A comic book, a meditation on Alice’s White Rabbit

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As William Empson pointed out in 1935, two aspects of Alice are traditional in children’s stories: the idea of characters of unusual size (miniatures and giants) and the idea of the talking beast. John Tenniel’s opening drawing, the White Rabbit at the head of chapter 1, draws on both these traditions. The rabbit occupies a point between animal and human, simultaneously both these things and neither of them, an implication hardly made so firmly by Carroll’s text. The rabbitness of the rabbit is emphasized by the meadow setting, the absence of trousers, and the careful attention paid to anatomy and proportion. But the rabbit is slightly distorted towards the human by his upright posture, his clothing and accessories, his pose, and his human eye and hand. Less obvi ously, Tenniel also extends Carroll’s text by offering information about the size of the rabbit. From the grass and dandelion clock (a visual joke) in the back ground the reader grasps the rabbit as rather larger than normal bunny size: about the size of a toddler or small child, perhaps. As this illustration was in vented by Tenniel (Carroll’s headpiece illustration shows Alice, her sister, and the book), the contrast is clear between Carroll, whose picture draws attention to the frame of the story, to the affectionate relationship of sisters, and thereby to Alice’s membership of the human family, and Tenniel, who selects a tradi tional story idea that shifts the focus another way, toward a mediation between different kinds familiar from those many forms of art in which animal behavior is used to represent human behavior.

Readers of Alice in Wonderland are also likely to notice that the animal characters do not behave or talk much like animals in traditional fairy tales or fables. They are neither helpers nor donors nor monsters nor prophetic truth tellers, the main narrative functions of animals in traditional fairy tales, but nor are they the exemplary figures illustrative of human fallibilities and moralities familiar from fables. They do not teach lessons about kindness to animals, as animals in children’s stories often did, and they do not much resemble the creatures in nursery rhymes or jingles or Edward Lear’s nonsensical poems either. Instead, they talk, chopping logic, competing with Alice and each other, and often mentioning things “natural” animals might be imagined to talk about, like fear, death, and being eaten. I think Denis Crutch is also roughly right when he points out that there is in Alice a hierarchy of animals equivalent to the Victorian class system but also suggesting a competitive model of nature: the white rabbit, caterpillar, and March Hare seem to be gentlemen, frog and fish are footmen, Bill the lizard is bullied by everybody, hedgehogs and flamingos are made use of, and the dormouse and the guinea pigs are victimized by larger animals and by humans.

Tenniel connects his Alice and natural history illustration by a number of stylistic allusions. He borrows the conventional techniques of realism, such as the cross-hatching and fine lines used to suggest light, shade, and solidity of form in the Mock Turtle’s shell and flippers, or the crabs’ and lobster’s claws. Accuracy in proportion and a high level of anatomical detail are equally important. As can be seen by comparing figures 1 and 2, too, the grouping of subjects may also be suggestive—a point first noted by Narda Schwartz, who also drew attention to the resemblance between the etching of the dodo in Wood’s three-volume natural history and Tenniel’s dodo. Also significant is the way Tenniel’s design showing the creatures recently emerged from the pool of tears includes a rather furry-haired Alice among, and on a level with, the beasts and birds. Carroll’s own pictures for the pool of tears sequence have the quite different effect of separating Alice from the animal world, a point I will return to.

The White Rabbit is a fictional character in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He appears at the very beginning of the book, in chapter one, wearing a waistcoat, and muttering “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Alice follows him down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Alice encounters him again when he mistakes her for his housemaid Mary Ann and she becomes trapped in his house after growing too large. The Rabbit shows up again in the last few chapters, as a herald-like servant of the King and Queen of Hearts.

The volume of contemporary natural history publishing for children and adults, the evident contemporary interest in illustrations of animals, and the resemblance between Tenniel’s and contemporary natural history drawings have important implications: the resemblance indicates that Tenniel is here creating the context within which he wants his pictures to be read. He shows us that he saw (and wanted the viewer to be able to see) Carroll’s animals as “real” animals, like those that were the objects of current scientific study and theories, at least as much as he saw them as Grandville or Punch-type instruments of social satire, or fairy-tale or fable talking beasts.

In his article “Alice on the Stage,” Carroll wrote “And the White Rabbit, what of him? Was he framed on the “Alice” lines, or meant as a contrast? As a contrast, distinctly. For her ‘youth,’ ‘audacity,’ ‘vigour,’ and ‘swift directness of purpose,’ read ‘elderly,’ ‘timid,’ ‘feeble,’ and ‘nervously shilly-shallying,’ and you will get something of what I meant him to be. I think the White Rabbit should wear spectacles. I’m sure his voice should quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say ‘Boo’ to a goose!”
Overall, the White Rabbit seems to shift back and forth between pompous behavior toward his underlings, such as his servants, and grovelling, obsequious behavior toward his superiors, such as the Duchess and King and Queen of Hearts, in direct contrast to Alice, who is reasonably polite to everyone she meets.

The White Rabbit is the spark of curiosity that activates Alice’s spiritual awakening. It is he who leads Alice down the rabbit hole, it is he who woke her up from her daze since the hot day had made her sleepy. One notices how even though Alice was still a young child, the condescending world of adults was starting to affect her. She was starting to become an adult herself, and thus, would not question anything. Despite the fact she saw a talking rabbit run past her in human clothing, she found nothing too remarkable about it. It was only when he took out a pocket watch that she gave a start. It is the White Rabbit which Alice runs after and searches for endlessly in Wonderland, a symbol of her quest for knowledge. Just when things seem rather desperate the rabbit appears yet again, and Alice drives on through.

The existence of Non-Being is probably one of the main reasons why the world of Alice was dismissed as one of absolute nonsense. Yet the existence of Non-Being is actually one of the oldest philosophical controversies of Western philosophy. It is clear that Carroll was influenced by his learnings of Greek philosophy at Christ Church.

The beginnings of this controversy can be dated back to the cradle of Western Philosophy: a group of philosophers called the Pre-Socratics. The Pre-Socratics were also called natural philosophers as they studied the most obvious thing to them: Nature. They wanted to develop the essence of being and explain the changes around them… namely, how things went from being to non-being. Parmenides of Elea was probably the most radical Pre-Socratic philosopher as he relied, for the most part, entirely on his reason. The crazy fool!

This Parmenides asserted that change is utterly impossible, as something in existence cannot move out of it. He said that only ‘Is’ (i.e Being) is, and one cannot speak of something that ‘is not’, for who can recognise something that does not exist? It was baffling to his rationality and therefore, he rejected it.

It seems that Carroll disagreed with this assertion, as both the Alice books show. In fact, Humpty Dumpy tells Alice ‘there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents’. Carroll here seems to follow the ideas of another natural philosopher: Heraclitus.

Heraclitus and Parmenides are often contrasted because of their opposing views. Heraclitus was the very opposite of a rationalist; he was an empiricist (he followed observations according to what his senses showed him). Heraclitus was so deep that some other ancient guy who thought a lot said ‘it would take a Delian deep sea diver to get to the bottom of him’. Heraclitus spoke of change, and said that opposites do not exclude each other – as Parmenides argued – but in fact complement each other.

Therefore, in a Heraclitean world (and in Wonderland), opposites (being and non-being) co-exist peacefully. This is the philosophical basis that Carroll must surely have used to write the Alice books. To Carroll it seems that ‘nothingness’ is, in fact, a special essence, something that is immaterial but existent.

John Tenniel provided 42 wood engraved illustrations for the published version of the book. The first print run was destroyed (or sold to America) at Carroll’s request because he was dissatisfied with the quality. The book was reprinted and published in 1866.

Sir John Tenniel (Bayswater, London, 28 February 1820 – 25 February 1914) was a British illustrator, graphic humourist and political cartoonist whose work was prominent during the second half of England’s 19th century. Tenniel is considered important to the study of that period’s social, literary, and art histories. Tenniel was knighted by Victoria for his artistic achievements in 1893.

Tenniel is most noted for two major accomplishments: he was the principal political cartoonist for England’s Punch magazine for over 50 years, and he was the artist who illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

As the original illustrator for his book, Lewis Carroll’s own artistic inabilities, among other problems, held back Wonderland to a degree. Not until engraver Orlando Jewitt, who had done work for Carroll before in 1859 and had reviewed Carroll’s illustrations for Wonderland, had suggested employment of a professional draughtsman did Carroll look to find an outside artist. With such a reputation seemingly firm and in place for both Punch and Tenniel, it would stand to reason that the artist’s public status attracted high levels of attention and notoriety from his peers and the public; Carroll, a regular reader of Punch, knew, of course, of Tenniel. In 1865 Tenniel, after considerable talks with Carroll, illustrated the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The first print run of 2,000 was shelved because Tenniel objected to the print quality. A new edition (the first edition was resold in America), released in December of the same year but carrying an 1866 date, was quickly printed and became an instant best-seller, securing Tenniel’s lasting fame in the process. His illustrations for both books have taken their place among the most famous literary illustrations ever made. After the Carroll projects were finished, Tenniel did virtually no such work after 1872. Carroll did at some later time approach Tenniel again to undertake another project for him. To this Tenniel replied:
“It is a curious fact that with ‘Looking-Glass’ the faculty of making drawings for book illustrations departed from me, and […] I have done nothing in that direction since.”

Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books were engraved onto blocks of deal wood by the Brothers Dalziel. These engravings were then used as masters for making the electrotype copies for the actual printing of the books. The original wood blocks are now in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They are not usually on public display, but were exhibited in 2003.
In his career Tenniel contributed around 2,300 cartoons, innumerable minor drawings, double-page cartoons for Punch’s Almanac and other special numbers, and 250 designs for Punch’s Pocket-books. By 1866 he was “able to command ten to fifteen guineas for the reworking of a single Punch cartoon as a pencil sketch”, alongside his “comfortable” Punch salary “of about £800 a year”. An ultimate tribute came to an elderly Tenniel as he was honored as a living national treasure and for his public service was knighted in 1893 by Queen Victoria. The first such honour ever bequeathed on an illustrator or cartoonist, his fellows saw his knighting coming as gratitude for “raising what had been a fairly lowly profession to an unprecedented level of respectability.” With knighthood, Tenniel elevated the social status of the black and white illustrator, and sparked a new sense of recognition of and occupational honour to his lifelong profession.

According to Rodney Engen, Tenniel’s biographer, his method for creating the illustrations of the Alice books was the same as the method he used for Punch, namely preliminary pencil drawings, further drawings in ‘ink and Chinese white’ to simulate the wood engraver’s line, then transference to the wood-block by the use of tracing paper. Then the drawings were engraved to the highest standards, in this instance by the Dalziel Brothers. Carroll appears to have ordered many (expensive!) changes to them. The final stage in the reproduction process was to make electrotype plates from the wood-engravings, using them as masters. The electrotype plates were used for the actual printing.
Because of the difficult process of creating wood-blocks involved, sometimes concessions had to be made as to the overall design of the illustration. For example, a character might be moved into a different position – which probably happened with the ape in the illustration of the Dodo with the thimble. And, once wood had been removed, it could not be put back without a great deal of difficulty. A small number of Alice wood-blocks have had alterations or repairs made to them, that are in some cases detectable from the proofs which have been taken directly from the blocks.

The following chronology of the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland is coming from Jones’ and Gladstone’s Alice Companion, 1998, pages 253-5:

25 January 1864: Carroll asked Tenniel to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
5 April 1864: Tenniel consented. The fee agreed was £138.
2 May 1864: Carroll sent Tenniel the first piece of slip set up for Alice’s Adventures
12 October 1864: Tenniel’s first drawing on wood of the White Rabbit scurrying away from Alice was inspected by Carroll and 34 illustrations were agreed
28 October 1864: The Dalziel brothers showed Carroll’s proofs of several of Tenniel’s pictures. The cost for the engraving of Tenniel’s plates by the Dalziels was £142 for 42 plates
May 1865: Carroll sent the galley proofs for all the text to Tenniel so he could complete the illustrations. Forty-two illustrations were completed
June 1865: The Clarendon Press, Oxford, printed 2000 copies of Alice’s Adventures at a cost of £131
20 July 1865 Tenniel objected to the quality of this first printing and Carroll rejected it
November 1865: Richard Clay, the new printers, achieved an edition which satisfied Tenniel and Carroll. Carroll proposed to employ them again if he wrote a second Alice
1885: Carroll wrote to Alice that, including the People’s Edition and the first translations into foreign tongues, 120,000 copies of Wonderland had sold
8 April 1868: Carroll reported Tenniel’s warning that there was ‘no chance of his being able to do pictures for me until the year after next, if then. I must now try Noel Paton.’
19 May 1868: Noel Paton urged Carroll to persist with Tenniel. So did Ruskin. Carroll, in desperation, offered to pay Punch for his time ‘for the next five months’ to free him to illustrate the second Alice
18 June 1868: Tenniel made what Carroll described as a ‘kind of offer to do the pictures (at such spare time as he can find)’. Tenniel hoped the illustrations would be ready by Christmas 1869
12 January 1869: Carroll sent the first chapter of Looking-Glass to Alexander Macmillan
20 January 1870: Carroll saw the first ten Tenniel sketches for the pictures of Looking-Glass
12 March 1870: Carroll and Tenniel met for two hours in London to set out the plans for 30 more pictures, having already sent three to the Dalziel Brothers at Camden Press for ‘cutting’
4 January 1871: Carroll finished the manuscript of Looking-Glass
16 January 1871: Carroll sent the completed galleys, including the Wasp incident, to Tenniel for pasting up and illustrating
March 1871: Carroll moved the picture of the Jabberwock to the text pages and substituted the White Knight as the frontispiece
25 April 1871: To this date, Carroll only received 27 pictures. Tenniel now hoped to complete them by July
21 November 1871: Carroll sent authorization to Clay by telegraph to electrotype ‘all the rest of the Looking-Glass. I afterwards sent two corrections by post. So ends my part of the work.’
30 November 1871: Macmillan advised Carroll that they already had orders for 7500 copies: 9000 were to be printed and a further 6000 were ordered
6 December 1871: Carroll received the first copy of Looking-Glass
15 December 1871: Carroll sent the Dalziel brothers a cheque for £203.16 for the engraving
27 January 1872: 15,000 copies of the story had been sold
1890: Tenniel agreed to supervise the colouring of 20 illustrations for The Nursery Alice. The book was colour-printed by Edward Evans and the cover was drawn by Carroll’s friend and life-drawing teacher, E. Gertrude Thomson.


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