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Elucidating Alice: A Textual Commentary on…

Elucidating Alice: A Textual Commentary on Alice's Adventures in… (2015)

by Lewis Carroll

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One out of two ain't bad. But it definitely is confusing.

This book is undeniably a commentary on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Is it a textual commentary? It depends on your definitions -- but it certainly isn't a textual commentary in the sense of Bruce M. Metzger's A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament or Wells, Taylor, Jowett, and Montgomery's William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. To explain the purpose of a purely textual commentary, it might be best to take an example. 1 Corinthians 13:3 in the Bible is a good one. The King James Bible translates a Greek text that reads "if I deliver my body to be burned." The New Revised Standard Version translates a text that reads "if I deliver my body so that I may boast." These two readings differ by just one letter in the Greek. The King James reading is found in more manuscripts, but the New Revised Standard Reading is found in the earliest manuscripts, and in manuscripts which on other grounds are considered more accurately copied. Metzger's commentary discusses this reading and explains why a good translation should read "if I deliver my body so that I may boast." That is a textual commentary.

And this book doesn't do that. Oh, it notes a few places where the editions of Alice varied over the years, including at least one case where it affected the meaning. But there is no comprehensive comparison of the texts, or of the printed text with the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures under Ground that Charles Dodgson gave to Alice Liddell.

So if this isn't a textual commentary, what is it? It is -- and I admit this distinction sounds like hair-splitting -- a literary commentary on the text. I wish there were a better name for this distinction, but there really isn't. What Selwyn Goodacre is doing is looking at the actual wording of the printed text of Alice and musing about it.

These musings range from some which may well cause you to see the text in a new way (the White Rabbit has pink eyes, indicating it is an albino) to the useful (keeping count of death references, of which there are many) to the farcical (the notes about Alice's fall down the rabbit hole alternate between those which assume actual physics and those which are just plain off the wall; they set my teeth on edge). There are a lot of notes here -- 607 on the actual text of Alice, which is less than 30,000 words, so about one note on every 45 words. That's a higher rate of notes than on a typical edition of Shakespeare -- it approximates that in one of my Chaucer editions.

The problem is their quality. Sometimes Goodacre is brilliant; sometimes he misses the point. Take this example from Chapter 4, when the White Rabbit, thinking Alice is his servant Mary Ann, sends Alice to fetch his gloves. When Alice reaches his door, she finds that the nameplate reads W. RABBIT. Goodacre's note 206 is quite interesting: Is the White Rabbit's name "White"? Or does he have a name (e.g. "William") that we don't know? Or is "W. RABBIT" really intended to represent "WRABBIT," which is how some dialects would pronounce the name?

But on the very next page the text reads

"How queer it seems," Alice said to herself, "to be going messages for a rabbit! I suppose Dinah'll be sending me to messages next."

On the word "Dinah'll" Goodacre applies note 209, which reads "I suppose Dinah [sic.] -- a curious choice of word. One might suggest that 'I expect Dinah' would fit the context better."

However, I would argue that, because Alice is running errands, she is taking on the role of the servant. Yes, Alice Liddell would probably have said "I expect Dinah." But Mary Ann would have said "I suppose Dinah'll." I never had a second thought about this line until I read Goodacre's note -- but since he's pointed it out, I think it's another example of Dodgson's particularly clever use of English.

(Note, incidentally, that Goodacre uses American orthography for the quotation marks, not the orthography of the British original!)

The whole book is like that -- clever points mixed with absurdities. And it doesn't spend much attention on the Big Issues, such as what poems Dodgson is parodying or what a dormouse is. For that, you still need something like Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition.

And that is perhaps the best summary of what this book is: It's what's left over in the work of annotating Alice once you subtract Gardner's notes. (Goodacre actually refers to The Annotated Alice on occasion.) If you want just one commentary on Alice, get Gardner (which also has the virtue of including Through the Looking Glass, which Goodacre does not.) If you still want more, this may well be the book for you. But don't take it too seriously. Treat the notes not as settled fact but as suggestions -- ideas which might or might lead you to a deeper insight.

Which, when you think about it, is true of just about every word of Alice itself.

[ADDENDUM: I suppose I should add that anyone who wishes a textual commentary, or at least a variorum edition, of the Alice books, can find one in the edition prepared by Roger Lancelyn Green. This lists changes between the various editions of the books -- Dodgson made slight corrections to Wonderland on six occasions, although he apparently revised Looking Glass only once.] ( )
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For August and Clare Imholtz,
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One would have every right to say -- "surely we already have an Annotated Alice"?
During the night of Thursday 3 July 1862 at Oxford, it rained, but cleared by lunch time the next day as an active front moved southwards, with a weak ridge of high pressure in its wake bringing nearly cloudless skies with light winds during the afternoon, when the temperature could have reached as high as 84°F (29°C).
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