November 20, 2015

One of John Tenniel's original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

Alice at a tea party. Credit: John Tenniel / Wikicommons

Get ready for a tea party, because it’s the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Yes, 2015 marks 150 years of mad hatters, vindictive Queens, and grinning cats. And, even now, Lewis Carroll’s Alice inspires fashion, movies, songs, and art.

But how exactly did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland become popular and powerful? Jan Susina, a professor of English at Illinois State University, believes it’s not just because the story is captivating.

Susina argues that Alice represented a major shift in children’s literature. Before Alice, children’s literature was often frightening. The History of the Fairchild Family, for example, contained a “horrible story about this young girl named Augustus Noble. She plays with matches and burns to death, which is pretty bad. But what’s worse is that her family didn’t introduce her to religion, so [the book says] she burns eternally.”

The goal of the book was religious instruction, not entertainment (obviously).

Indeed, Susina notes that before the Victorian era, our modern conception of childhood didn’t really exist. Children were expected to work and contribute to the family. But as the Industrial Revolution began to change family roles, middle and upper class children had the luxury of playing and reading for entertainment.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was perfectly positioned to take advantage of this new approach to childhood.

Lewis Carroll was also a brilliant marketer. Though the book was published by Macmillan, “Carroll was very hands on, sort of like what people do today with their own e-books," says Susina. "He was editing it, he paid for the advertising, he was actively involved.” Carroll selected the illustrator (John Tenniel, who at that point was a well known cartoonist), helped design the jacket, and, after the book became popular, was even involved in producing Alice merchandise. Think biscuit tins. And umbrellas.

But a century and a half later, our continuing attachment to Carroll's work may be due to the fact that it offers up a fantastical, creative world. As the Cheshire Cat notes, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” 

Jan Susina, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Culture, Literature

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