructed Ur-Alice would look like. Maybe, just maybe, we are this close to the tale as told.
Now one of the consequences of this is that we have gradually been losing some of the best parts of the Wonderland story as I’ve been going through this. Of course we already knew that the Mad Tea Party formed no part of the story that memorable day, but now we’ve lost the caterpillar as well. And maybe the croquet scene—remember those troublesome ostriches and hedgehogs? And of course the trial was a mere sketch of what it would eventually become. And the gryphon and the mock turtle may have been part of story told at a later time. What was it about the story, then, that so enthralled Alice, whose enthusiasm ultimately enriched us all?
Well, we’ll never know, and that’s probably how it should be. For some things, you just had to be there.