University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Of wasps in wigs and gnatter with gnats: how insects made Alice in Wonderland

Of wasps in wigs and gnatter with gnats: how insects made Alice in Wonderland

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  • UserFranziska Holt (University of York)
  • ClockMonday 17 May 2021, 13:00-14:00
  • HouseZoom.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Joanne Green.

The year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the second of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Despite the huge popularity of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Looking-Glass has always remained the less-studied of the two books. Distinctions between the two books have been scrutinized little, and the very different concerns and ways of expressing them in Looking-Glass, and the way in which they frame Lewis Carroll, his interests, and contributions to Victorian intellectual discourse have been side-lined. This has contributed to criticism distorting the role of ‘children’s authors’ and ‘children’s literature’ – neither of which, I will argue in this talk are appropriate framing for Alice and its author – for instance, to the public discourse of science in the nineteenth century – but also, in parallel ways, today.

This paper will illuminate this predicament by exploring Through the Looking-Glass in the context of Lewis Carroll’s interest in science and its impact on society, through a case study of the role insects play in his Alice novels, and particularly in Looking-Glass – including its ‘lost chapter’: ‘A Wasp in a Wig’. Through examining Carroll’s own reading, items from his personal library, to his letters to editors of Victorian newspapers on such subjects as animal rights or vaccination, it will shine a light on the ways in which Carroll used the platform gained through the success of his first Alice book to more prominently address controversial issues of his time. Crucially, it will underline how, counter to many critical readings of his works, Carroll did so to effect a moral transformation in his readers, in line with his own Christian moral sentiments. This will offer a corrective to framings of the Alice novels – and children’s literature, more generally – as ‘carefree nonsense’, and, through a short concluding excursion, emphasise the crucial role played by narrative forms associated primarily with childhood, play in changing world views and behavioural patterns in the big science-society issues we face today, from Covid-19 to climate change.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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