Barmy in Wonderland: Sarah Stanfield

Barmy in Wonderland  Lewis Carroll and P. G. Wodehouse – Sarah Stanfield. March ’24.

Sarah gave us substantial biographical information on Carroll (1832-1898) and Wodehouse (1881-1975) and drew attention to the similarities between the two authors.

Children’s literature before Carroll had been of the teach and preach variety, usually with a moral message for improving children’s behaviour. There was not much humour or fantasy in children’s stories.

       Carroll had attended Oxford Univ and moved in artistic, literary and theatrical circles (with Millais, Ellen Terry, Gilbert and Sullivan) and was friendly with the Dean of Christ Church college, Henry Liddell who had three daughters, one of whom was Alice. In 1862 he t on the rowing boat trip and told the Alice story to the Liddell girls. Alice insisted he write the story down. The story had no moral motive and was purely intended to entertain the girls. In 1864 Carroll gave a manuscript version (now in the British Museum) to Alice and 3 years later, in 1865, Macmillan published the Tenniel illustrated version. There have been many spin offs from Alice in Wonderland, including parodies (Alice in Brexitland), pantomimes a comic opera and many translations. The tale has many ‘in’ jokes, familiar places and creatures that can talk. Social conventions are ignored and the tale is full of absurdities and humour.

       Wodehouse (nickname Plum, derived from his first name Pelham) had an unconventional childhood. Between the ages of 3-15 he rarely saw his parents who were located abroad in Hong Kong. He went to school in Croydon and to Malvern school in preparation for a career in the navy and attended Dulwich college from the age of 12 and loved it there. The naval career did not work out as he had visual problems which made him unsuitable for the naval career his father had hoped for. At school he was a precocious reader (reading the Illiad as a 6 yr old and loved reading fantasies. He was affable and easy going and excelled at academics. He has hoped to go to Oxford Univ but his father could not afford to send a second son there. Instead, his father found him a job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank where he worked for 2 years, writing stories, articles and poems for the Strand magazine in his spare time. He rented a house in Emsworth and in 1904 went to America and wrote stories about boxing. He worked with Jerome Kern, co-wrote and adapted plays, and wrote witty lyrics for over 40 musicals. Like Carroll, he was fascinated by the theatre and wrote satires on Hollywood and the film industry. MGM adapted some of his books as films. In 1939 he became a Doctor of Letters. He was taken prisoner during WW11 and interned but continued writing and keeping a diary. He gave some broadcast talks from Germany to the USA, about his war experiences of internment and subsequently broadcast in Britain which were viewed critically in some quarters (e.g BBC). He was politically rather naïve. At the end of the war he was interviewed by MI5 but no grounds for prosecution were found. His actions were viewed as merely ill advised and unwise. After the war he lived in France and New York. In 1975 he received a knighthood and died aged 93.

       Carroll was very interested in photography and took pictures of young girls, always with parental permission, some naked, which have since attracted negative comments. Sarah pointed out that photographing unclothed children was commonplace in Victorian society. There was a certain amount of child worship.  He also took many portraits of well known figures of the time e.g Tennyson, Ellen Terry and Rossetti. According to some, Carroll remained a child all his life and his interest in children could be viewed as sentimental rather than sexual.

       Both writers are read for comfort, nostalgia and escapism.  Both explored absurdity and were playful and creative with language. E.g Jabberwocky, misquotes from literary classics (Wodehouse). Barmy in Wonderland (Wodehouse 1952) was influenced by Lewis Carroll’s work. Wodehouse was popular wartime reading for soldiers and more recently during Covid.  Both wrote for Punch magazine. Their work has never been out of print – a testament to their popularity.

     An interesting reading was the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter (1871 Carroll) which was influenced by Carroll’s knowledge of the Oyster industry in Emsworth, and of note  because of the later scandal (1902), caused by pollution in Chichester Harbour.

     Both writers could be described as Peter Pans of literature, loving absurdity, word play, and relishing an alternative reality played with a straight bat. Their works have endured and remain popular to this day.

     Our thanks go to Sarah for an interesting and engaging talk illuminated with slides. I am sure some of us will go back to Alice in Wonderland, Jabberwocky, The Walrus and the Carpenter and Wodehouse ‘s Barmy in Wonderland ( a satire on theatrical life) to enjoy their delightful humour once more.

Lois Coulthart