Dietary Didacticism in Wonderland

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[NB: I wrote this piece for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online for ‘Alice’ Day who have kindly agreed that I can share it here also.]

 At the turn of the century, victorian psychologist James Sully remarked that ‘the child is little more than an incarnation of appetite which knows no restraint’. (1) This conception of the child as a fiendish manifestation of gluttony haunted middle-class Victorian girlhood and had the power to bring about a culture of noxious dietary didacticism.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books show many signs of being wrought in such a climate.

 According to Lewis Carroll’s nephew the ‘healthy appetites of his young friends filled [Carroll] with alarm’ so much so he let slip remarks like ‘please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much’. (2) Carroll even sent a small knife to a young girl as a birthday present and assured her if she used it to cut her dinner into tiny pieces she would ‘be safe from eating too much’ and could ideally ‘find that when the others have finished you have only had one mouthful’. (3)

Carroll’s fixation with feminine growth is interlaced with the progressive conception of Alice as a character. According to Carroll originally the ‘dream-Alice, in thy foster-father’s eyes’ was as ‘loving as a dog and gentle as a fawn’ so innocent ‘Sin and Sorrow are [to her] but names – empty words’. However, this winsome innocent is not the Alice we meet in Wonderland who wields her appetite to assert her dominance (‘Nurse Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!’)

Alice Liddel,  published as a miniature on the last page of the original Alice’s Adventures Underground (1861)

Nina Auerbach, in ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’, discusses the physical differences between Alice Liddell, Carroll’s aforementioned ‘dream-Alice’ and Mary Baddcock, the model Carroll suggested for John Tenniel’s illustrations. Alice Liddell is ‘strikingly sensuous and otherworldly’, whilst Mary Baddcock ‘is blonde and pudgy, with squinting eyes, folded arms and an intimidating frown’. (4)

‘Little Miss Budget’ Punch ‘Dessert, Miss? Oh dear, no! You’ll have to wait a bit yet. We’ve only just got to the second course!’

John Tenniel’s Alice, based on Mary Baddock, curiously resembles archetypes of the spoilt victorian girl. Typically conceived in publications like Punch. The above image depicts a stout young dinner-guest requesting dessert: the Butler replies ‘Oh dear, no! You’ll have to wait a bit yet. We’ve only just got to the second course!’ (5) Both Alice and ‘Miss Budget’ are characterised by eager plump appendages, frilly pinafores, stockings and polished shoes. Thus, Carroll’s shift to a blonde decidedly plump Alice – in many ways better embodies the typical middle-class girl who must be cured of her insatiable cravings. Just as the pictorial Alice resembles this indulgent archetype the textual Alice is wilfully preoccupied with dessert; she insists upon taking a slice out of the personified pudding despite having engaged him in a formal conversation and is shamed for doing so the pudding exclaiming, ‘I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of YOU, you creature!’

‘Drink Me’ by John Tenniel

Auerbach goes on to suggest Wonderland supportively houses ‘the chaos of [Alice’s] growth’ she believes as Alice ‘explodes out of Wonderland hungry and unregenerate Carroll ‘trace[s] the chaos of a little girl’s psyche’ with ‘sympathetic delicacy and precision’. (4)

However, time and again Carroll explicitly greets Alice’s hunger and obstinacy not with sympathy but with derision and censure. When Alice hesitantly asks the Duchess ‘why does your cat grin like that?’ the Duchess responds ‘it’s a Cheshire cat and that’s why. Pig!’ (48) the author implicitly verbally assaults Alice, for whilst Alice ‘saw in another moment that it was addressed to the baby’ she jumps at the ‘sudden violence’ of ‘Pig!’ and originally assumes the word is meant for her. The narrative continues to imply Alice possesses a voracious appetite that must be cured; just as the trial scene suggests Alice’s appetite is criminally reprehensible (she mistakes the evidence ‘a large dish of tarts’ (95) for refreshments) the tea party functions as a lesson in dietary restraint. Alice in the rearmost seat is always ‘a good deal worse off than before’ (62) as every time the Hatter yells ‘change!’ she is greeted with a milk-spilled plate that has already been plundered by three other people. Furthermore, as Lisa Coar, in ‘Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: The Victorian Woman’s All-Consuming Predicament’, notes the tea itself, uncalorific and caffeinated, is an ‘ascetic: it masks hunger, it feeds without food’. (6)

‘You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of a mutton,’ said the Red Queen. ‘Alice-Mutton: Mutton-Alice.’ The leg of mutton got up in a dish and made a little bow to Alice, who looked at it rather anxiously.

Carroll’s creations are suffused with dietary anxiety. The looking-glass queens who refuse to eat what one has been formally ‘introduced to’ painstakingly (almost purposefully) present themselves to every item on the menu. Similarly, the ephemeral bread-and-butterfly lives on a fatally restrictive diet of ‘weak tea with cream in it’. This undercurrent of  foreboding even suffuses the intertextual stories of Wonderland; the sisters at the bottom of the well in the dormouse’s story grow ill from their diet of treacle, whilst the Oyster’s of The Walrus and the Carpenter” are tricked into being consumed at the promise of a ‘treat’. The act of eating is framed not as pleasurable but as a distressing, confusing, anxiety ridden affair from the cacophonous tea party where the dormouse is doused into the pot of tea, to the trial at the end of the novel that surrounds the stolen tarts. Furthermore,  Alice’s consumption of items of food throughout the novel – becomes an almost literal manifestation of body dysmorphic disorder – as her rapid fluctuations in size correlate not only with her appetite but with her emotions.


Alice and the piglet

An early reviewer of Alice unconsciously traces the underlying power-play at work in the novel. At first the reviewer tries to catergorise Wonderland as a collective hive dream of ‘childish mind[s]’ a ‘charming’ ‘pleasant’ ‘happy place’. However, he struggles to reconcile how ‘disturbed’ he feels by the presence of a strange ‘cleverness’ that ‘causes us to wake from our dream.’ His discomfort at the controlling adult presence can also be detected in his hasty uneasy dismissal (‘but it is all proper enough’) of Alice’s distress at her involuntary body fluctuations. The reviewer in an attempt to neutralise the controlling authorial presence, hastily asserts that the caterpillar ‘changes too, and is probably likewise confused at his transformation’. (7)

By the time we reach Through the Looking Glass, as Lisa Coar suggests, Alice is seemingly cured of what Carroll might call her nutritional neurosis – when offered biscuits by Carroll’s Red Queen, Alice, ‘though it wasn’t at all what she wanted’, forces down one biscuit out of politeness but emphatically refuses a second helping’ . (5)

The White Queen similarly, presents Alice with a dietary dilemma. Her proclamation that ‘the rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day’. (169) cloaks the promise of food in Carrollian logic that withdraws said promise and renders the White Queen’s offer void. Her rule is a pun on a mnemonic for remembering the distinction between the Latin words nunc and jam; both mean ‘now’, but nunc is only used in the present, while jam can only be used in the past and future and is therefore presently never available.

Thus, although by Carroll’s sequel Alice is seemingly cured of her ‘uncontrollable’ appetite Alice’s dietary anxiety, in a novel notably titled Through the Looking Glass remains.


Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Alice (1907) are available at Project Gutenberg <;

John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice are have been obtained from The Victorian Web [accessed April 2016] <;

(1) James Sully, ‘Studies in Childhood’, Popular Science Monthly, 47:48 (1895), pp. 648-64, p. 650

(2) Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, (New York: Century, 1899), p. 134.

(3) Lewis Carroll, ‘To Kathleen Tidy, March 30th 1861’, in The Letters of Lewis Carroll, vol. 1, p. 49.

(4) Nina Auerbach, ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’ Victorian Studies, 17, (1973): 31-47, p. 35.

(5) Lisa Coar, ‘Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: The Victorian Woman’s All-Consuming Predicament.’, Victorian Network, 4, (2012). P. 56-57.

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