Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Finding Wonderland - Catherine Butler

Alice, manga-style (Seven Seas, 2014)

I stumbled across D. C. Angus's Japan: the Eastern Wonderland (1882) online a couple of months ago, while looking for something else entirely, but as soon as I read about it I knew I had to have a copy. Luckily copies aren't hard to come by, and I soon took possession of mine, complete with the prize plate from Wirksworth Grammar School, Midsummer 1904.

The book is full of interesting photographs of daily life in Japan in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but what struck me more than anything was the device of making Japan equivalent to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland in its power to amaze Westerners, not least with the looking-glass sense that everything there is "the other way round".

The comparison is explicit in the book's introduction, written in the person of a Japanese Christian convert who proposes to tell an English child his life story.

When I was in London some years ago, studying English Law at University College, a kind professor and his wife took me in, and made me so literally “one of the family” that their children too adopted me and gave me all the privileges of an elder brother. The children were much given to talking about “Alice in Wonderland,” and one day I rashly said, “I don’t believe your Alice saw things a bit more wonderful than you would see if I could take you to my country. That is a wonderland if you like!” Then, of course, they began to ask how and why, and to set some startling incident of Alice’s life before me, and ask if I could match that! And then I used to bring out the oddest things I knew (odd, I mean, to English people), and sometimes succeeded in beating Alice…

So I said aloud, “Well, you may expect a book of pictures, with as many particulars as I can crowd into a little space, about—


Then they said, “But there must be a little girl in it; there always is a little girl in ‘Wonderlands’.” But I didn’t see how that could be done, unless I borrowed Alice from Mr. Carroll, who is not likely to wish to part with her.

This device allowed the actual author, D. C. Angus, the opportunity to describe the many changes that had taken place in Japan since the Meiji restoration using the device of an eye-witness account. Sadly, of course, this adds appropriation to the charge of orientalism. Not only is Japan’s differentness being presented as the most interesting thing about it, but the British author is (with no obvious indication) assuming the voice of a Japanese man, and describing his own (fictional) life in Japan – including conversion to Christianity – as if it were a reality.

But cultural appropriation is a topic for another day. For the moment, I’m interested in wonderlands. Less than twenty years after the publication of Alice in Wonderland, it seems, Lewis Carroll’s book was already an instantly recognisable touchstone in fictional English households. More, wonderlands came with recognised rules – they must always feature a little girl. This got me googling: had the years between 1865 and 1882 featured a flurry of wonderland books, with Alice knock-offs exploring fantastical realms under the tutelage of now-forgotten mid-Victorian authors? With the examples of Harry Potter and Twilight in mind, it seemed likely enough that enterprising publishers would have jumped on the Alice bandwagon.

But back up a minute! Might it be that Carroll himself was buying into a well-established wonderland genre when he wrote his book? In fact, the OED only gives one pre-Alice instance of the word, from a poem of 1790:

Where other trav’llers, fraught with terror, roam,
Lo! Bruce in Wonder-Land is quite at home.

Somehow, “Bruce in Wonderland” never really caught on, so any credit for the popularity of wonderlands post 1865 probably lies with Carroll. However, it seems (to judge from the British Library catalogue) that the word itself was really taken up only by books about geography: American Wonderland (1871), Wonderland of the Antipodes (1873), Rambles in Wonderland: or, Up the Yellowstone, and among the geysers and other curiosities of the National Park (1878), The natural wonders of New Zealand (the wonderland of the Pacific); its boiling lakes, steam holes, mud volcanoes, sulphur baths, medicinal springs, and burning mountains (1881), and the like.

That’s not to say that Alice spawned no imitators. There’s Elsie’s Expedition (1874), by F. E. Weatherley, for example, which shows a sleepy Elsie travelling into the pages of a book to have encounters with Little Boy Blue and the Knave of Hearts, among others. In a postmodern move that anticipates the Ahlbergs, Lauren Child, Wiliam Steig and Jon Scieszka by more than a century, we find (as I learn from Ronald Reichertz’s The Making of the Alice Books) that “Little Jack Horner is now Mr John Horner, a figure grown old and a bit irascible from performing the same plum-pulling act for ever” – a nightmare vision indeed. I’ve not yet been able to discover much about the contents of Edward Holland’s Mabel in Rhymeland (1885), but its subtitle tells us all we need to know, perhaps: “or, Little Mabel's journey to Norwich : and her wonderful adventures with the man in the moon and other heroes and heroines of nursery rhyme”.

It was in any case a bit late for our fictional Japanese author – but clearly, the bestseller bandwagon was already rolling well before the end of the nineteenth century, and it's rolling still...


Gillian Polack said...

"Bruce in Wonder-Land" sounds very Australian.

Catherine Butler said...

It does have a smack of Paul Hogan, doesn't it?

Gillian Polack said...

Or Monty Python - Bruce the Philosopher.

Lydia Syson said...

Ah, but James Bruce very much did catch on, even if the word 'wonderland' didn't - this reference is surely to the Scottish explorer of Ethiopia who discovered the source of the Blue Nile, but struggled to get credence for his claims. Hence the satire. Which didn't stop a rash of other intrepid explorers rushing off into the African interior in the hope of discovering real wonderlands, including Timbuktu. But you're definitely on to something...was Carroll marking the end of an 'Age of Wonder' (as Richard Holmes has it)? At what point did the real world stop being so 'wondrous' and imaginary ones need to be invented? Many thanks for this thought-provoking post!

Catherine Butler said...

Oh, thank you for adding the Bruce context! All is now light. So, even in that first appearance it was really to do with exploring wild and unknown (at least, to Europeans) regions?

"Wonder" is an interesting word in Carroll's book. As Eugene Giddens has pointed out, the illustrations rarely show Alice looking awestruck, or even surprised - and very often her face is turned away or hidden from the viewer altogether. It's as if she's not so much "full of wonder" as wondering what on earth's going on...

Lydia Syson said...

Yes, absolutely!

And what an interesting observation about the illustrations...although perhaps that says more about Tenniel's attitude to wonder than Carroll's?