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‘Alice in Wonderland in the Hub’, Caitríona Lally reflects on her experience as the inaugural Rooney Writer Fellow in the Trinity Long Room Hub

August 24, 2022 – I love Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland so much that I named my first child Alice and my second novel Wunderland. I love the nightmarish otherworld, the constant eating and drinking, shrinking and growing, magic and mayhem. I own 32 editions of the book, all with different depictions of Alice as either passive victim of circumstance or active mischief-maker. As with any obsession, there’s a risk of shoehorning it into everything, so when I began meeting researchers in the Trinity Long Room Hub to discuss their work, I could see links to Alice everywhere.

The weekly coffee morning in the Hub’s Ideas Space, in which researchers or visiting experts in the Arts and Humanities give 10-minute talks about their research topics, gave me insight into the range of worlds being studied here. Describing the Ideas Space as a portal may be overstretching the Alice metaphor, but it felt like a rabbit-hole with endless possibilities. My main memory from the coffee mornings was frantically googling the word ‘anthropocene’, because it came up in several presentations and it’s one of those words that I struggle to retain the meaning of.

Listening to Laura Shanahan, Head of Research Collections, talk on the conservation of Trinity’s Long Room Library, and chatting with Maggie Masterson, who’s based in the Hub and working on girlhood in the Pollard Collection of Children’s Books, led me to Trinity’s Early Printed Books and Manuscripts archives to see an early copy of Alice. I hadn’t been in Early Printed Books since clanking up the lift to clean it on a very cold January morning in 2016. Visitors to Early Printed Books are strongly encouraged to wash their hands beforehand, and as I was scrubbing up, I thought of the “Jabberwashy” sign in the toilet in the Hub (from linguist Gretchen McCulloch), a visual aid to effective handwashing to the rhythm of the first two verses of the Jabberwocky poem from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. By this stage, I was seeing Alice connections everywhere.

When I opened the second issue of the first edition of Alice in Wonderland, I got so giddy, I had to remind myself that squealing is discouraged in a library. This edition’s similarity to some of my own copies thrilled me. There was a continuity with some of my older editions, with the same John Tenniel illustrations and spacey texts. The fact that it was imperfect appealed to me: some of the pages were pocked with rusty liver spots, and there was a dating error — the printed date 1866 had a pencilled, initialled note next to it, “1865 – BM” — because it was actually reissued the same year as the first edition. I usually read my Alice books for their content, but examining this volume as an object made me look at the spacing of Tenniel’s 42 illustrations and try to figure out why some chapters had pictures on consecutive pages while others went many pages without. Like Alice herself, whose boredom with her sister’s text-heavy book, (“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”) prompts her decision to follow the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole, I favour the parts with more pictures. Ironically, after Alice’s lament about lack of pictures on page one, there are no more pictures until page eight.

Talking to Maggie about her research on the Pollard Collection, and also to TLRH researcher Nora Moroney about Benjamin Guinness’s collection in the Iveagh Library at Farmleigh House, led me to consider the ideas behind book collecting. Both researchers discussed the importance of exploring who is responsible for collecting and archiving and how they, and their predecessors, influence the contents of the collection, as well as how collections are reconfigured by the following generations. I thought of my own Alice in Wonderland micro-collection in the context of the choices I was making, based mostly on financial considerations (early editions are too expensive) and space (there’s a fine line between bookshelf overspill and hoarding).

Maggie and Nora both got me thinking about the book as object: the binding, frontispiece, illustrations, which led me to rethink my Alice-hoard in that context — did I favour my Tenniel-illustrated versions because his drawings seemed to represent the essence of the original Alice? Maggie’s description of a children’s book as a souvenir of childhood particularly fitted a memory of my mother reading Alice in Wonderland to me and my siblings in my uncle’s house in Mayo; being introduced to it in a favourite place must have added to my enjoyment. If my childhood had been bleaker, I may not have been exposed to such a book, or if I had, I may not have had sufficiently happy memories to want to prolong the experience into adulthood. Nora’s descriptions of the Ireland-related contents of Benjamin Guinness’s collection at Farmleigh made me think of the almost arbitrary nature of book collecting, in that the whims and interests of the collector are indulged. If Benjamin or his wife, Miranda, had a hankering for magically nonsensical adventure stories, then maybe the shelves at Farmleigh would be heaving under piles of Alice editions.

When the Hub’s Clare Moriarty talked about her work on mathematical philosophy — two daunting subjects that when put together seem exponentially more terrifying — she explained how Lewis Carroll the mathematician upended logical concepts in Alice. Clare also introduced me to mathematical fictionalism, the idea that talking about numbers and other mathematical objects is just a convenience, that there’s no reason to treat maths or quantification as true. I can only vaguely grasp these abstract concepts (and even then, only on a good day), but the conversation did bring me to Alice’s efforts to test her own knowledge of arithmetic to see if she’s the same person she was when she got up in the morning. When her rote-learned multiplication tables emerge as numbers that don’t add up, she realises that the world, or her own self, has been radically altered.

Finally, chatting with Phd researcher Céline Thobois about the relationship between the human, technology, and the environment in Samuel Beckett’s drama got me thinking about the similarities between Beckett’s stage-worlds and Carroll’s Wonderland. Both feature an unreal sense of waiting for someone or something to happen, characters passively trapped in absurd situations, a disruption of time and space, and the utter failure of communication: the more these characters talk, the less sense they make to each other, skewing meaning beyond comprehension. Talking Beckett with Céline revived my love of Beckett and sent me back to my old Leaving Cert favourite, Waiting for Godot.

Near the start of Alice in Wonderland, Alice eats a cake and grows taller and taller, "opening out like the largest telescope that ever was", pronouncing it "curiouser and curiouser." And that's how I felt about the fascinating discussions with the Hub's researchers; there was something enlarging in such an open collaborative space that would spark new ways of thinking and lead me to further areas of exploration. Curiouser and curiouser indeed.

Caitríona Lally’s 2022 TLRH Fellowship was generously supported by the Rooney Foundation.

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