As the Victoria & Albert Museum prepares to celebrate Lewis Carroll’s heroine, ties to mysticism and magical societies have come to light in a new work, Through a Looking Glass Darkly
Great art spawns imitation. And great weird art, it seems, spawns still weirder flights of fancy. Lewis Carroll’s twin children’s fantasies, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There have both inspired a string of adaptations, artistic and musical responses down the generations.
“Together these books are really the first psychedelic texts and I like them because there’s no moral lesson. They actually parody authority, like the judiciary and the monarchy, rather than supporting them,” said Jake Fior, an Alice expert and author of Through a Looking Glass Darkly. “Carroll had a definite interest in the esoteric. I have a catalogue of his possessions, including his library, and he had lots of books on the supernatural,” he told the Observer. Fior’s fresh version of Alice’s journey attempts to elaborate and even improve upon Carroll’s difficult follow-up work, 150 years on from its publication.
“If you think about the structure of Through the Looking Glass, it’s very weird and I always felt it could be improved. The idea of going through a mirror into a reflected dimension is fine, but then suddenly there is this Jabberwocky epic poem and the Vorpal sword and these mythical beasts which are never mentioned again. It is framed as a chess game in which Alice goes from pawn to queen in eight chapters, but it doesn’t run in a fluid way like Wonderland. It is a more flawed book, yet some of the moments are better, so I kept those in my version.” During the author’s research for his new approach to the story he discovered images that will now go on public display for the first time in the V&A show.
Fior, who is the proprietor of the Alice through the Looking Glass shop in the West End of London, was already the owner of several original pieces of Carroll memorabilia when he came across a sketch book that had belonged to Carroll’s famous original illustrator, Sir John Tenniel.
“It shouldn’t have been there, but I was at a rare book fair three summers ago and there it was, nondescript, with just the word ‘costume’ written on the front,” remembered Fior. As a student Tenniel used to skip his classes at the Royal Academy of Art and take his sketch books to the British Museum instead. This book was full of studies of armour and knights, prototypes of the images he went on to use in the Alice books.
Fior uses these images in his book just as Carroll used Tenniel’s work: a dynamic mix of text and illustration, which he believes looks towards the arrival of the graphic novel. Fior’s story tells, in parallel with Alice’s journey, the true story of Samuel Liddell Mathers, a distant relative of the real girl Alice who had inspired Dodgson.
Fior discovered that he had formed the secret magical society known as The Golden Dawn, patronised by major literary figures such as Bram Stoker, E Nesbit and Arthur Conan Doyle, and also by the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.
“There is no evidence that Carroll was practising magic, but he was interested in telepathy and was a member of the Society of Psychical Research. He also had a well known obsession with wordplay and especially acrostics, and these come from Hebrew mysticism, which he would probably have known,” said Fior.
While working on the book he found that although Carroll was not a Freemason, the Liddell family were very involved in the organisation. The V&A exhibition, Fior suggests, will be a good opportunity for fans to go back to the darker side of the stories, something that the Disney cartoon version has almost obliterated. “The Disney image has become so strong, it has almost effaced Tenniel. But I find the animated visuals a bit saccharine. I always think of the phrase from Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange “weak tea, new brewed” as opposed to the Tenniel which is full strength, with no sugar.”