Thursday, 21 March 2013

Alice Through the Reading Group
Whatever my week has been like, my Saturday contains an energizing burst of Victorian fantasyː the chance to read  Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871) in a community reading group that I facilitate (helpfully funded by the Arts Engaged project at the University of Leeds).  This group is made up of people from a range of backgrounds and a range of English-speaking levels, all of whom possess the faculty of bold and insightful criticism.  These critical abilities have come to the fore in the discussions which follow each weekly excerpt from Alice,1 as I find everything from my perceptions of social categories to my choice of literature challenged. (See footnote below for edition details.)

            In the past few weeks, I’ve been adding to the weekly recipe of reading and discussion by including collaborative poetry writing. A passage from Alice provided the idea for our first attempt at this, and it proved so enjoyable  that I’ve decided to write about it here. Alice’s journey through Looking-Glass Land is full of alienation and bafflement, but there is one brief scene of almost idyllic tranquillity in chapter 5. Though this chapter ('Wool and Water') forms a wider context of disorientation as Alice stumbles from a wool-shop to a rowing boat and back again, accompanied by an incomprehensible sheep, Alice encounters some enchanted rushes.

So the boat was left to drift down the stream as it would, till it glided gently in among the waving rushes. And then the little sleeves were carefully rolled up, and the little arms were plunged in elbow-deep to get the rushes a good long way down before breaking them off -- and for a while Alice forgot all about the Sheep and the knitting, as she bent over the side of the boat, with just the ends of her tangled hair dipping into the water -- while with bright eager eyes she caught at one bunch after another of the darling scented rushes. (214)

Unfortunately, these dream-rushes begin to vanish from the moment she picks them, but the experience of seizing this transient beauty even briefly is inspiringː

What mattered it to her just than that the rushes had begun to fade, and to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while -- and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet -- but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about.  (215)

In his notes to the Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner extends Carroll’s associations of transient beauty still further to the rushesː ‘They are, of course, consciously intended symbols of the fleeting, short-lived, hard-to-keep quality of all beauty.’ (Note 16, p.215)

Well, I thought, why not join Alice in collecting symbols of beauty, transient or notʔ So in the creative writing session which followed, we all took turns writing down our own brief perceptions of beauty – taking our inspiration from anything -- in the room, in our lives, in the window – which was beautiful to us.  Despite the dark tone of some of the imagery, the act of writing itself was rather joyous, as we took turns trying to outdo each other with our images!

Collecting Rushes
Happiness is like scented-rushes.
The snow lies on the trees like icing-sugar.
Lilies are spread in the meadow like gems.
The city glows from the wall behind me.
Horses gallop with their flowing manes, showing their pride
My mother’s eyes give a chocolate-coloured warmth.
Horses gambol with children like magical toys.
When I wake up in the morning, I feel all the world wake up.
 I breathe fresh air and fly with my opinions, and thinking so, I am always singing with the birds, wind, clouds; so my happiness is sharing every thing in nature.

Uncertainty clouds my mind, reminding me of failing love.
I carry many faces in my heart; they speak a language of both joy and pain.
My heart always opens for new feelings, but just nice feelings, and in my heart are living a lot of nice people, and I remember them all the time, so my heart sometimes is tired.
My heart flutters like a shivering bird, seeking fondness, grace and love.

1I've been working from Martin Gardner's edition of Carroll's work: The annotated Alice: Alice's adventures in Wonderland, and, Through the looking-glass , by Lewis Carroll and ed. Martin Gardner (London: Penguin, 2001). This edition includes the original illustrations by John Tenniel.
The Multiple Strokes of Victorian Fantasy
I’ve chosen Richard Dadd’s painting ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ (1855-1864) as a theme for this blog because it suggests some of the multi-faceted nature of Victorian fantasy.  Since it is the work of a man who was at once a murderer, a madman and an artist, Dadd’s picture evokes genius, madness, imagination, fairy tale – as did the word ‘fantasy’ itself in the nineteenth century. As Stephen Prickett details in his monograph Victorian Fantasy, the word ‘fantasy’ has been traditionally linked with meanings like ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ˑ, often with a disquieting patina of madness. Thus far, thus Dadd. But thanks to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm, John Ruskin, Christina Georgina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and his daughter Anne Thackeray Ritchie,  Lewis Carroll,  and E. Nesbit (just to name a few), new interpretations of ‘imagination’ and ‘fantasy’ began emerge.  Imagination also became a source of creative powerˑ fantasy became the realm of dreams, or even ‘the realm of the Godlike’, to borrow Thomas Carlyle’s phrase. [1] In this blog, ɪ intend to explore the boundaries of interpreting ‘Victorian fantasy’ – fantasy as social myth can rebound in many different contexts.

Dadd’s painting also speaks to the continuing legacy of Victorian fantasy. Though created in the Victorian period, it has a modern afterlife – for example, Terry Pratchett uses it as a troubling image of fairyland in his 2003 book Wee Free Men; the band Queen produced a 1974 song called ‘The Feller’s Master Stroke’ in homage to Dadd’s work.  Similarly, fantasy texts written in the Victorian period continue to be influential today. The great Victorian fantasist George MacDonald influenced the twentieth-century fantasy writings of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Victorian period saw a reawakening of the English literary fairy-tale, and twentieth and twenty-first century writers like Angela Carter and Philip Pullman continued and still continue the reinvention of fairy tale tradition. Consequently, my explorations will also take in this modern afterlifeː how does the twenty-first century engage with Victorian fantasy?

[1] Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005), pp. 5-10.