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Alice In Wonderland: What Is The Appropriate Age?

One of the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, showing Alice and the mouse swimming in the pool of tears

In a previous post on this book, I made a brief reference to having given a copy of Carroll’s book to my nephew. The decision over just when I should have presented the novel to him was fairly long in the making – not nearly as long as the waiting period for the time when he would be old enough for Narnia (I made that all by myself by having a copy ready when he was only one year old, and finally gave it to him aged eight) but enough that I spent a number of hours on it all told.

It was this decision and the contents of the book in general – obviously related – that made me question at what age it would be appropriate to give a child, any child, this book. And this is because I think it should be a little later than the age it might have been given in years gone by, namely the Victorian period during which it was written.

Whilst Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, the first of the two about Wonderland, does not state Alice’s age – though we can make an informed estimate due to John Tenniel’s illustrations – the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass, gives Alice’s age as 7. That book takes place in November, and the first takes place in May, which means we can say for certain that Alice is 6 and a half to 7 years of age over all.

The two books were published in 1865 and 1871, and a lot has changed since then. The literary context and wider culture was different enough that a book that sports quite a bit of violence was okay then but not now – in fact I think it’s interesting that the word that comes to mind now is indeed ‘violence’, as it’s obviously a strong word, and there has likely been a change over the years where that word would not have been used to describe the book1. The violence in the book, such as the well known ‘off with her head!’ which Disney managed to rework into something a lot more palatable despite not altering the phrase at all, or the chapter featuring the baby and ‘highly strung’ guardians, isn’t really the sort of thing we tend to present to children. As Gardner says in his lauded annotation of the novel:

The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child [Gardner was writing with his compatriots in mind] who tries to read the Alice books. One says “tries” because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams. (p. XIV)

And that was said in 1960.

We could also bring in the ‘madness’ (“We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat says), which is sometimes seen along with the violence, but I’d say it’s fair to assume that aspect is part of the bizarre wonderland, and due to the way children tend to interpret things in similar terms, isn’t anywhere near as problematic2.

As Alice is seven years old in the book we can assume that this is roughly the age Carroll imagined his readers to be. Seven could perhaps be the ‘right’ age for a modern reader, but I think we can say that nowadays it would depend on the reader’s personality and upbringing a lot more than it would have in Victorian times given societal and cultural changes. In a world where capital punishment was still acceptable and known about by all, for example, a queen running about shouting for people’s heads to be removed wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. On the first book’s release, reviewers disliked it, but the first book sold quickly and has never been out of print (Wikipedia, n.d.). It’s also remained with the same publishing house, Macmillan. In 1991, Donald Rackin said of the novel:

Victorian readers generally enjoyed the Alice books as light-hearted entertainment that omitted the stiff morals which other books for children frequently included. (p. 20)

As we know, books in the centuries prior had been mostly about religion and instruction, and although ‘fun’ books had been conceptualised by John Locke in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the mid 1700s that what we would now call children’s books were published3. By this measure, Carroll’s work would have been something to celebrate over and above the simple fact of the fantasy it offered.

But there is of course a whole world in between strict Victorian morals for children and the education we provide today. Alice doesn’t take away from Wonderland any lasting knowledge, meaning that her brief stays are purely adventures and she remains the mischievous – or, ‘bother’, as I said for lack of a better word a couple of years ago – which, in the context of Victorian opinion and years that are not so far in the past, isn’t as much as a selling point as it might have been years ago. There are lessons for the reader to learn, namely, in my opinion, that of being considerate, but they are for the reader, and affect Alice only for that moment. (See the chapters wherein Alice offends a mouse by talking about the loveliness of her cat.) These lessons are easy to understand and well-constructed, but the onus is entirely on the reader to see where Alice is wrong, and there is no provision of reward for the reader in terms of acknowledgement by Alice apart from that momentary self-awareness in one scene.

It’s interesting to note that the recent live-action adaptation, partly produced by Disney, sticks to the original idea of bizarre to the effect that it’s fairly scary. This is solidified by the UK rating of Parental Guidance (‘should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older’), a marked difference to the 1950s cartoon version which is a U (‘should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over’).

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that, in conjunction with the second novel, seven is a fair age, but there is enough to consider to make eight, or even nine, perhaps, a good option. Six and a half, whilst only months away from seven, might be pushing it.

What’s your opinion on the reading age, and have you had to decide about what age to read/give a child a book that due to its era poses potential questions?

Footnotes

1 In 1936, one Paul Schilder wrote an entire essay in the context of psychoanalyse and the potential detrimental affect on young readers. The essay is unfortunately behind a paywall so I couldn’t cite it here, but if you have a subscription to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, you’ll find it here.
2 This said, there are comments that can be made in regards to eating disorders, mental illnesses, and Carroll’s life and intentions that Molly Stroud (2018) has summed up well in her essay, Mental Illness in Alice in Wonderland.
3 I wrote about western children’s literature here.

References

Online

Wikipedia (n.d.) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Wikipedia, accessed 12th December 2018

Books

Gardner, Martin (ed.) The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll (1999), W W Norton & Company, New York.
Rackin, Donald (1991) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking-Glass, Twayne Publishers, New York.

 
November 2018 Reading Round Up (Sort Of)

A photograph of an autumn tree at The Vyne

The reason my blogging has been so patchy: I got myself two furry friends of the rabbit persuasion. And rabbits, especially during the lengthy teenage months when they are chewing, thumping, and making other moves for which the politest translation is ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi’, take up a lot of time. We’re now out the other side, and it is wonderful to be able to pick up a book again for more than a short period.

In November I didn’t finish any books but I did read a couple more chapters of Brick Lane. And I started Outlander, which I’m 200 pages into and enjoying. I may have lost the edge of Brick Lane‘s jacket to the discovery stage of A Practical Study into the Composition and Taste of Paper, a project thankfully since abandoned.

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My plan for December includes finishing Outlander and watching the first TV season so long as only the first book is covered, reading at least one more Christmas book to accompany my nonseasonal (October) reading of the Jenny Colgan I’ll be reviewing in a few days, and making an hour or two to re-read a childhood favourite – Babysitter’s Club #21, which I discussed in 2016 as a book I’d like to re-read if I could find the box I’d packed it into. The box has since migrated to a spot in front of my shelves.

If there is time after the above I have an as yet unwrapped set of A Song Of Ice And Fire.

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In related news, I attended the Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony yesterday evening. The prize was given to Adam Weymouth for Kings Of The Yukon. This is the first year since the relaunch that I’ve not read any of the shortlisted books, however I took home with me a copy of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet which I hope to read by February.

I’m going to use these next weeks before Christmas to get back into the swing of things. Expect a few reviews and, hopefully, a discussion post or two.

What are you planning to read during the rest of this month, and have you ever lost part (or all) of a book to a pet?

 
October 2018 Reading Round Up

I didn’t do badly in October. Looking at this list has made me realise how long the month was, and in a good way; whilst the last week of October was very cold – in relative terms – the majority was sunny and warm and I think the number of summery days, with the change following, afforded the effect of more time. This month was also about library usage – I’ve reviewed books I’ve borrowed from the library in recent times but this time it made up almost half of my reading, and I gave the books back with the idea in mind to purchase at least one of them at some point. (It’s likely the Whitehead will be on my ‘best of’ list, and I think not having my own copy when there’s a big chance I’ll want to re-read it or think on it further would be difficult.)

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn – A young Irish girl is sent by her family to a growing America in the hope she’ll find a better life there. Lacks a real plot and characterisation.

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Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad – Two slaves run away from the plantation and board an underground train to a less southerly state where life is likely better. Fantastic.

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Eloisa James: A Duke Of Her Own – Villiers needs a mother for his six illegitimate children and thinks to choose between enticing Eleanor and ‘mad’ Lisette; if Eleanor has anything to do with it it’ll be she he chooses. The best of the entire series – awesome characterisation and often very funny.

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Eloisa James: This Duchess Of Mine – Jemma knows it’s high time she and Elijah had an heir to the dukedom, and both husband and wife secretly hope love will blossom. Not as good as the rest of the series.

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Jenny Colgan: Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop – Despite decreasing sales at her shop, Rosie is looking forward to Christmas in a snowy village and spending it with her reluctant-to-be-a-Lord boyfriend, but her family want to come over from Australia and there’s a problem ahead for the community to deal with. Pretty fun and festive.

No contest, the Whitehead won it this month. A Duke Of Her Own was a very close second, and certainly if I hadn’t read The Underground Railroad at the 11th hour, it would have won, but Whitehead’s commentary and ending was just something else. The Colgan was a lot of fun to read.

Quotation Report

This is another occasion wherein paraphrasing the quotation just won’t work. Here it is in full, from The Underground Railroad:

Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.

Finally the end of my busy period is in sight, even if it’ll soon be replaced by Christmas planning. I’m looking forward to reading (I believe the vernacular is ‘well, duh!’), evenings on the sofa listening to Eva Cassidy, and looking for gifts.

How was your October, and how is the weather where you are?

 
Elizabeth Is Missing: Who Killed Sukey?

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This post has lingered in my mind for a few years; it seems somewhat old now to discuss the question but I know that if I don’t, I’ll just keep thinking about it.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing is a novel with a varied sort of storytelling. Told in the first person by Maud, the main aspect of it is Maud’s present life, her deterioration through dementia. The other part of it covers Maud’s childhood, which she is looking back on. The variety comes from the dementia; due to Maud’s fading memory, the two narratives aren’t always linear, sections often cover the same details as before, and those that are repeated are subject to changed details due to the dementia. Just in terms of its structure it’s a fantastic book.

The core question of the book, if viewed in its entity, is how much really concerns Maud’s worries about Elizabeth, and how much is actually Maud’s worries about Sukey mixed up with the ‘idea’ of Elizabeth (not that Elizabeth isn’t a real person). It’s this that fascinated me most during my re-read for this post, the way the narratives are both separate and the same, and the way it comes together at the end to be the same but separate.

In working out what happened to Sukey, it’s a good idea to ignore the majority of the present-day sections at least until a fair way through the book – skimming the present-day sections for references to Sukey, Douglas, Frank, and Maud’s parents is important, but generally only paramount towards the end.

Considering Maud’s dementia, however, everything has to be read with a thought to the idea of a pinch of salt – not everything is likely true but at the same time nothing should be disregarded, even past the last page. We have to be the detective Maud can only wish to be.

The story of Sukey’s disappearance just after World War II is given piece meal, but here’s an attempt to put the potential facts in order:

  • Sukey met Douglas at work; she liked him; she arranged for him to be her family’s lodger.
  • Douglas’ house had been bombed and he had nowhere to live.
  • Douglas’ mother wouldn’t leave her house and he had a difficult time getting her to leave. She was severely effected by the bombing.
  • Sukey met Frank and later marries him; Frank had inherited a removal’s business and has connections to the black market where he gets extra food for Sukey’s family, food they are not entitled to in this time of rationing.
  • Sukey and Frank’s house is full of old furniture because Frank thinks they might sell it.
  • Sukey still sees Douglas – Douglas lies about going to the cinema and on one occasion when Sukey was over, he left a little after her.
  • Sukey knows about Douglas’ mother; Douglas says she cared about her, but we readers know that she didn’t.
  • The smashed gramophone records in the garden turned out to be the result of a row between Douglas and Sukey.
  • When Sukey disappeared, it seemed she’d last been seen at a hotel, only the receptionist later told Maud that Frank had signed Sukey in and Sukey hadn’t been seen by anyone. Frank had left that night.
  • Neighbours reported shouting in the street, and one said Sukey had always had men over (Douglas it seems).
  • Douglas kept going ‘to the cinema’ but in reality he was going to the pavilion where he had met up with Sukey, thinking she might turn up there.
  • While all this was going on, Douglas had been feeding the ‘mad woman’, his mother, who is later run over by a car.

This is not everything, but it’s the basics. The rest concerns the family search and Maud’s interactions with Frank, which show to the reader a potentially violent man, confirming others’ descriptions of him as often drunk. As Healey writes everything from Maud’s perspective, which has the added ‘hindrance’ of a child’s mind together with the older woman’s forgetfulness, the details arrive slowly and without the benefit of real understanding. When Frank pushes Maud against the banister, she glimpses the possibility of him wanting to throw her down the stairs but instead takes in his talk about trying to stop her falling. She tells him all she knows about Sukey when he tells her he misses her – when, whilst the full reason isn’t revealed to the reader, we can see manipulation and Frank wanting to make sure he’s covered all the bases. We can also see a potential feeling of guilt, which is at once also shot through with violence.

It’s very possible to say Frank killed Sukey and that he was jealous – Healey pitches Douglas as a red herring but tells the reader straight at the end when he’s named as the prime suspect. Frank had access to the new housing estate, and designed the planting areas, which would have given him the ability to make sure they were away from where he had buried Sukey. The house appears to have been sold to Elizabeth who at some point in time became Maud’s friend. We do not know where Elizabeth’s arrival comes into play, but if Frank planted marrows in the garden(s) he ‘designed’, then Maud unconsciously put two and two together.

At the same time, that Douglas seemed to know a lot…

It would seem possible that Sukey never made it to the car that was supposedly outside the hotel; she may well have been killed in her house. If so, it is slightly possible that Douglas’ mother, the mad woman who Sukey doesn’t like, killed her. If Maud is to believed, there were birds found in the burial place, and this brings Healey’s use of birds through the book to a close; birds certainly seem to be symbols, for one thing they are a theme in terms of Douglas’ mother.

Frank’s going to London ensured the idea of her having gone with him would take hold, and Maud’s worry about the idea that Sukey may have left Frank in the same way lots of people left their spouses after the war, didn’t have anything to do with it. Frank may have made the trip to London as a cover up or because he knew he’d be blamed (in the case that he didn’t do it).

At some point Maud’s story of Sukey gets blended with Elizabeth’s – it may be that Sukey’s house was not cluttered with furniture and that Maud was thinking of the time Elizabeth’s house was sold. Sukey’s clothes may or may not have been in the suitcase. Maud and Sukey may or may not have had a nice time on the beach as children.

What exactly happened to Sukey we don’t know, we just know the aftermath: the skeleton in the garden with a fracture in its head.

One thing to think about, though – what was all that about Sukey being buried by Maud in the sand, but then Sukey having buried Maud first and Maud not having liked it? And the sea shells which later became fingernails… perhaps, with this, the parting vignette of the book, Healey is suggesting another culprit entirely, one who did at points seem jealous of Sukey’s relationship with Frank…

This, and the remaining possible killers, certainly align with the memory loss narrative. I kind of want to end this post on a note of touché, Ms Healey…

 
Reading Life: 17th October 2018

A photograph of an open gate in a stone wall, surrounded by autumn leaves, part of the Hever Castle mock-Roman gardens

Reading a Christmas book in October has been an experience, especially considering the current weather. It’s not been particularly cold and there have been a lot of sunny days; of course October isn’t the correct month for seasonal reading anyway, but the fact it’s been so mild has made it actively feel unusual. Has it put me in a Christmasy mood? No, but it’s given me a gentle reminder of the atmosphere, not that one was needed because I’m planning for Christmas in other ways and have had In Dulci Jublio in my head for several days. It’s just as well there aren’t any lyrics and it’s difficult to hum.

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The book was Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop; I finished it yesterday evening but will be leaving the review until December. It was very seasonal despite its relative lack of time spent on the event itself – there was a lot of plot set during Advent but the Christmas days were dealt with swiftly, using a few romantic notions to make it more cosy. It may well be even better if read in December but to be honest I don’t think it particularly matters; the return dates stamped on the library issue paper at the front of the copy I read backs this up – there have been 5 other borrows (the book was published in 2013) but none have been at Christmas. In fact my late September issuing is the latest of the lot.

Having finished This Duchess Of Mine, book #5 in the Desperate Duchesses series, I’m looking at reading the last book, A Duke Of Her Own. I’m usually one to procrastinate over finishing a series I’ve enjoyed but as I didn’t like This Duchess Of Mine as much as most of the others (I wasn’t keen on book #2, An Affair Before Christmas, but it was for different reasons) I kind of want to get back to a better story; the plot of A Duke Of Her Own sounds more promising, seeming to be more focused on the ‘duke’ than the ‘duchess’, which may be an interesting change.

Something I did enjoy about book #5, however, was the information about medical advances, mostly factual. James included the basic story of Dr William Withering’s discovery of foxglove as a cure (or partial cure, she didn’t go into it) for heart problems. In the past it was proffered that this came about when Withering discovered a woman pharmacist giving people a mixture of various plants that seemed to work; Withering conducted a process of elimination to find out the effective active ingredient and then the right dosage. In reality, and whilst James included this anecdote, it has been debunked1 – it’s more likely to have been a family recipe. It seems James was keen to include Withering particularly as the discovery was hijacked by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who published a paper with but a footnote about the doctor. The two had been acquainted earlier before Darwin’s need for a second opinion on a patient, resulting in the relationship breaking down. Withering has since been established as the discoverer of foxglove.

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As well as this, James made far more than a passing reference to the 1700s usage of old war hulks as prisoner ships on the Thames. Whilst the riots she wrote in weren’t so real – she switched locations and reasons – the prison ships of the time were based on history. I’m not sure what keywords to look for in order to find out much about this, but did find this snippet on Wikipedia.

In non-reading but still bookish news, I’m slowly writing the draft of a blog post I’ve been loitering around for a few years, ever since I read The Awakening. I’m not sure why I never finished the post at the time but recent reading brought in another possibility for it and suddenly the basic idea I had had has taken extra shape. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading around the subject, including looking at the origins of the rediscovery of Chopin’s work in general2. I’m not sure when I’ll have finished the post as I’ve added a lot of extra work into it and became a bit too enthusiastic about research which means lots of opinions to par down, but it’s been quite fun.

Whilst I’ve not read as many books as I was hoping I would have by this time, I have watched a lot of films and am currently in a situation that rarely happens – I’ve not got any books lingering on my ‘currently reading’ list except the eternal Vanity Fair. It’s making me want to pick my next few reads very carefully so that I keep it up.

A photograph of a scene from Wicked

Photo copyright © 2013/14 London Company, photo by Matt Crockett.

And as a sort of literary aside, because I found out yesterday it is based on a book, I saw the latest touring production of Wicked. I didn’t think much of the plot, but the set design, and the singing in itself, were fantastic. It’s in Southampton for the next week before moving on to Wales and Manchester.

Footnotes

1 Kirkler (1985) says: “In republishing a plate suggesting a discussion between Withering and “Mother Hutton,” presumably a rural herbalist, in which she appeared to give him the “family receipt,” Willius and Keys (7) did, however, acknowledge that this was an imaginary depiction. There is no need to improve on the account given by the author; town and country were then still much intertwined, and the crucial aspect is surely Withering’s botanical expertise.” (p. 5A) [Willius and Keys published their piece in the 1940s.]
2 It happened in the 1960s – the main facts passed around have to do with Per Seyersted, a Professor of American Literature, who found out about Chopin and reintroduced her work to the literary scene in 1969. However Chopin had been discovered already, in the 50s, by a Frenchman, Cyrille Arnavon, who translated the 1899 English book into French, calling it, simply, Edna. Arnavon wrote an essay to introduce the book, saying that it should be more well-known and studied.

Online References

Krikler, Dennis (1985) The foxglove, “the old woman from Shropshire” and Willam Withering, Journal Of American College Of Cardiology, Vol. 5, Issue 5, Supplement 1, pp3A-9A

 

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