When Did the Alice in Wonderland Books Take Place?
The casual Alice reader may be surprised to learn there are specific answers hiding in both books…
When Did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Take Place?
Common Knowledge – May 4
In Pig and Pepper, the sixth chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice decides to visit the March Hare instead of the Hatter. Her reasoning? “I’ve seen hatters before,” she said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.”
In Chapter 7 A Mad Tea-Party, the Hatter, while lamenting his broken watch, asks Alice, “What day of the month is it?” Alice considered a little, and then said, “The fourth.”
That may sound rather cut and dry, but I don’t believe Alice travels to Wonderland on May 4. In fact, I find it very curious that this is accepted as common knowledge. My reasoning? Both the month and the day of the month are revealed when Alice is already dreaming! Recall your own dreams for a moment. How often do the specifics of your dreams mirror your real life? Something like…never? My dreams tend to follow a path like this: I can’t find a college classroom, my brother and I play with stuffed animals in the basement of the house I grew up in, my husband loses his toothbrush at our old apartment and my best friend and I are in a Las Vegas casino without our wallets. These vignettes, of course, span about thirty years of my actual life. If, in the dream, a fellow college student or drunken casino patron were to ask me what day it is, my answer most certainly would not match what day it is in the real, waking world.
Now, it is true that the real Alice’s birthday is May 4. Alice Pleasance Liddell, born on May 4, 1852, was Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was also the recipient of the first version of the book, which was written down especially for her. Carroll stuffed the book with all sorts of references to people and places and things that Alice would recognize, and I believe the birthday shout-out is just one more example of that. I don’t believe it is to be taken literally that she was in Wonderland on May 4.
Other tidbits that support my theory? Given Alice’s penchant for talking to herself nonstop, wouldn’t she have mentioned that it was her birthday at some point in the book? AND, in the first chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we learn it is a hot day in the real world. So hot that Alice doesn’t feel like doing anything and feels “sleepy and stupid.” The average May temperature in Oxford, where the real Alice lived, is only 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11-ish Celsius). That hardly sounds hot enough to make one sleepy and stupid!
When Did Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There Take Place?
Common Knowledge – November 4
In the fifth paragraph of the first chapter of Through the Looking-Glass, before Alice actually goes through said looking-glass, she engages in one of her typical running narratives, this time directed at her kitten: “Do you know what to-morrow is, Kitty?” Alice began. “You’d have guessed if you’d been up in the window with me—only Dinah was making you tidy, so you couldn’t. I was watching the boys getting in sticks for the bonfire—and it wants plenty of sticks, Kitty! Only it got so cold, and it snowed so, they had to leave off. Never mind, Kitty, we’ll go and see the bonfire to-morrow.”
When it comes to Carrollian questions, the answer to When Did Through the Looking-Glass take place is uncharacteristically straightforward. (And she does go through an actual looking-glass, not out a doorway into the sky as the new trailer for the 2016 Disney Looking-Glass movie suggests!)It is unlike Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, in which I have just discussed, Alice is dreaming when she addresses questions of date. When Alice is talking to Kitty at the beginning of Looking-Glass, there is every indication that she is still awake. She makes it clear that in the real, actual world, it is the day before Guy Fawkes Day, which is observed in England on November 5 and involves big outdoor bonfires. Therefore, the day she dreams of visiting Looking-Glass Land is November 4. Done and done!
But What Year?
Common Knowledge – Oh geez. We’re in dicey territory again.
In Through the Looking-Glass Chapter 5 Wool and Water, the White Queen asks Alice how old she is. Alice answers “I’m seven and a half exactly.” Later in Chapter 6 Humpty Dumpty, the eponymous egg similarly asks: “Alice made a short calculation, and said ‘Seven years and six months.'” The real Alice would have been seven and a half, exactly, on November 4, 1859.
If you conclude Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland takes place on Alice’s birthday May 4, then Looking-Glass takes place six months later. BUT, Alice’s exchange with the White Queen is, once again, while she is dreaming. To me, that means all bets are off, and it is totally up to your interpretation. Maybe Alice is fifteen years old when she is talking to Kitty, and only dreams of being seven and a half! Maybe she is fifty! Given Lewis Carroll’s preference for young female friends in the six-to-ten-year-old range (approximately), the fifteen or fifty is admittedly unlikely. But that is a discussion for a later, creepier time.
Sentence First- Verdict Afterwards
True confession time… I think I’ve made some valid points here, but I have an ulterior motive. The real reason I don’t accept that the Alice books take place on specific dates is this: I believe Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land are timeless. They always exist. They are always waiting. They are not for a particular child on a singular day. When we tumble down the Rabbit-Hole, it doesn’t matter how old we are. The table is set for tea, and our armchair awaits. When we climb through the misty mirror, it doesn’t matter what day it is. The White Knight pauses at the turn in the road; he searches for our waving handkerchief. Personally, I need him to be there. So I will continue to believe.