Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan Zieger reviews Alice in Space

Gillian Beer. Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 296 pp.

Review by Susan Zieger

Gillian Beer’s new book on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1862) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) offers an interpretive overview of their connections to Victorian mathematics, science, pedagogy, and gastronomy, among other contexts. The project of resetting Carroll’s fanciful dreamscapes into their historical moment has been done before, most famously by Martin Gardner in his Annotated Alice (1960). Beer develops and extends such footnotes into critical prose that describes the intellectual and emotional contours of the Alice universe with enchanting, lapidary precision. She also draws on new archival material to reveal obscure but telling aspects of Carroll’s doubled identity as mathematician Charles Dodgson. The result is an enjoyable and compelling description of the Alice books’ slant engagements with 1860s British culture.

Beer’s subtitle emphasizes the conceptualization of space in Wonderland: a controversial topic in the 1860s, when Dodgson was busily rejecting the new geometric algebra of W.K. Clifford, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss’s imaginary planes, and James Clerk Maxwell’s thermodynamic demon. Paradoxically, Dodgson the mathematician resisted the new trends toward imaginary numbers, impossible spaces, and relativistic thinking, satirizing some of them in Euclid and His Modern Rivals (1879). As Beer writes, “To him, Euclidean mathematics stated the girding truths of organized existence.” (p. 62). Carroll the writer thus exposes the absurdity of the new math, for example when the White Queen exclaims, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The exuberance of such pronouncements, which vivify the Alice world, leads Beer to the convincing pronouncement that Carroll was a non-Euclidean without knowing it.

The book’s related strength is its rich depiction of Carroll, which enlivens our understanding of the Alice books. For example, the texts’ abundant imagination of animals’ perspectives gains depth when one learns that Carroll also wrote against vivisection, and mocked Max Müller’s contention that language distinguished humans from animals. Too, in the 1870s Carroll published extensively on the mathematics underlying proportional representation in elections—a concern that can be read back into the texts’ representations of monarchical injustice. Beer even reproduces a dream Carroll had on 14–15 May 1879, of taking a young Marion Terry—the sister of actress Ellen Terry—to the theater to see an adult Marion Terry perform onstage. This doubling of the child and adult reflects Alice’s ad-hoc growth and shrinkage. Beer sprinkles the book with amusing factoids. For example, Dodgson occasionally refused to receive mail addressed to Carroll—another instance of the man’s stubborn literalism, as well as his penchant for the absurd.

Alice in Space is no critical breakthrough, but its principal aim is more modest: to enhance readers’ understanding and enjoyment of the Alice books. In this it succeeds superlatively, by revealing the historical milieu of the books’ carefree conceptual play.