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The Low Door in the Wall

On Alice in Wonderland.

Alice is my neighbor. I know the beautiful garden where she played croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos. I know where the treacle well was, and still is, and the tree with the door in it, by which she finally found that garden. I recognize the strange melancholy of late afternoon and early evening in which the stories seem to take place. I even know the mysterious checkered moorland which once looked so much like a chessboard from the low hills to the north-east, an area now invaded by T.V. towers and army firing ranges, but where once the Red King and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Knight, the enormous gnat, and the man in the paper suit all played their parts in the strangest chess game in English literature. Above all, I know the river where, in the original version of this extraordinary story “the boat wound slowly along, beneath the bright summer day, with its merry crew and its music of voices and laughter, till it passed round one of the many turnings of the stream, and she saw it no more.” For this was all happening in “an ancient city and a quiet river winding near it along the plain.” It is very hard to bear the knowledge that these things, which happened long ago to people who are dead, are set amid scenes which have now been invaded by jangling, squawking modern life. This places them impossibly out of reach, yet close by. You cannot hear the bells or the birds that Alice and her companions heard because of the traffic and the jackhammers as yet another cuboid building rises into the ravaged Oxford sky.

How would you respond to finding a mossy tombstone inscribed to “Alice in Wonderland”? Yet twenty-first-century Oxford is such a tombstone.

She still affects us. Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, wrote of an Oxford one hundred years ago which is also now totally vanished. He described how he had at first sought the “low door in the wall” which led to Alice’s enchanted garden. And he had found it and pocketed its golden key. But soon, disillusioned in love, learning and other things, he had stalked away and decided never to go back. “A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden . . . ‘I have left behind illusion,’ I said to myself. ‘Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions—with the aid of my five senses.’”

Then, in what I have come to see as the most powerful, lingering, and disturbing words in the whole astonishing book, Waugh wrote, “I have since learned that there is no such world.” And this discovery is of course the main purpose of Brideshead Revisited. The veil of the Temple is rent in twain. Man does not live or act for the reasons he thinks motivate him. Sin really exists, and so does grace. We are not free in the way we thought we were free, but in another rather alarming way. Enchantments and fairy tales are there to accustom our minds to the existence of a world quite beyond the five senses and the three dimensions.

It is not fanciful to suggest that one of the greatest works of one of the greatest novelists of our time owes its deep origin to what I am quite sure was a close personal acquaintance with Lewis Carroll’s two books about Alice. Waugh knew there was an enchantment to be found in knowledge, and he also knew that it was far easier to find in certain times and places than others. Would Alice be so enduring if she had been conceived in Scranton, Wolverhampton, or Dusseldorf? What would Brideshead be without Paris, Venice, and the great mansion itself, with its absurd, enormous fountain? Nor was it just the garden which was enchanted. The supposed “nonsense” of Carroll’s work is actually nothing of the kind. He employs an especially beautiful, tough English which, like the King James Bible, rarely uses words of more than two syllables and conjures up expressions in the reader’s mind (if he reads it silently) or in his tongue, (if he reads it aloud). Nobody now remembers the poems he satirizes in “Jabberwocky” and “You Are Old, Father William,” because the parodies are so much better than the originals, no doubt classics of their time. As a child I read it greedily, as if (in a P.G. Wodehouse fantasy this time) polishing off a cold steak-and-kidney pie in the pantry of a country house late on a summer night. And usually I could not stop till I had finished the whole thing. I expected this to change, but it does not. The brilliance of it persists, not least the perfectly observed descriptions of conversations with stupid or obtuse people, which are very like a lot of what one nowadays encounters on Twitter, but a good deal more elegantly done. How reasonable the pigeon is, justifiably taking Alice for a serpent seeking to steal her eggs. How beautifully the trial scene explains the process of justice, by mangling it. As for the Dormouse’s story about the three girls who lived at the bottom of the treacle well, I think the passage where the Dormouse says that they lived on treacle is one of the funniest ever written: “‘They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked. ‘They’d have been ill.’ ‘So they were,’ said the Dormouse; ‘very ill.’”

But perhaps I have an overactive imagination.

I have often wished there was more to read about Alice (I have never taken to The Hunting of the Snark, and Sylvie and Bruno is practically unreadable). And if I ever do write a novel (which I think I would be wise not to try) it would concern the discovery of a lost Carroll manuscript, Alice’s Adventures on the Moon, amidst a heap of slithering papers in a college servant’s house, on a silent, sweltering summer afternoon in the 1960s, and what happened afterwards. Perhaps there would also be a letter (beginning “My Dear Dodgson. . .”) from his publisher, saying, without explaining why, that he could not possibly publish such a work.

I think Carroll is denied his proper status as a writer for two reasons. One is the unending suggestion that he might have had improper relations with little girls, which I doubt will ever be resolved, for how could it be? I wonder, if the allegations were proved, whether the Alice books would entirely disappear, and people would entirely cease reading them or quoting from them, as millions still do (a once much-garlanded children’s author of my own young years has utterly disappeared from libraries and bookshops, and ultimately from memory, following a conviction for child abuse). I suspect they are already much less widely read than they were fifty years ago, and that references to them in journalism and literature are growing thinner. The other reason is that people see them as books written for children, when they are not really. Children can and do enjoy them, though I certainly missed a great deal that I can now understand. But I think Carroll wrote them for himself, a deep, beautiful satire of the intense religious and academic world in which he lived. And in doing so he wrote them for all of us, and continues to influence the English language and everyone who writes and reads it.