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The Reception Of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland From Contemporary Reviewers

An image from the original editions, illustrated by John Tenniel: Alice sits in a circle of animals listening to the mouse speak

When I first started looking at this subject, I saw ahead of me a fairly short post mostly composed of quotations with some analysis after each one; let the primary sources do the talking. During the course of my research, however, for reasons related below, this had to be changed. I therefore decided to structure this post in the same way I did last year when looking at the Brontë sisters and Jane Eyre. There is a lot more background context in this post than I ever imagined including.

Table Of Contents

Abbreviations
Introduction
Reviews and Analysis
Conclusion
Appendix A: Oscar Wilde’s Opinion
Appendix B: On the Rumour About Queen Victoria
Notes
References

Abbreviations

Alice – Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865.
LG – The same author’s Through The Looking-Glass, given a publishing date of 1871 but in fact published in 1872. The editions of newspapers and magazines in which reviews are included provide evidence for this.
The Ath – The Athenaeum, a past British weekly periodical.

Introduction

This post came about as I looked through my previous work on Alice, and various web searches on the same, and came to the conclusion that if the various questions and commentaries on Alice that arise in our present day are interesting, then the questions and commentaries of our peers from history would likely offer similar; the commentaries there, by the nature of cultural evolution, being different, there must be a lot more out there for us to muse on.

This interested me in particular because the contents of Alice, as anyone who has read the book or seen any number of film adaptations of it knows, are quite extreme compared to anything published for the target age group today1. Therefore the understandable questions I see in web searches each day as to this, and as to comparisons of childhood then and now (the former a subject I cannot claim to know much about), naturally led to my interest in further opinions.

It was perhaps inevitable I’d be wondering about my ‘fellow’ reviewers.

Prior to the publication of Alice, Lewis Carroll was unknown. The writer, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, had only published a few works: La Guida di Bragia, a Ballad Opera for the Marionette Theatre, which, Wikipedia (n.d.a) states, released around 1850; Miss Jones, a comic song from 1862; and one or two (the same Wikipedia page gives two dates for one of them, whose title begins ‘the fifth book’) publications on mathematics. Alice was his first novel2, after which it’s evident he simply added children’s books to his category list and continued on.

The citation of ‘poor reviews’ is used fairly widely across articles on the Internet that discuss the book (most often ‘X things you didn’t know about’ articles) which, given their general shortness, suggests the information has simply been parroted from Wikipedia (see reference to n.d.b) or another site that has copied the information.

The statement, I have found, is mostly untrue. In the two long afternoons I spent scouring the Internet for contemporary reviews I only found one that is negative. Whilst it is quite likely that the popularity of Alice was increased by the publication of LG (as says Wikipedia n.d.b, though only in the context of the reception of Alice being ‘poor’) there is nothing to suggest the second book had a bigger impact than the first, indeed the very fact that there was a second book, and published later on (Carroll took his time – it was in the works from 1866 [de Rooy n.d.b]), suggests by itself that Alice was popular.

It took me a while to find sources; after initial success with a couple of reviews, I finally found extracts of others – like all good extracts that involve opinions, the main point was included – in The Ath3, a British literary magazine that was published weekly between 1828-1921. The original sources may be out there but given many are cited by The Ath to newspapers still in production today (or since amalgamated into others) they are likely to be in the publisher’s archives, in other words not easily accessible to the layman. Where the remaining reviews are cited to belong to publications that have since ceased production they are hopefully in the British Newspaper Archive. (Some reviews about Alice are indeed in the British Newspaper Archive; I found a couple of mentions in newspapers I’d never heard of, however the site requires a subscription to view more than the briefest descriptions and the number of reviews currently uploaded to it didn’t warrant it; I copied the notes I could under the ‘3 free articles’ offer.)

I will note in advance that the various discovered extracts almost all relate to LG; they are reviews of LG that simply, by fact of the book being a sequel, involve snippets or simply concepts of what would have been either each individual publication’s prior opinion of Alice.

During my research I discovered an additional reason for the difficulties in finding reviews of Alice – whilst officially first published in November 1865 (and that’s the date you’ll find noted everywhere), the copies of the first print run were found by illustrator John Tenniel to be inferior; the print bled. So the first copies were recalled with the result that the ‘actual’ publication date was 1866 [de Rooy n.d.a]. (Incidentally, copies of LG, despite being published in 1871, bore the date 1872.)

Reviews and Analysis

Here is the review of Alice in Aunt Judy’s Magazine, June 1866, p.123, ellipses and bracketed notes mine:

FOURTY-TWO illustrations by Tenniel! Why there needs nothing else to sell this book one would think. But our young friends may rest assured that the exquisite illustrations only do justice to the exquisitely wild, fantastic, impossible, yet most natural history of “Alice in Wonderland”. For the author… has a secret, and he has managed his secret far better than any author who ever “tried on” a secret of the same sort before, that we would not for the world let it out. [Detail here about how the reader will have to find out about the secret for themselves.] …of Mr. Tenniel’s illustrations we need only say that he has entered equally into the fun and graceful sentiment of his author, and that we are as much in love with little Alice’s face in all its changes as we are amused by the elegant get up of the white rabbit in ball costume…’

This review written for children (Aunt Judy’s Magazine was a monthly magazine for young people) is completely positive. The review naturally focuses on elements that will most intrigue children, and even adds a particular element of persuasion in its note that there is a secret but that if you want to know what it is, you’ll have to read the book to find out. (One can assume the idea was for children to read this and start requesting their parents buy a copy of it.) Note also the emphasis on John Tenniel (Carroll’s name is included in the details retracted); Tenniel was well-known; it’s likely many would have seen this as the selling point, the ‘way in’ for Carroll.

It’s also interesting to note that as we can see from the review (and those following), from the very start of Alice‘s publication the title was shortened. The more popular name, undoubtedly easier to remember and quicker to write (and quicker to print in the days of letterpresses), has always been around4.

A brief sales note from the John Bull (1866, p.872), a London Sunday newspaper, later a magazine:

From the same publishers, too, we have to welcome a beautiful copy of that old favourite, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

John Bull‘s positive words are technically more of a nod to the wider popularity.

Review of Alice in The Ath, 16th December 1865, p.844, ellipses mine:

This is a dream-story; but who can, in cold blood, manufacture a dream, with all its loops and ties, and loose threads, and entanglements, and inconsistances [sic], and passages which lead to nothing, at the end of which sleep’s most diligent pilgrim never arrives? Mr. Carroll has laboured hard to heap together strange adventures, and heterogeneous combinations; and we acknowledge the hard labour… We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, over-wrought story.

It’s safe to say that the reviewer for The Ath did not like the book; he (or she – by this time there were a number of female critics in the industry) disliked it so much they kept their first sentence going on, with words that have negative connotations, for far longer than necessary. Though they do at least ‘acknowledge the hard labour’. The Ath was written for an adult audience, so this review would be to suggest adults not buy the book for children. It makes this idea its final point; you wouldn’t want your child to be ‘puzzled’ by this ‘stiff over-wrought story’; by this time in history, childhood was more about being ‘enchanted’.

Is this review the reason we have the notion of ‘gained poor reviews’ running riot on the Internet? The Ath‘s historical popularity and the relative ease with which we, now, can hunt through it for information, could be the reason for the idea.

According to City, University of London, The Ath was ‘a highly influential periodical’5. It is interesting to consider the review in light of the others.

In later issues of The Ath, there are multiple text-based adverts for publisher Macmillan (who remains Alice‘s publisher to this day) which naturally include quotes from positive reviews. These adverts are where the following few extracts are from. Perhaps understandably, whilst the adverts are printed by The Ath, their own review is not included.

The following is from a review of Alice by the Pall Mall Gazette, an evening newspaper (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]a, p.831):

One of the cleverest and most charming books ever composed for a child’s reading.

And another extract from the same newspaper (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, p.757):

Beyond question supreme among modern books for children.

From an edition of The Ath (1866, p.548) printed around Alice‘s second print run (after that disastrous first), we have the following two reviews:

From The Times (ellipses: The Ath):

An excellent piece of nonsense… Illustrated with extraordinary taste.

And from the London Review6 (not to be confused with the London Review of Books, a current popular publication founded in 1979):

A piece of downright hearty drollery and fanciful humour.

Extracts from reviews of LG, used to advertise the second edition of the book, sometimes indicate each publication’s thoughts of Alice. The Ath‘s own in 1871 (pp.787-788), for which the full text is available, is rather lovely. Let’s look at it in full, square brackets mine:

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. By Lewis Carroll. With Illustrations. (Macmillian & Co.)

IT is with no mere book that we have to deal here,-to borrow the idea expressed by Dr. Johnson [Samuel] when the inventory of Mr. Thrale’s [Henry]7 brewery was being taken,-but with the potentiality of happiness for countless thousands of children of all ages; for it would be difficult to over-estimate the value of the store of hearty and healthy fun laid up for whole generations of young people by Mr. Lewis Carroll and Mr. John Tenniel in the two books which they have united to produce. In the first volume, Alice won the affections of a whole child-world as she wandered through Wonderland; in the second, that now before us, she will be sure to add fresh troops to the number of her unknown friends, besides retaining her place in the hearts of her old admirers.

Before many days have elapsed thousands of bright eyes will be watching her as she glides through the drawing-room looking-glass, which suddenly softens before her, and passes into the land of reflections which lies on the other side, where animated chessmen and walking and talking cheerily, and finds herself as a White Queen’s Pawn playing across a chessboard earth, and striving to arrive at Queendom at its farther end. Many a little head will puzzle – children like to be puzzled – over the people who thought in chorus; and the wood in which names got lost; and the Red King’s dream of which Alice was told she was a mere feature, her existence being absolutely subjective; and the land in which events took place backwards, like a sentence in Hungarian, so that a criminal was sentenced first, and tried afterwards, for a crime he was going to commit. Much young blood will run cold with fright – children dearly love to be frightened – at the awe-inspiring portrait of the Apolloyon-like Jabberwocky, which

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

And many a heart both old and young will be stirred with wholesome laughter at the quarrel of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the arithmetical genius of Humpty Dumpty, the vagaries of that King’s Messenger who was as mad as a Hatta [sic], and the metamorphosis of the Red Queen into a kitten, which synchronizes with Alice’s own return from her eighth-square queendom into her old life on this side of the looking-glass.

Even the face of a reviewer, of one whose heart has been rendered heavy within him by the involuntary study of our comic literature, may be dimpled by a smile of admiration as he watches the skill with which both the author and the illustrator have worked in the difficult atmosphere of nonsense. Many of Mr. Tenniel’s designs are masterpieces of wise absurdity. We may refer, for instance, to that in which the Oysters, incarnations of old-womanishness, are listening to the dulcet speech of the Walrus and the Carpenter, or those of Humpty Dumpty shouting to “Someone’s” ear, of the White Knight shaking the aged man who sat upon the gate, and of the Messenger expiating in prison the crime he was going to commit; not to speak of some drawings which deserve still higher and more serious praise, such as that in which Alice is rowing the boat along the stream which is half river and half grocer’s shop. The skill with which the dream-like blending of the one with the other is rendered is worthy of Wonderland itself.

Before parting with this charming book, for which such bands of children will deservedly feel personally grateful to both author and illustrator, we must call attention to the touching address to his “child-readers” which “Lewis Carroll” has appended to his book,-thanking them for the interest they have taken in his “dream-child,” telling them how pleasant it is to him to think of “the many English firesides where happy faces have smiled her a welcome,” and ending with wishing that to them each recurring Christmas-tide may be “more bright and beautiful than the last – bright with the presence of that unseen Friend, Who once on earth blessed little children, and beautiful with memories of a loving life, which has sought and found that truest kind of happiness, the only kind that is really worth the having, the happiness of making others happy too!”

The original text is in columns so it seems particularly lengthy. But no matter the visual effect of the columns it’s a fact that a great many more words were afforded LG here than The Ath‘s review of Alice we saw earlier.

There are no names ascribed to the magazine’s reviews, but this adds an intriguing question to our study. Note the sentence ‘Many a little head will puzzle itself – children like to be puzzled – over the people who thought in chorus’. Is this a jab from the reviewer of LG towards the reviewer who had said of Alice ‘We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, over-wrought story’? It’s quite possible that that is the case. Or, perhaps, it’s the same reviewer, begrudgingly agreeing with something that someone else has argued for. (Note, too, the use of Carroll’s full name – he has surely moved up in the world.) Of course it could also simply be the reviewer’s style – they later use the same ‘children like to be…’ again. (This usage of the style is interesting in itself – some children today like scary stories; it would seem Victorian children did too. Stories in those days, even if we look solely at Alice and LG, could be incredibly scary.)

It is wonderful here to get a glimpse of the reception of contemporary children: ‘In the first volume, Alice won the affections of a whole child-world as she wandered through Wonderland’. Not so wonderful is the summary of a lot of the plot but if we consider any parent reading it out or passing the paper over to children, it makes more sense.

We now return to extracts. From the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]a, p.831):

Quite as rich in humourous whims of fantasy, quite laughable in its queer incidents, as loveable for its pleasant spirit and graceful [next word illegible] as the wonderous [sic] tale of Alice’s former adventures.

From The Standard, now the Evening Standard (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, page unknown8):

If this had been given first to the world, it would have enjoyed a success at least equal to ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and now every child who possesses the original should demand the sequel as a matter of right.

From The Guardian (ibid.):

Little Alice herself is as sweet as she ever was, and her companions in the new Wonderland are just as quaint and odd and surprising as they were in the old one. Mr Tenniel’s illustrations are simply exquisite. To be without this book in any household where there are children young enough to be amused by sheer absurdity, or old enough to be charmed by graceful fancy, would be an act of high treason.

A separate advert for LG, published in an edition of The Ath a couple of weeks before the edition containing the above reviews, cites a print run of 36,000 copies. This is shown in a ‘new books’ section9.

There are a couple of extracts that don’t mention Alice in any specific way, but do give us further knowledge of the general reception. From the Morning Post, a daily newspaper since acquired by The Telegraph (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, page unknown):

Let us inform the children that the story is one of the most captivating and delightful they have ever read, and that the pictures are beautiful.

The words indicate the reviewer would have likely found in its favour. Similarly, from The Times (ibid.):

The nonsense is far more charming than half the literature bought and sold as solid sense. Child’s book as this is, a man whose childhood lies sunk below the horizons of many decades, whose life is in the second hemisphere, may read it and be the better for having done so. The illustrations are capital. Never was artist so thoroughly at one with his author.

This rather wonderful review suggests adults will get just as much – if not more? – enjoyment from LG than will children. And it is by the same writer as The Times’ review of Alice – notice the use again of ‘nonsense’ within the context of something superb.

Conclusion

From the above extracts and the various information discovered, it can safely be concluded that Alice (and LG) was received with much happiness and admiration, and that was extended towards its author. Whilst there is only one review that has categorically been written for the target audience of the book (and that is available online), the other reviews, most likely written for parents and other interested adult-age parties, allow us to see the further reception, the general reception.

Thus it must be noted that no matter how prevalent the phrase ‘to poor review’ is in modern-day articles (never used with any reference) it is incorrect. Perhaps the term has morphed – perhaps it originally related to John Tenniel’s opinion of the first print run and the subsequent removal of those initial copies from sale and ‘Chinese Whispers’ are at play; this is a generous take on it – it’s not likely at all.

Appendix A: Oscar Wilde’s Opinion

Whilst researching the opinions of reviewers, I came across numerous references to Oscar Wilde’s having enjoyed Alice in his younger years, however I could not find any primary sources for this. (There may well be commentary in his letters but these require the consultation of a copy of them and with libraries closed at this time in Britain, and the collection of letters not in ebook form, I made the decision to go without.)

Away from this, there is at least one other primary source that points to Wilde’s admiration of Carroll’s work, which I have supplemented with a secondary source.

In Oscar Wilde’s article, A Note on Some Modern Poets, published in The Woman’s World magazine, December 1888, and found compiled in an edition from 188910 (p.110), Wilde looks at a poem by William Sharp; in so doing he draws attention to the ballad aspect it, saying:

Well, Mr. Andrew Lang, some months ago, signed the death-warrant of the ballade, and—though I hope that in this respect Mr. Lang resembles the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, whose bloodthirsty orders were by general consent never carried into execution—it must be admitted that the number of ballades given to us by some of our poets was, perhaps, a little excessive.

In his 2016 article on Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, Ray Dyer notes the following (ellipses mine):

Wilde had opportunities to observe Carroll, his reputation, and his literary works whilst he was up at Oxford, where he attended Magdalen College between October 1874 and June 1878.

[…]

The Lady Vice-Warden’s relevant phrases… seem to have a distinct resonance in Wilde’s later plays.

The Lady Vice-Warden is a character from Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno stories. Carroll’s time teaching at Oxford’s Christ Church College included the years Wilde attended as a student.

Appendix B: On the Rumour About Queen Victoria

It was believed by many that Queen Victoria contacted Carroll to let him know she had enjoyed Alice and, then ‘To her great surprise she received his most recent mathematic [sic] book” (de Rooy, n.d.c). The following refutation is from Carroll himself, included by de Rooy in her commentary. It is from his mathematics textbook, Symbolic Logic Part I. It can be found in the ‘P.S.’ from the ‘Advertisement’ at the start of the second edition of the book (1896). The page is unnumbered by it is effectively page VII:

I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the round of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the Queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it worth while to state, once for all, that it is utterly false in every particular: nothing even resembling it has ever occurred.

For added context, David Mikkelson’s article on this subject (1999), citing the words of a Carroll scholar, includes this paragraph (ellipses and brackets Mikkleson’s own):

As Jean Gattegno pointed out, by the time Dodgson issued this denial, the rumor was thirty years old (having appeared shortly after the publication of “Alice in Wonderland”) and was unlikely “to injure Carroll any more, much less the Queen.” Perhaps with “the problem of his pseudonym … becoming more and more troublesome,” at that point Dodgson was more interested in “reaffirm[ing] the ban on identifying Carroll with Dodgson” than with contradicting a decades-old rumor.

Notes

1 I have looked at age appropriateness for modern day children in the past.
2 The creation of the novel came as a result of Dodgson’s relations with the Liddell family, in particular young Alice Liddell. For a comprehensive background, see Wikipedia’s page on Miss Liddell – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Liddell which includes the speculation of controversy. See also the short piece on the website for the churches in the New Forest – https://www.newforestparishes.com/alice-in-lyndhurst – which includes St Michael And All Angels, where the lady is buried.
3 If this post were to have an acknowledgements section it would include my posthumous thanks to The Ath; I have now used it for a few different subjects and it remains at least slightly useful, at most absolutely critical.
4 It’s interesting to consider that, as much as the alliteration is nice, ‘adventures’ is effectively extraneous.
5 City has a short page about the magazine in its archives and collection pages: see references section.
6 There have been many publications by this name – this is presumably The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, & Society in circulation from 1862 to 1869.
7 The two were friends, having met ten years after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary.
8 This is an unfortunate circumstance – I noted down the citation but even with it cannot find the information anew.
9 The Ath, 2nd November 1872, No. 2349, p.554.
10 Wilde was the editor of this short-lived magazine (it ran from 1886-1890 and Wilde was editor from 1887). In taking on the job, he persuaded the publisher to alter it from a target audience of ‘middle-class lady readers’ to the emerging class of educated women (Clayton, cited by Wikipedia, n.d.c).

References

Books

Carroll, Lewis (1896) Symbolic Logic: Part I (2nd ed.) Macmillan & Co., Ltd, London

Newspapers and Magazines

The Athenaeum (16th December 1865) Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, No.1990
The Athenaeum (27th October 1866) Books for Presents, the Drawing-Room, or the Library, No.2035
The Athenaeum: Supplement to No. 2300 (18th January 1873 [21st December 1872, No. 2356]-a), Macmillan & Co.’s Christmas Books, No. 2300
The Athenaeum: Supplement to No. 2300 (18th January 1873 [14th December 1872, No. 2355]-b), Macmillan & Co.’s Christmas Books, No. 2300
Aunt Judy’s Magazine (1st June 1866) Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (scanned copy available from the British Library)
John Bull (29th December 1866) [Advertisements], available via British Newspaper Archives
Wilde, Oscar (1889 [compiled volume]), A Note on Some Modern Poets, The Woman’s World, Vol.2, pp.108-112

Websites

City, University of London (n.d.) The Athenaeum – Archives and Special Collections, City, University of London Website, accessed 17th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-a) About the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-b) About the book “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there”, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-c) Trivia, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
Dyer, Ray (2016) Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, Victorian Web, accessed 15th May 2020
Mikkelson, David (26th March 1999), Did Lewis Carroll Send Queen Victoria a Mathematics Text?, Snopes, accessed 18th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) Lewis Carroll, accessed 15th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-b)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, accessed 10th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-c) The Woman’s World, accessed 18th May 2020

 
 

Jenny @ Reading the End

May 19, 2020, 12:57 pm

What a great post! I happen to have Oscar Wilde’s complete letters, so I consulted it, and can report that there is no mention of Lewis Carroll (one footnote mentions him in passing, but Oscar Wilde doesn’t), Alice in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass in the index. Bother!

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