Through the Rabbit-Hole; or, On Anglophilia, Fantasy, and Autobiography

This morning (or, if we’re going to get technical about it, this afternoon), after I woke up and wasted 45 minutes on the computer and showered and did all those morning-type things, I firmly told myself that just because it’s Sunday of midterm break, I shouldn’t allow my standard of dress to lapse. I’ve realized this semester that making an effort to dress not just in clothes that are clean, but clothes that match and look nice, has a positive psychological effect on my work ethic and my self-image—mindful of this and of the necessity of being productive over break, I put on halfway decent trousers, a reasonably stylish sweater, my favorite corduroy blazer, and even (gasp!) socks that match the rest of my clothes. Becoming preoccupied with how much sweater sleeve extends beyond jacket sleeve is a great way to avoid thinking about actually relevant things, like the paper I need to write this week, and so it was with this in mind that I grabbed a book and a notebook to write things about the book in, and strode through the Holder cloister to lunch. When I wear my corduroy jacket, and a reasonably stylish sweater and halfway decent trousers, I stride. I don’t trudge. It’s great.

I suppose it only hit me about 20 minutes later, sitting in the dining hall eating my scrambled eggs with a fork and knife as I peered at a book about Alice in Wonderland in the context of Lewis Carroll’s Oxford (it’s for a paper), how ridiculous I am. Most of the undergrads who stay on campus over break are athletes, and it was they, in their muscle shirts and sweatpants, whose loud chatter filtered through the hall to my seat at the last table. They were banging their fists on the tables and laughing with abandon; I was learning about the debates over the liberalization of Christ Church under the Deanship of Henry Liddell and fiddling self-consciously with my sweater sleeves. I do this a fair amount, in the dining hall; I think I must be in perfect keeping with the self-conscious Anglophilia (and, specifically, Oxoniphilia, to coin a word) that pervades much of Princeton’s architecture and early history. The Ivy League is all about trying to attain some idealized, romanticized vision of what British elite higher education is like or ought to be like—and, I’m beginning to think, this is particularly true at Princeton, which, although it was founded in 1746, didn’t come into its own until the late 19th century, when Oxford and Cambridge were both developing their modern institutional culture and when, in my reductive understanding, romanticized versions of cultural institutions seemed to proliferate on both sides of the Atlantic. As ridiculous as it may be, and as out-of-sync with any modern conception of elite higher education anywhere (boisterous athletes or no boisterous athletes), it’s not entirely inappropriate to spend a lunchtime sitting at one of those long wooden tables in a self-consciously constructed college dining hall, reading about Victorian Oxford and fiddling with sweater sleeves. It’s not Princeton today, but it was certainly at least one aspect of Princeton 100 years ago.

It’s easy, therefore, to be an Anglophile at Princeton, but I’ve admittedly been one all my life. In fact, I’ve probably been an Oxoniphile all my life, or at least for as long as I’ve known about Oxford—why else would I construct a Princeton that is totally out-of-keeping with reality? Why else am I keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get to study abroad at Oxford—not just in England, but at Oxford—next year? It’s a strange coincidence that is maybe not entirely coincidental that, when I chose to write about Lewis Carroll for my seminar on biography because I thought the Alice books might bear on my final project about my own childhood, I found myself rather unwittingly coming back to the politics and institutional culture of Oxford. Because it seems, ever-increasingly, that I always do.

The last time I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass must have been before I was nine, because I can’t remember reading it at all after my family moved from Georgia to California. But I do have powerful memories of being dwarfed by the rows upon rows of shelves in the university library where I went with my dad to check out an edition that contained both books with the Tenniel illustrations. It might, even, have been the same edition I found in the stacks of a university library yesterday, as I started to read for this paper. I couldn’t believe the things that came back to me about the text that I hadn’t thought about in ten or so years, like the “Pig and Pepper” chapter or the part of the trial scene where the guinea pigs are suppressed. I can remember sitting in my old bedroom, reading that trial scene, thinking that probably stuffing rodents in a bag and sitting on them is probably not really how disruptions are suppressed in a courtroom, but giggling at the image all the same. And now I step outside of myself to see myself, ten years and a seeming lifetime later, drinking coffee, wearing corduroy blazers instead of dresses, and devouring a satirical subtext about the politics of a developing modern Oxford that I would never have understood, much less discovered, ten years ago.

Carroll’s children’s books have been subject to enough critical study that I’m sure I have nothing new to say about them, but I’m nevertheless tempted to read the Alice books as a view of Oxford through a child’s eyes, the way that a child would write her life, where she is the center of her own story and her Dean of Christ Church father is the King of Hearts in a pack of cards (as one of the secondary sources I’m reading suggests). It makes me wonder what it means for a child to write her life, or for a somewhat childlike adult (as Carroll was, another secondary source posits) to write her life for her. A child’s life is writ small, a child’s world limited. And so Alice dreams that a chess set comes to life in a looking-glass world, and nine-year-old me creates a proliferation of universes and characters to inhabit them alongside myself. Whether it’s Alice telling her story to her cat, or me telling mine to my dolls and stuffed animals, children write themselves the heroes of their own lives, of adventures where the fairies at the bottoms of gardens are real. It’s what we do, and it’s why kids are still reading Alice.

As far as Lewis Carroll was concerned, Wonderland appeared to cease to exist when his child-friends grew up. Other Victorian children’s authors seem to agree; I’m reminded of that preoccupation with “growing up” in Peter Pan. But I’m not so sure. It’s three months till I’ll have completed my second decade (check out that future perfect construction!) and I’m still chasing an English and Oxonian fantasy universe, superimposing it upon reality when I get close enough to snatch at it and hang onto it. I laugh at myself, here at university in America: what remains of my proper, pre-teenage childhood has long since been relegated to boxes in my family’s garage, and yet I’m still longing for a rabbit-hole and a shortcut to Wonderland.

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