Sunday, 7 February 2010
Morris in Wonderland
In my book on William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, I tried to get away from the over-familiar story of Morris as an Oxford undergraduate at Exeter College to tell the full story of his mature relationship to Oxford, of his return there as an architectural and political activist in later life. Around the colourful story of the nine speeches Morris gave in Oxford from 1879 onwards I tried to evoke the whole spectrum of his adult interactions with his old university.
And now, preparing for the first time a lecture on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for my Victorian literature class, I find I have missed one minor aspect of that interaction. For the mathematics tutor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was indeed an Oxford phenomenon as ‘Lewis Carroll’ from the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. And Morris, it appears, had distinct views on this Oxonian brand of children’s literature. For as his daughter May informs us: ‘he never could sympathise with the enthusiasm children had a little later on for “Alice in Wonderland”. It was a type of child-literature that “gave him the fidgets”, he would say’.
Why, one wonders (since May herself doesn’t elaborate on this), should Morris have taken against the Alice books in this way? They look to us like very radical and subversive works, challenging many of the institutions and philosophical categories of Victorian establishment thought; and it is certainly no accident that Lewis Carroll was later canonised by the Surrealists. Yet perhaps what Morris himself saw in the books – and reacted against - is what Hugh Haughton in his fine Penguin Classics edition terms ’a travesty of the heroic Pre-Raphaelitism of Rossetti, Morris and the Laureate’s Idylls of the King’.
We will never now know for sure. So this remains an additional aspect of Morris’s mature relationship to Oxonian culture which invites further speculation.