Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

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

Reviews and Analysis
Appendix A: Oscar Wilde’s Opinion
Appendix B: On the Rumour About Queen Victoria


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.


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 citiations by The Ath of 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 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 redacted); 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.


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.


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, which includes the speculation of controversy. See also the short piece on the website for the churches of the New Forest, 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).



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


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, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-b) About the book “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there”, Alice in, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-c) Trivia, Alice in, 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

What Is The Impact Of The Nickname ‘Doss’ In L M Montgomery’s The Blue Castle?

‘Doss’ – verb, Brit:
    1) Sleep in rough or makeshift conditions
    2) Spend time in a lazy or aimless way

— Waite, Maurice (ed) Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, 7th ed, Collins, Glasgow.

Book cover of L M Montgomery's The Blue Castle

The nickname the Stirling family give to heroine Valancy of The Blue Castle has always bothered me, as well it might. To me it has always sounded a bit too close to ‘diss’, a slang term used in recent years (though since overtaken by even newer terms) to dismiss another person’s opinion or self, to disrespect. ‘Dis’ fits a far amount with ‘doss’.

But as we’ve seen, ‘doss’ is itself a word and in the case of the story, that second dictionary meaning matches the usage of the nickname perfectly. I’ve always thought that the lack of any similarity to the name ‘Valancy’ was crucial in Montgomery’s employment of it and the idea of Valancy being lazy and aimless in her family’s opinion fits like a glove.

You wouldn’t buy good gloves for a Doss.

If we consider that dictionary definition to fit, then everything the family believes, as well as what they force Valancy to fit into, is contained within that nickname; as much as Montgomery shows through dialogue and action how awfully the family regard and treat Valancy, you could almost remove the scenes in their entirety in favour of just the one simple word. It says it all.

(‘Doss’ is also one letter away from ‘toss’ which Brits have expanded to ‘tosser’ – the politest definition may be one found online: ‘an obnoxious jerk’.)

Is there irony in the way ‘doss’ is used, that it’s so obvious (at least in a British dictionary)? If we consider the definition, then the family might have simply called her ‘Lazy’, which, whilst becoming old quickly, would make swifter work of the meaning. In calling her ‘Doss’ there is a lighter feel to the whole idea; it’s easier to call it a cute nickname – who would object to such a sweet name?

Valancy definitely would not have said, whilst working on that rosebush that never blooms, that a rose by any other name would smell so sweet.

Unsurprisingly, Valancy objects to the nickname. This comes before her wrongful medical diagnosis:

But on this particular morning Valancy’s unbearable grievance was that she was called Doss. She had endured it for twenty-nine years, and all at once she felt she could not endure it any longer. Her full name was Valancy Jane. Valancy Jane was rather terrible, but she liked Valancy, with its odd, out-land tang. It was always a wonder to Valancy that the Stirlings had allowed her to be so christened. She had been told that her maternal grandfather, old Amos Wansbarra, had chosen the name for her. Her father had tacked on the Jane by way of civilising it, and the whole connection got out of the difficulty by nicknaming her Doss. She never got Valancy from any one but outsiders.

    “Mother,” she said timidly, “would you mind calling me Valancy after this? Doss seems so–so–I don’t like it.”
    Mrs. Frederick looked at her daughter in astonishment. She wore glasses with enormously strong lenses that gave her eyes a peculiarly disagreeable appearance.
    “What is the matter with Doss?”
    “It seems so childish,” faltered Valancy.
    “Oh!” Mrs. Frederick had been a Wansbarra and the Wansbarra smile was not an asset. “I see. Well, it should suit you then. You are childish enough in all conscience, my dear child.”
    “I am twenty-nine,” said the dear child desperately.
    “I wouldn’t proclaim it from the house-tops if I were you, dear,” said Mrs. Frederick. “Twenty-nine! I had been married nine years when I was twenty-nine.” (Chapter 3)

The family never do change tack; whilst they start using the nickname in slightly more positive terms more often, it remains a way of communicating Valancy’s lesser status. She’s still a silly child.

And as Valancy grows as a person, the continuing use of the nickname by her family shows the difference between her – a changing person – and them – set in their ways. The continued usage highlights differences in perception and the growing irrelevance – if it ever was relevant – of the family’s opinion of the heroine.

It’s interesting – literarily good – that the impact of ‘Doss’ has to do with our view of the family rather than Valancy. The word is a whole description for a perception that has had its day and its continual use shows the impossibility for fair change. The family come to see Valancy differently – at least some of them do – but it takes her marrying Barney for that to happen, an event that backs up Mrs Frederick’s above refrain in regards to Valancy’s ‘old maid’ status. And then there is all that wealth to be considered…

In Which Jane Austen Reviews A Book And Makes Me Laugh

The engraving of Jane Austen

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently doing some research for a post about Jane Austen. It’s taking a lot longer than I’d thought it would so I’ll share a brief part of what I’ve noted and add to it.

On Sunday 25th November 1798, Jane wrote from Steventon to her sister Cassandra about a variety of things that were happening. Her letters to Cassandra are often lengthy, and at present I have a hunch (from the bit of research completed so far) that she is more open about her opinions of books to her sister than to anyone else; this is to be expected – as we know, they were very close.

On this day, Jane included a fair paragraph of fun background context and opinion of a book that had been published earlier that year; I’ve not been able to trace the month, but it was Arthur Fitz-Albini by Samuel Egerton Brydges, a novelist/bibliographer. Here is Jane’s opinion:

“We have got ‘Fitz-Albini’; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading of it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, uncorrected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.” (Jane Austen in Le Faye (ed.) (2011), pp. 22-23)

Had they been a thing, I think she may have given it one star.

I’ve made a cursory search for contemporary reviews of this long-forgotten book, but it’s been difficult to find any. What I did find was an obituary for Brydges, written by John Bowyer Nichols and published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1837. I’ve redacted it down to the most poignant sections on the man himself as well as the novel because as you might expect, it’s Dickensian in length:

“The biography of this gifted and laborious litterateur, this imaginative poet, and in one sense we may accurately say, this imaginary character, can scarcely be treated in the sober detail of our ordinary narrative; yet, as our object in this place is always the relation of facts, we shall, in the first instance at least, state the circumstances of his birth and early life as we should do those of any other distinguished individual, premising that the particulars are derived from his own account …

The hopes and disappointments of his early years are disclosed in his Novel, called Arthur Fitz-Albini, in which he clothed a fictitious personage with his own sentiments and aspirations, and at the same time depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even those of his own family and relations. In Arthur Fitz-Albini, “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate such a character, beheld the eloquence of the enlightened senator, with the independence of the country-gentleman, and the spirit and hospitality of the feudal chief, without his fierceness, his tyranny, or his uncultivated mind. Before such a man, all the paths of glory seemed to open, and the ascent to fame appeared to be covered with flowers.


In these and many similar passages may be traced the adumbrations of Sir Egerton’s own character, and proofs that he was not unconscious of the defects which repelled the affections of his fellow-creatures, though unhappily destitute of that sober discretion and that Christian humility which would have proved the only efficient means to control or correct them.” (pp.534-539)

It’s likely that, with this obituary, and references to Brydges’ own forays into writing for the magazine, there is at least one review of the book out there, likely favourable.

Later notes about the book can be found in various biographies. A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) notes on page 43:

“Sir S. E. B. has distinguished himself in almost every sort of polite literature, but more particularly as a critic of English poesy, in which character it is not too much to say that he stands unrivalled by any living author.”

Next, a rather lengthy biography, which is titled an autobiography, likely due to John Gibson Lockhart’s over-use of Brydges’ own words (an amount that would cause a superb number of cautions for anyone using another’s material today) was published in the Quarterly Review, no. 51, in 1834. It does cite positive points, but the majority leans towards the negative in a way that rather supports Austen’s own view:

“The other great grievance is Sir Egerton’s literary one. With respect to it, we cannot do better than re-quote an emphatic sentence from Mr. Sharp’s “Letters:” namely, “A want of harmony between the talents and the temperament is, wherever it is found, the fruitful source of faults and of sufferings. Perhaps few are less happy than those who are ambitious without industry who pant for the prize, but will not run the race.” Sir Egerton has all his days been busy without industry — perpetually panting for the prize, but never sufficiently persevering to make out one real heat.”

Over all, biographies and other writings published later than the book was published speak moderately to highly of Egerton, who was an MP who, it seems, tried to style himself as the then-head of a baronetcy he was not entitled to. Nevertheless, whatever the objective truth to the novel may be (I must say I don’t plan to read it) Austen’s effective review is definitely, if snarky, the most entertaining there is. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Brydges, it’s also likely the one that will last the longest when it comes to literary studies.



A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) Henry Colburn, London
Courtier, Peter L (1806) The Lyre Of Love: Volume 2, John Sharpe, London
Le Faye, Deirdre (ed.) (2011) Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition, Oxford University Press


Gibson Lockhart, John (1834) Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges, Quarterly Review, no. 51, pp.342-365
Nichols, John Bowyer (1837) Obituary: Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, The Gentleman’s Magazine, New Series, Vol 2, pp.534-539

Little Women: Why Is Meg’s First Kiss Given To Marmee?

A screenshot of John and Meg at their wedding taken from the BBC's 2017 production of Little Women

Screen shot from Little Women, copyright © 2017 BBC.

It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, “The first kiss for Marmee!” and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips. During the next fifteen minutes she looked more like a rose than ever, for everyone availed themselves of their privileges to the fullest extent, from Mr. Laurence to old Hannah, who, adorned with a headdress fearfully and wonderfully made, fell upon her in the hall, crying with a sob and a chuckle, “Bless you, deary, a hundred times! The cake ain’t hurt a mite, and everything looks lovely.” (Alcott, Chapter 25)

This scene in Little Women Part Two (Good Wives) wherein Meg marries John is one that balances the continuation of the story – it gets you right back into it after what, at the time of publication, had been a gap of three months1 – and a new beginning – the sisters are starting to come into adulthood, and they are getting married just as Alcott’s readers wanted and Alcott half wanted (she wanted Jo to remain single).

The scene is also distinctly uncomfortable – albeit that it’s prefaced with an apology. As we can see from the extract above, after Meg and John have made their vows, Meg gives her first kiss to Marmee. How John felt about this is anyone’s guess – and whether Meg kissed him after kissing Marmee we’ll never know.

It is all contained in one sentence, a very brief interlude. Likely readers accepted it – Alcott’s apology tries to mitigate any criticism before the fact. But regardless, the scene is… icky, particularly as Meg doesn’t just kiss Marmee but ‘gave it with her heart on her lips’, rather as she ought to be kissing John. An act that signals the confirmation and the beginning of a romantic union is effectively changed, pushed aside by one of the two people it affects the most.

So why does it happen? There are a few book-related and Alcott-related reasons to consider. Looking at the novel first, at both parts in their entirety, we see that for all four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – Marmee comes first. This is evident from the first scenes, wherein Marmee returns home to a great reception – the sisters have been thinking about how they will spend their money and decide to buy Christmas presents for their mother. When she arrives home and there’s a letter from their father – he’s a member of the clergy during the American Civil War – they all gather around her in positions of affection to hear her read it. It’s incredibly sweet, a sign of a loving family, and in many ways that’s ‘just’ what the book is about. It’s also, perhaps, influenced by the absence of the father, how it has affected everyone and pulled them closer together. But one thing it definitely is is a sign of the domesticity to come.

Looking at the wedding, Marmee coming first for the sisters is evidenced by the first kiss. Unfortunately for John, he’s a bit player on his wedding day. Sarah Rivas touches on the scene in her article, Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood: The Cult of Marmee and Little Women (2014). Rivas looks at Marmee’s influence as a whole, and points out something about Jo that we can apply to Meg’s first kiss. She discusses a passage that is included in the novel later on; Jo says, in response to Marmee telling her to wait ‘until the best lover of all’ comes along, that ‘mothers are the best lovers in the world’ (Alcott, Chapter 42). This passage comes as Jo is struggling with the idea of being in a relationship with Laurie. Jo’s response, says Rivas, indicates that ‘though Jo is interested in a romantic relationship, her interest does not supersede her adoration and reverence for her mother’ (Rivas, p.55). It’s certainly a response that’s edging towards being irrelevant to the subject at hand – out of context, one might consider Jo to be much younger than she really is.

We can presume that Meg feels the same way as Jo, this ‘adoration and reverence’ that Rivas notes. Meg’s action, kissing Marmee instead of her husband, is an action to match Jo’s words. As Rivas says, the kiss ‘illustrates only one of several incidents in the text in which Marmee is equated with a male lover’ (ibid.). Jo’s response to her mother certainly suggests the value of Rivas’ statement, and the descriptions and dialogues of and about Marmee take this further.

Given what we know about the book in relation to the author – both parts of the novel are largely autobiographical; Jo is Alcott and the sisters her own – should we assume that the happily single Alcott’s rebellion against a marriage for her fictional counterpart plays a role in Meg’s action? It’s possible, but if so it is in terms of the overall context rather than specific to Meg. If we look at Jo as Alcott then she could have extended her thoughts towards Meg but it’s unlikely – Meg is based on Anna Alcott, who likewise married a man called John, and thus the writer was likely happy to include the wedding in her book.

But even if the rebellion against marriage doesn’t play a role in Meg’s first kiss, Alcott’s family life in general does. Alcott was interested in including a lot of domesticity in her book, as is apparent in the text, and it matched her world. She had a reverence for her family. This is where all the love for Marmee comes into the Alcott-related reason for the kiss. A look at Alcott’s diaries, collected by Ednah Cheney, shows just how well the fiction matches the reality, extremely positive language and even the occasional use of ‘kiss’ in entries and letters about and to family.

Affection was important, and no more to the rest of the family than to Alcott. There are examples aplenty so we will stick to those that include kisses. Here is one from 1843, when Alcott was ten and the family were living at Fruitlands, a fairly short-lived attempt at a utopian community that was formed by the Transcendentalist society they were members of:

October 8th.– When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother’s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her (Cheney, 1898, p.37).

Two years later she wrote a poem for her mother. We have this as well as the text of the letter her mother sent in return:

Dearest Mother,-I have tried to be more contented, and I think I have been more so. I have been thinking about my little room, which I suppose I never shall have. I should want to be there about all the time, and I should go there and sing and think.

But I’ll be contented
With what I have got;
Of folly repented,
Then sweet is my lot.

From your trying daughter,
Louy. (ibid., p.46)

My dear Louisa,-Your note gave me so much delight that I cannot close my eyes without first thanking you, dear, for making me so happy, and blessing God who gave you this tender love for your mother.

I have observed all day your patience with baby, your obedience to me, and your kindness to all.

Go on “trying,” my child; God will give you strength and courage, and help you fill each day with words and deeds of love. I shall lay this on your pillow, put a warm kiss on your lips, and say a little prayer over you in your sleep.

Mother (ibid.).

Considering Alcott’s age here, we can only use these extracts to help illustrate the sense of family and the values of those Alcott was growing up amongst rather than as an absolute reason for Meg’s action, but that in itself is very telling. Most telling, however, and most useful in our case, is the following extract from Alcott’s journal, written in May 1860 when the writer was twenty-eight. Interestingly, it’s titled ‘Meg’s wedding’:

The dear girl was married on the 23d, the same day as Mother’s wedding. A lovely day; the house full of sunshine, flowers, friends, and happiness. Uncle S. J. May married them, with no fuss, but much love; and we all stood round her. She in her silver-gray silk, with lilies of the valley (John’s flower) in her bosom and hair. We in gray thin stuff and roses,–sackcloth, I called it, and ashes of roses; for I mourn the loss of my Nan, and am not comforted. We have had a little feast, sent by good Mrs. Judge Shaw; then the old 122 folks danced round the bridal pair on the lawn in the German fashion, making a pretty picture to remember, under our Revolutionary elm.

Then, with tears and kisses, our dear girl, in her little white bonnet, went happily away with her good John; and we ended our first wedding. Mr. Emerson kissed her; and I thought that honor would make even matrimony endurable, for he is the god of my idolatry, and has been for years (ibid. pp.121-122).

From this we can see that as much as Alcott may have been happy for her sister on the occasion of her marriage, she was also filled with a sense of loss – her sister was leaving the family to set up home with her husband. There is no mention of the first kiss, but there is the mention of the fact that Anna was getting married on her parents’ wedding anniversary. That this is mentioned is a further sign of the Alcott family life and values.

The kiss that is mentioned is that given to Anna by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a close friend of the family. But it is not the fact of the kiss itself that is poignant here, but the remainder of what Alcott says about him, that he is ‘the god of my idolatry’. Alcott is comforted by Emerson’s gesture to her sister; she looks at the situation with something that resembles a crush. Alcott doesn’t want to marry, but if being a bride meant being kissed by Emerson – not as the bridegroom, though her words edge towards that idea – she might well be happy. It says a lot about how she felt about him.

Alcott didn’t mince her words – she really did see Emerson in a particularly brilliant light. As editor of Alcott’s journals and letters, Ednah Cheney adds her own commentary to the collection. Here is a paragraph from a letter Alcott wrote to a friend followed by a paragraph from Cheney’s commentary on it. The letter was written later in Alcott’s life about a time during her fifteenth year:

Not till many years later did I tell my Goethe of this early romance and the part he played in it. He was much amused, and begged for his letters, kindly saying he felt honored to be so worshipped. The letters were burnt long ago, but Emerson remained my “Master” while he lived, doing more for me,–as for many another,–than he knew, by the simple beauty of his life, the truth and wisdom of his books, the example of a great, good man, untempted and unspoiled by the world which he made better while in it, and left richer and nobler when he went.


Miss Alcott was safe in choosing her idol. Worship of Emerson could only refine and elevate her thoughts, and her intimate acquaintance with his beautiful home chastened her idolatry into pure reverent friendship which never failed her. She kept her worship to herself, and never sent him the letters in which she poured out the longings and raptures which filled her girlish heart (ibid. p.345).

This ‘worship’ of Emerson, particularly when combined with the journal entry about Anna’s marriage, is something that brings us back to Rivas’ concept of the cult of Marmee, and the opinion, which Rivas includes, of the critics Gregory K Eiselein and Anne Phillips who call Marmee an ‘omnipotent presence’ (Rivas, p.54). As well as the statement about Marmee being equated to a male lover, there is another from Rivas which is particularly relevant here: ‘throughout the novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy do not seem to question Marmee’s goodness, wisdom, or absolute authority’ (ibid., p.55).

It is in this way that Alcott’s worship of Emerson and her love for her mother intersect: her idol kissed her sister after her wedding, and it had a great impact on the way she, Alcott, saw the concept of marriage – or, at least, a wedding – if only for a moment. In her novel, closely following reality, Alcott replaces her idol with Marmee, who receives the adoration and reverence from Meg that we can see Alcott feeling for Emerson, an emotion only heightened by the way she’s included her mother, too. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Alcott actively replaced Emerson with Marmee, but the same emotions hold forth in the fiction as they did in reality. And if Anna felt similarly about her mother as did her sister, then perhaps this is why Alcott felt comfortable writing the wedding scene in her novel in the way she so chose.

It is incredibly interesting that Alcott prefaces her scene with a note about the inappropriate nature of what Meg is about to do; it suggests that she knew it might not be well-received but that she wanted to do it regardless, and with so much passion. Perhaps Alcott knew her family might read it and wonder why she’d written it, or perhaps it really did happen with Anna and thus was included. Whatever the reason, it shows that she realised it wasn’t the best idea in the book, and that the idea went too far away from what she knew. Perhaps it is where the real domesticity meets the perfect, utopian domesticity that was a part of her world.


1 Part one was published in September 1868 and part two three months later.

Book References

Alcott, Louisa May (1869) Good Wives, Roberts Brothers, Boston
Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1898) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64

Exploring The Question ‘How Old Was Alice In Wonderland?’

An illustration by John Tenniel from the original edition of the book, it shows, in black and white, Alice sat down in a circle of small animals and birds - Alice is smaller than them

The other day I was looking through my site statistics as I sometimes do, and noted a plethora of searches to do with the aforementioned book. They were specifically to do with Alice’s age. I won’t list them because if Google happens to see value in this post it might start sending the searchers here and my writing today isn’t about answering the question (though I will answer the question later because I’ll need to).

Instead I want to explore that plethora itself. You’ll often see similar search phrases that result in the one answer; everyone words things differently. It was the sheer number of differences that struck me, the differences suggesting that the motives behind the questioned differed too. I wondered why people were asking. (There was also a bit of ‘why now?’ in there – I wrote about the reading age for the book almost a year ago and it’s only recently that numbers have swelled.)

Alice’s age is provided by Carroll in the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass – seven years old. Whilst not given in the first book, we can assume she was six or seven then because the first takes place a few months before the second, May and November respectively. So we’ve an easy answer to the question of why people are asking – the age isn’t provided in the first book and it’s safe to assume that a good number of people don’t get to the second. The question also means that it’s more likely people haven’t read either book and are perhaps looking to ascertain how appropriate it would be for their own child to read. It tends1 to be the case, after all, that in children’s literature, the character’s ages match the intended audience. One of the phrases in my stats was specifically requesting an Alice book ‘for kids’ – clearly this person (a parent?) had misgivings about the story, and I don’t blame them – after reading it myself a few years ago I decided not to buy a copy for my nephew until he was a little older than Alice herself.

(I’ll note here that there were a few searches in the same vein as our main question for Through The Looking-Glass. This could be a different, shorter, post but I think it’s best summed up as wanting to make sure the story doesn’t move too far ahead from the first as to mean that a child – likely deemed old enough for Alice by whatever metric – would have to mature in order to continue. It’s safe to assume that Carroll was looking for or was asked to provide more of the same, hence the short time frame between them.)

This leads us neatly onto the topic of context – are people asking in order to understand the Victorian context of this 1865 book? In my post about the target audience for the book, I wrote about the way the book was clearly written for children but how cultural change means that in our modern world it’s pretty violent and a bit too strange. Certainly Alice is a mix of very mature and not so, which reflects both her age and environment and suits her character’s role in the didactic book. It is interesting to look at the novel in the context of its time, to compare it to others – few have stood the passing of the centuries like Carroll’s – and see where morals and values as well as views about childhood come into play.

In this way I wonder if the secondary meaning behind asking about Alice’s age is relevant here – how old is the book that bears her name?

And on that note, therefore, somewhat, what is the reading level of the book? Does the appropriate age group of a modern child match the target reading level? When I gave it to my nephew, via grandma, I said it might be best read together; he’s a good reader but he necessarily lacks a Victorian child’s mindset. One searcher wanted to know if the book could be read by five-year-olds.

Lastly, looking at different interpretations of phrases, I think it’s possible some searchers are looking to study the content’s appropriateness in terms of Alice’s age, maybe also in terms of her social context. How appropriate is it for a child of seven to be dreaming of heads being cut off and what would her environment have been like? The law was different back then, and as we know from the information available about the progression of early children’s literature, childhood had until recently been viewed very differently to the way we view it now; the idea of childhood began in the 1600s.

I don’t think there are any conclusions to be made here; this post must remain exploratory. But certainly, wondering about the background behind these searches was interesting in a way wondering the same about other searches was not – I gave pondering other search subjects a try in order to ascertain the worth of this post.

When did you last ask ‘why’ of something in literature and what did you discover?


1 I say tends because we very much have to exclude Lyra and Will. On that note it’s interesting that the sales information for The Secret Commonwealth notes that it is for adults. Despite Lyra’s older age, it’s naturally going to be mistaken sometimes for a children’s book.


Older Entries