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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Wondering about Alice

Chawton House, the Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s older brother Edward, has worked hard to transform itself from a research library dependent on a single deep-pocketed patron into a tourist attraction with a wider funding base.


Purists may carp at the commercialization—the Austen-themed jewelry and abridged editions of the novels available in the shop, the scones and cappuccinos on sale in the tearoom—but hey: Prestige doesn’t pay the bills. It would be a tragedy if this Janeite jewel closed its doors, so I don’t begrudge Chawton House its efforts to keep the lights on by any means necessary.


Still, I did raise my eyebrows just slightly at the announcement of two of this week’s events, scheduled to coincide with British schools’ spring break: “Alice in the Garden,” an Alice in Wonderland-themed walking trail; and “Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea Party,” with a sandwiches-and-cake menu running a steep £25 per adult and £10 per child (about $31 and $12, respectively).


You can understand why they did it: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a perennial kiddie lit favorite, especially with adults who haven’t actually read it, and its associations with white rabbits and outdoorsy English locations seem tailormade for Chawton House’s extensive grounds. Plus: tea party!


I suppose I shouldn’t find it discomfiting that Lewis Carroll (1832-98) was a Victorian—Chawton’s remit extends to the whole nineteenth century, long after Austen’s lifetime—or that he was a man, even though Chawton’s original purpose was to promote and celebrate literature by women. As far as I know, Carroll never expressed an opinion about Jane Austen's work--though it's hard to imagine that his sensibility would have aligned with hers--but Chawton House isn't required to spend all its time on Austen and her fans. And although I can’t help thinking of the author of Alice as a creep with an unhealthy fixation on very young girls, the validity of this view is apparently contested among Carroll scholars.


So I can't really justify my reservations by pointing to any one issue. All of it together, though? I’m slightly squicked out. But, like I said—whatever pays the bills. . .


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