Books in brief: Alice in Space by Gillian Beer

An exploration of the mid-19th-century intellectual milieu that shaped Lewis Carroll’s sensibility
January 17, 2017
Alice in Space by Gillian Beer (University of Chicago Press, £24.50)

The arch playfulness that pervades Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass was not, says Cambridge polymath Gillian Beer, simply the product of one man’s whimsy. Alice in Space explores the mid-19th-century intellectual milieu that shaped Carroll’s sensibility. Beer traces his interest in botanical classification to the taxonomical work of Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley; the Alice books’ subversion of spatio-temporal physics to the work of mathematicians such as WK Clifford and James Clerk Maxwell; Humpty Dumpty’s idiosyncratic thought process to the logician George Boole; and Carroll’s penchant for wordplay to the pun-strewn mathematical cartoons of the comic artist Alfred Crowquill.

From the Mad Hatter’s eternal tea party to Alice’s ability to reverse her own growth, the destabilising of nature’s iron laws is central to the books’ ludic exuberance and their dreamy charm. “The enjoyment,” writes Beer, “is in seeing hierarchies upended, and bravura giving way to bewilderment.” Combining literary criticism and intellectual history, Alice in Space is a rigorous and engaging guide to both the texts and the contemporary structures of thought that made them possible. Carroll’s supporting cast is a striking reminder that the segregation of literature and the humanities from the natural sciences and mathematics—which we take more or less for granted these days—is a modern invention; the recent surge in scholarly interest in cross-disciplinary fields is, in this light, merely the reprisal of an old tradition.

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