Today I wanted to share something a bit different with you. Last year, I wrote a post about the weekend I spent in Oxford. During this trip, I bought myself the Penguin clothbound edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. As Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson spent a lot of his life in Oxford, I thought it only fitting to bring his most famous work home as a souvenir.
Just before last christmas, I decided that it was ample time that I actually read this classic. Obviously, I knew most of the story through references and film adaptations but I wanted to experience Carroll’s writing first hand.
As a slightly obsessive reader, I always need to read a book from front to back cover. That includes all the introductions, notes… It sometimes takes me longer than reading the actual book but I enjoy it almost as much. In this edition of Carroll’s work, there is a lot of paratext. I found it absolutely fascinating to read about the intricate ways Carroll uses words; his ability to create new words and manipulate old ones.
However, and that is what this post is about (apologies for all the fluff before this), part of the introduction talked about the real Alice, the inspiration for the famous character. The fact that Alice was inspired by a real human isn’t what’s shocking, what is disturbing is the nature of the relationship between the author and this little girl; his fascination and borderline obsession with her.
I don’t want to go into all the sordid details as this introduction does it much better than I ever will but it did completely change my perspective on this work and led me to go into it with a lot of external context that I maybe wish I didn’t have.
Before I had read the book, I had heard a lot of people say that it read a bit like an acid trip. For me, after reading this introduction, it read as an outlet for Carroll’s inappropriate fascination and I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more without having read that introduction.
Having studied literature, I know that you always have to think of a work in two ways: the first being the work as it is with its use of language, themes, characters, plots…the second being the work in its larger context. It is on that second level that the author’s personal motivations are involved, that the historical context in which the work was written is taken into account… and all these can have a significant impact on your interpretation of the work.
Because in the end, it always remains an interpretation. No matter how many studies have been written about Carroll, we will never truly know what passed through his mind while he was writing this classic of children literature. And to be completely honest, I’m almost 100% sure I would not want to know.
Before I end this, I would like to know if you have ever had your perspective of an author or/and a work completely changed by learning something about their personal life. If so, what was it? Let’s ruin it for everybody else!