Alice in Wonderland has a strong hold on our popular culture. Over a century has passed since it and the sequel Through the Looking Glass were written and Alice’s strange journeys charm us still. How many times can we reinterpret this book on screen? It seems to be an endless source of inspiration and the fact that it has been adapted again and again is a testament to the greatness of Lewis Carroll’s works.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known as Lewis Carroll, had several Pre-Raphaelite connections. An avid photographer in the early days of the medium, he photographed his Pre-Raphaelite friends and other great Victorians: Millais, Rossetti, Tennyson, Ruskin, Ellen Terry and more.
Author Dinah Roe brilliantly incorporates Carroll’s photography session with Rossetti clan in her book The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History. A must-read if you haven’t experienced yet.
In 1865, the author presented a copy of Alice in Wonderland to Christina Rossetti, who loved both the White Rabbit and the puppy, but wrote “of the hatter’s acquaintance I am not ambitious, and the march hare may fairly remain an open question.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti found Carroll’s verse parodies delightful. Sadly, in the 1870s DGR was in failing physical and mental health. Gripped by paranoia he misunderstood Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, fearing it was a critical attack.
Carroll was also friends with artist Arthur Hughes, who had illustrated the works of Christina Rossetti and George MacDonald, both of whom were also friendly with Carroll. He owned Hughes’ painting, The Lady with the Lilacs, which hung in his Christ Church rooms until his death.
It is possible that the inspiration for the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland was none other than Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wombat. The source of this belief can be traced to artist Ford Madox Brown.
“The beast that made the greatest impression, at least on Madox Brown, was the singularly inactive marsupial known as the wombat – an animal that seems to have exercised a latent fascination on the Rossettian mind. On high days and holiday banquets it occupied a place of honour on the épergne in the centre of the table, where, with imperturbable equanimity, it would remain dormant. On one occasion, however, it belied its character. Descending unobserved, during a heated post-prandial discussion, it proceeded in leisurely fashion to devour the entire contents of a valuable box of cigars, achieving that feat just in time for the exhaustion of the subject under consideration and consequent attention to things mundane.
If Madox Brown may be believed, the wombat of Rossetti was the prototype of the dormouse in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the author of which beloved work was a frequent visitor of Rossetti’s household at Chelsea. The ‘ Alice ‘ books exercised an even greater fascination over Rossetti and for that matter over Madox Brown than the historic wombat had done …” (Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work, written by his grandson Ford Madox Ford)
I haven’t found any other contemporary sources that confirm or deny the wombat/dormouse theory, but Lewis Carroll was a visitor of Rossetti’s household and may have been inspired to incorporate members of the strange animal menagerie into his story. Meals at Cheyne Walk were notorious, china was flung during arguments and Rossetti’s large appetite seemed grotesque to some of his friends. Could dining with Rossetti have partially inspired the Hatter’s tea party?
Kirsty Stonell Walker has an excellent post about Alice and the Hatter: We’re All Mad Here.
Doubling and mirroring appear often in Pre-Raphaelite works. In fact, Rossetti’s home was filled with mirrors. Did this have any influence at all on Alice’s second adventure, Through the Looking Glass?
We can see doubling, for example, in Rossetti’s How The Met Themselves and Astarte Syriaca.
Except when Alice enters the looking-glass, she is not doubled. She remains herself in a mirrored world.
Mirrors are prevalent in Pre-Raphaelite art. There are mundane mirrors that reflect another portion of the room and there are magical mirrors such as in Lady Lilith or the Lady of Shalott. In the Lady of Shalott’s case, she is doomed to view life through a mirror that shows hazy reflections of real life. Once she dares to stop, the mirror cracks and the curse kills her. In contrast, Alice actually enters her mirror, finding herself in a looking-glass world. Not ending her life, but experiencing a surreal version of it.
While I don’t believe Pre-Raphaelite works to be the driving inspiration behind Carroll’s books, it is interesting to look for similarities and themes. To this day, picking apart the Alice tales is a compelling act for millions of fans. Lewis Carroll’s creations are fascinating with their combination of nonsense, wit, dreams, mathematics, and chess. The author himself is a puzzle who is often maligned and misunderstood.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson once said “One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” No matter what, I think we can all agree that he gave the world a beautiful, surreal gift that continues to give.