Skip to main content

Alice in Space

The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll

Alice in Space

The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll created fantastic worlds that continue to delight and trouble readers of all ages today. Few consider, however, that Carroll conceived his Alice books during the 1860s, a moment of intense intellectual upheaval, as new scientific, linguistic, educational, and mathematical ideas flourished around him and far beyond. Alice in Space reveals the contexts within which the Alice books first lived, bringing back the zest to jokes lost over time and poignancy to hidden references.

Gillian Beer explores Carroll’s work through the speculative gaze of Alice, for whom no authority is unquestioned and everything can speak. Parody and Punch, evolutionary debates, philosophical dialogues, educational works for children, math and logic, manners and rituals, dream theory and childhood studies—all fueled the fireworks. While much has been written about Carroll’s biography and his influence on children’s literature, Beer convincingly shows him at play in the spaces of Victorian cultural and intellectual life, drawing on then-current controversies, reading prodigiously across many fields, and writing on multiple levels to please both children and adults in different ways.

With a welcome combination of learning and lightness, Beer reminds us that Carroll’s books are essentially about curiosity, its risks and pleasures. Along the way, Alice in Space shares Alice’s exceptional ability to spark curiosity in us, too.

240 pages | 21 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Carpenter Lectures

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“An erudite, witty and intimate journey through Wonderland. . . . Reading Alice in Space is like participating in a marvellous dinner party conversation as the author moves freely and easily among the intricate interrelationships of Victorian culture.”

Times Higher Education

“Combining literary criticism and intellectual history, Alice in Space is a rigorous and engaging guide to both the texts and the contemporary structures of thought that made them possible.”


"The project of resetting Carroll's fanciful dreamscapes into their historical moment has been done before. . . . Beer develops and extends such footnotes into critical prose that describes the intellectual and emotional contours of the Alice universe with enchanting, lapidary precision. She also draws on new archival material to reveal obscure but telling aspects of Carroll’s doubled identity as mathematician Charles Dodgson. The result is an enjoyable and compelling description of the Alice books' slant engagements with 1860s British culture. . . . Alice in Space is no critical breakthrough, but its principal aim is more modest: to enhance readers’ understanding and enjoyment of the Alice books. In this it succeeds superlatively, by revealing the historical milieu of the books’ carefree conceptual play."

Critical Inquiry

"Beer’s work is a thoughtful approach to the world that shaped Charles Dodgson into Lewis Carroll. While not for everyone, Alice in Space is an appealing overabundance of unraveling literary subtext. Its title’s “space” refers to the physical and metaphysical spaces explored by Carroll and his contemporaries as they pushed the boundaries of thought by questioning the status quo. Revisiting Carroll’s work after reading Beer proves an eye-opening experience for the modern reader, now more equipped to grasp the subtleties of the Carroll’s wit and subversive reliance on the absurd and playful. By no means an easy read, Alice in Space nonetheless offers a great deal of insight for those willing to follow the author down, down, down…"

Spectrum Culture

"In sum, though this text is sometimes complex, it provides intriguing insights by a veteran scholar and is a must for anyone interested in Carroll....Recommended."


“This is not a book, then, that one approaches to find out the most likely real-life candidate for the Hatter. Instead, Beer points us to how Carroll draws ‘obliquely’ on contemporary culture, how everything he knew 'became untethered and confounded as they enter his dream worlds.' Explaining the joke notoriously strips it of its humor, but Beer up-ends that argument too: the Alice books have already anticipated the reader’s desire to ‘get’ what’s going on, and gleefully take apart that impulse.”

Open Letters Monthly

“Gillian Beer’s much-anticipated Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll has already been awarded a major literary prize (Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism) and has received a series of glowing reviews. The well-earned praise recognizes Beer’s playful and, at times, brilliant analysis of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. . . . Isis readers, particularly those with an interest in the Victorian period or in the relationship between science and literature more generally, will find much of value in this book. . .not only did Beer’s analysis make me want to go back to Carroll’s texts; more importantly, she made me want to go to the works that shed further light on what Carroll was doing—to the linguists, logicians, philosophers, men of science, and even dreaded mathematicians who helped create a space for Carroll’s imagination to run wild.”

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"Beer chooses her themes well, and throughout makes interesting connections and comparisons that are supported by her wide knowledge of Victorian literature, both fictional and scientific"

The British Society for Literature and Science

"Alice in Space arouses our curiosity and there is plenty for the general reader who likes the Alice books to enjoy. After reading Alice in Space one can return to the texts with an enhanced understanding, appreciating both author and his books to a greater extent."

Children's Books History Society

“Just when we all thought we knew the Alice books, along comes Gillian Beer, who opens up not just new doors, but whole new corridors and gardens down in Carroll’s sideways world. Alice in Space is a joy: playful, brilliant, and wise.”

Rebecca Stott, author of Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists

“Offering sensitive and judicious insights into Lewis Carroll—the man, the mathematician, and the writer—Beer takes us on a vertiginous voyage through the wonderlands of his creation. She explores the scientific and ethical questions of his time and reveals how the comic—and dark—fantasy of the Alice books often conveys the subtlety of his dissenting views. Beer always writes with stylish, consummate eloquence. Alice in Space exemplifies how flights of passionate sympathy and imagination can also be acts of scrupulous inquiry and immaculate research.”

Marina Warner, author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

“The title of this wonderful work—alert and witty in its attention to details, capacious and learned in its opening up of the realms of knowledge Carroll lived among and engaged with—evokes outer space and rightly so. Alice travels underground and through a mirror and beyond any earth we know. But she inhabits other zones, too. She lives in our minds. She reads the signs of a foreign world and is herself read by others. All of this comes richly alive for us in Beer’s writing. We are as close to ‘adamant eager Alice’ as we shall ever be.”

Michael Wood, author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge

“While Lewis Carroll’s importance to the history of children’s literature has long been recognized, this book convincingly establishes Carroll and the Alice books at the very heart of Victorian literature and culture. Here we learn how the Alice books engage in active conversations with the ideas of great minds like Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Max Müller, John Stuart Mill, and Emily Brontë. Beer brilliantly reveals Carroll to be, like his famous protagonist, always curious, always enquiring.”

Jan Susina, author of The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children's Literature

Table of Contents


1 Alice in Time
2 “The Faculty of Invention”: Games, Play, and Maths
3 Puns, Punch, and Parody
4 The Dialogues of Alice: Pretending to Be Two People
5 Are You Animal—Vegetable—or Mineral?: Alice’s Identity
6 “Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully
7 Dreaming and Justice
8 Growing and Eating

Selected Bibliography


University of Iowa-Truman Capote Estate: Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press