“The Leaky Vessel”: On Lewis Carroll and the Perils of Being Female

Rachel Vorona Cote on how the Victorian era’s restrictive prescriptions for acceptable female behavior pollute society to this day.

Rachel Vorona Cote | Longreads | March 2020 | 10 minutes (2,706 words)

We’re delighted to bring you a brief excerpt from “Chatterbox” — chapter 2 of Rachel Vorona Cote’s excellent book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today.

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We’ve been fortunate to publish Rachel Vorona Cote in the past. Check out The Fraught Culture of Online Mourning, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Exhilarating, Emotionally Intelligent Pop Music.

The strictures of twenty-first-century little girlhood might, at a glance, seem inconsequential when set alongside the demands laid before Victorian children—including the Brontës—and yet, present-day expectations are enduringly rigid. It is true that the last few years have yielded a modest offering of feminine fictional icons modeling less constrained behavior—both Brave’s Merida and Moana’s titular heroine are standout examples. The latter’s release was nothing short of sensational: here, finally, is a nonwhite female character who is reduced to neither racial nor gender stereotype. Accordingly, she’s positioned neither as a damsel in distress nor as an object of desire—Moana’s romantic life receives no narrative attention, and her chutzpah saves her island, however much it unsettles her father, the film’s benevolent patriarch. But our excitement over these young heroines belies their enduring paucity. And if we’re delighted over the representation of sassy, brave girls—if we’re still registering them as novelties and dazzling exceptions—it emphasizes the extent to which American popular culture continues to proffer an idealized version of young femininity as white, docile, and amiably stifled (Moana, after all, is one of the only nonwhite heroines Disney offers its viewers).

Despite nearly two centuries of shifting perceptions, our ideologies of gender and emotion, and the art so finely shaped by them, derive from an enduringly Victorian perspective of little girlhood. Perhaps we are more secular—the Disney Channel does not necessarily threaten its young viewers with a “pit full of fire”—and we’re certainly invested in the window dressings of female empowerment, but claims of progress ring hollow in the wake of cultural ephemera stubbornly insisting that the best little girls are the quiet ones, the ones who smile benignly and who behave.


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Child rearing has a long and knotted history, but along that timeline we can pinpoint certain significant personages who wrote on the subject, namely, late eighteenth/early nineteenth century British writer Maria Edgeworth, a figure who looms large as an influence in gendered discipline. Edgeworth wrote careful narratives meant to instruct both boys and girls in the appropriate decorum specific to their respective genders. In these moralistic tales, a child would disobey, be punished accordingly, and ultimately learn a lesson about docility in the face of authority. Specifically, early nineteenth-century conceptions of proper, Anglo girlhood were informed by the domestic duties they would perform later in life. If donning a corset—a functionally restrictive undergarment—signaled the transition to womanhood, then the lessons learned by little girls corseted them in figurative ways. There was no room for too muchness when a child was bent over needlework or, in the cases of the less affluent, learning duties in the kitchen. These were tasks that necessitated slight, measured movements and taut physical rigidity. Moreover, they certainly did not require chatter.

In The Parent’s Assistant; Or, Stories for Children (1796), Edgeworth penned brief, chaste tales intended to instruct young boys and girls in the proper decorum for English youth. Although boys receive greater attention throughout the collection, expectations for young girls are made eminently—not to mention exasperatingly—clear. In “Simple Susan” the titular character provides a template; she is, the narrator extols, a “sweet tempered, modest, sprightly, industrious lass.” But lest we underestimate her virtues, Edgeworth’s narrator elaborates in a fastidious benediction:

Susan’s affectionate, dexterous, sensible activity was never more wanted, or more effectual. She understood so readily, she obeyed so exactly; and when she was left to her own discretion, judged so prudently, that her mother had little trouble and no anxiety in directing her. She said that Susan never did too little, or too much.

To my mind, Simple Susan is simply fucking insufferable. But how could she be anything else? She’s not so much a feasible representation of humanity, let alone a role model; rather, she is an archetype—an assemblage of character traits that Edgeworth deems critical for any little girl’s repertoire. And, of course, our attention is specifically drawn to Susan’s ability to eschew any sort of disagreeable excess. She neither does “too little or too much,” a vague assessment of character if ever there was one, but Edgeworth makes her point. With the utmost diligence, Susan calibrates herself according to contemporary dictates of femininity. She possesses the verve and initiative to be both unwaveringly honest and sedulous, yet her modesty and dedication to serving her parents—like so many fictional mothers of the time period, hers is in poor health—ensures that she will never interrogate the boundaries circumscribing her world. She is exactly what is expected of her.

To my mind, Simple Susan is simply fucking insufferable. But how could she be anything else?

I’m not questioning Susan’s specific and, we must admit, bountiful virtues. Goodness has no precise calculus: if Susan’s parents treat her with kindness and care, then she has every reason to respect their wishes. Were modesty not an evident cultural mandate for every person identifying as something other than white, heterosexual, and male, then perhaps its inclusion in Susan’s grab bag of righteousness would not prickle me in the way it does. But Edgeworth’s narrative is prescriptive; she indicates in no uncertain terms that there is a particular, paradoxically impossible way for a young girl to be. Young readers, I imagine, were tasked with striving along that asymptote of good behavior in an effort to mimic Simple Susan’s perfection. They must have sensed the futility, that their moral trajectory would trudge onward toward infinity, never—no matter their efforts—reaching that endpoint exalted by the era’s disciplinarians: where little girls were more akin to little angels who never did or never were too much.

It follows, then, that Edgeworth’s bad girls were hyperbolic animated ids, little monsters reared through piss-poor parenting. Barbara, Susan’s counterpart, the daughter of wealthy Mr. Case, sits slothfully at home unless she has the opportunity to torment one of the village’s ruddy-cheeked children. She reads lascivious novels—which, even in the era of Fanny Burney, Jane Austen’s eighteenth-century literary predecessor, continued to suffer from prevailing masculine assumptions about their intellectual vacuity—indulges in gluttony, and watches idly as Susan, her nemesis, perkily accomplishes her daily chores. Of course Barbara resents Susan for being universally beloved and assuages her envy by seeking to torment her by any means available. For wicked Seven Deadly Sin practitioners like Barbara, the future—at least in Edgeworth’s universe—is dim. She will be humiliated, humbled, and, if she’s lucky, rehabilitated. Barbara’s antics lead her to be stung by a nasty horde of bees and then, horror of horrors, to endure the unsightly welts that blossom on her face, rendering her physically unbecoming, at least temporarily. In fact, the story ends here for rotten Barbara: too swollen and grotesque to attend a ball upon which she had set her sticky sights, we assume that she remains wretched, unreformed, and, thus, no longer of any concern to us. For Barbara, like Susan, is an archetype of vice more than she is a feasible depiction of little girlhood. She’s so vile, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine any child without an acute psychotic disorder mimicking her villainy. But ultimately, we’re not to concern ourselves with the complexities of why Barbara is bad but
rather to understand, through her impossibly naughty behavior, why Susan is so good.

For wicked Seven Deadly Sin practitioners like Barbara, the future—at least in Edgeworth’s universe—is dim. She will be humiliated, humbled, and, if she’s lucky, rehabilitated.

Edgeworth and authors who wrote in a similar vein influenced other Victorian and Edwardian authors who, in turn, provided more body to the milieu’s conceptions of girlhood. In 1880, editor Charles Peters began publishing The Girl’s Own Paper—a periodical that became extremely popular—in an effort “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood in England.”10 At the same time, The Boy’s Own Paper was also in wide circulation, and while it too encouraged Christian morals and decorum, its focus on adventure and rigorous activity differed markedly from the female-oriented periodical lauding quiet, domestic pastimes and occupations.

Author Lewis Carroll—given name Charles Dodgson—betrays even deeper cultural anxiety about exuberant or overly demonstrative feminine behavior in his children’s stories, specifically in the canonical yet chimerical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Likely enough you know the premise, whether because you’ve read the book, seen Disney’s 1951 animated feature, or even seen Tim Burton’s aforementioned fanciful, off-kilter—and therefore utterly Burton-esque—adaptation from 2010. A young girl is listlessly dozing outside, too soporific to listen to her older sister read, when she suddenly catches sight of a white rabbit—one who happens to be clothed and sporting posh accessories. He dashes across her line of vision and, her curiosity piqued, she follows him, subsequently tumbling down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland. There she encounters a bevy of phantasmagoric creatures, including a fragmentally disappearing cat with a deranged grin, a flimsy-willed, sentient deck of cards, and a caterpillar who, given his hookah habit, seems like he should be rather more patient and amiable than he is.

As soon as Alice enters this psychedelic fantasy world, her human form summons curiosity, and sometimes disquiet, from the inhabitants who themselves manifest in all manner of bizarre embodiments. But while these creatures engage in spectacles mesmerizing to young readers, Carroll’s narrator fastens his sights on the little girl stumbling through this dizzyingly monochromatic world: it is her unruly body that concerns him and that, consequently, propels the narrative. As author, Carroll asserts his authority predominantly by regulating his muse’s size fluctuations; however, the rapidity of said fluctuations betrays apprehension, stemming from Carroll’s conception of female maturity as uncontainable and chaotic—that is to say, fundamentally too much. If a little girl’s body could not be made to behave—that is to say, to submit to perennial youth—what else might she do? What churned beneath that learned veneer of docility, behind those eyes, reverently downcast? Perhaps even the most pliable little girls would prefer to be otherwise.

Setting aside garden-variety Victorian agitation, it’s not especially surprising that Dodgson would concoct a narrative so manically concerned with a little girl’s behaviors and bodily changes. He cultivated friendships with children—“childfriends,” he called them—and even took up the hobby of photographing them in the nude, which, while never documented as foul play during his lifetime, certainly registers squeamishly now. Dodgson’s child-friend Alice Liddell, probably his favorite of the bunch, inspired the character that would come to define his career. She was twelve years old when she received as a gift Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, bound and lettered by Dodgson himself and, most significantly, containing a photograph11 of seven-year-old Alice at the end. Critic U. C. Knoepflmacher remarks that the picture is “mirror-like,” a laden, if embedded, message to its recipient, for “this mirror reflects a face that cannot age.” It’s difficult to locate many pictures of Liddell during the early years of pubescence when she received this gift from Dodgson—and when, to his consternation, her body would have experienced the first quakes of maturation. The photograph tucked inside Liddell’s book is the gift of her former self, memorialized by Dodgson as an impossible fantasy: the female body, unfettered, fledgling, in perpetuity.

What churned beneath that learned veneer of docility, behind those eyes, reverently downcast? Perhaps even the most pliable little girls would prefer to be otherwise.

Yet Dodgson is not merely privileging a prepubescent moment that he regards as less chaotic; he also yearns for Liddell to join him in this nostalgia, even as she inevitably propels toward adulthood. For, when Liddell receives her copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, she embodies the reality resisted by Carroll in his narratives. The photograph is a plea: “Mourn with me, Alice,” it beseeches. “Tell me that your new, mature body, which is too much for me to bear, is too much for you, too.”


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When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, Dodgson and Liddell no longer shared the intimacy that had accompanied the latter’s childhood.12 Dodgson’s diary indicates that the two were still in contact with each other; however, Liddell’s appearance—she would now be about thirteen years old—had begun to repel him. He writes on May 11, 1865, “Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better—probably going through the usual awkward age of transition.”13 Nowadays this “usual awkward age of transition” is designated as its own era, adolescence—those blistering years that roil with infamous physical and emotional tribulations. But the Victorians possessed no such category, at least not until the turn of the century,14 and thus the space between girl and woman presented as vexingly ill-defined. Dodgson refers to the transition as “usual,” but certainly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland bodily change is presented as poignantly unusual and, thus, confined to a parallel world that parodies our own in the most haywire ways. The pleasure of the story turns on the fish-out-of-water narrative: one young, human girl collides with a legion of kooky persons, like the exasperatingly helter-skelter Mad Hatter, condemned to temporal imprisonment—after offending the Queen of Hearts, he must endure a perpetual tea party or else lose his head—and, of course, the variously neurotic, anthropomorphic creatures she encounters across her haphazard adventures. Alice is befuddled, sometimes even incensed, by Wonderland’s nonsense, and yet, Carroll insinuates that a growing girl is better suited to a mercurial parallel universe of amoral absurdity—that her own, maturing body designates her as such—rather than to the Victorian world, where puberty is abject.

Charles Dodgson, like any other person, ultimately had no choice but to accept the fact of Liddell’s developing body regardless of the displeasure it provoked. But the authorial persona of Lewis Carroll—fictitious and, thus, free—enabled the meek clergyman to imagine himself master of a magical domain and, more to the point, master of his heroine: he could “write” Alice’s body in the manner of his choice and subject it to his whims—even punish it, in some cases. As he watched Liddell grow, with what he seemingly perceived as wretched inevitability, Dodgson imagined a female body that is always precariously close to changing, but whose changes were impermanent and always fell within his jurisdiction.

But for all his aversion to bodily transformation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very fleshy novel, with narrative elements belying Dodgson’s sensitivity to feminine rhythms. It wears its anxiety on its sleeve: little girls grow and harbor voracious appetites and sob buckets of tears, and as their size and confidence burgeon they become more difficult to control. In fact, in Carroll’s psychedelic dream, bodies are always in peril—particularly Alice’s body as she encounters the decapitation inclined Queen of Hearts. But beyond demonstrating their terrible mortality through a monarch’s incessant murderous threats, Carroll reminds us, insistently, of what a body can do—particularly ones with gestational capability. The rabbit hole that transports Alice to Wonderland might as well be a birth canal concealed within the vast corpus of the earth. Alice’s bodily changes produce a cyclical trajectory characteristic of women’s biological experiences. And while no actual bloodshed mars the desexualized text, it is nonetheless awash in Alice’s fluids. At Wonderland’s threshold, suddenly turned nine feet high after consuming some unattended snacks, Alice—
disoriented and frightened—begins to weep. The vestibule fills with her prodigious tears, signaling Alice as a sort of “leaky vessel,”15 a term that, in Renaissance England, implicated women as unable to control their bodies precisely because of emissions like tears, menstrual blood, and amniotic fluid. Alice’s hearty sobs are treated similarly—unseemly in their excessiveness, a sign that she is an unpredictable, troublesome organism. And once she is shrunk, she realizes that her transgression will be duly punished:

Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into the sea . . . However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high . . . “I wish I hadn’t cried so much!” said Alice . . . “I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!”16

The text treats it as a matter of course, despite the fact that death by drowning in one’s own tears is uniquely sadistic. It is a penalty precisely designed to fit the crime: too much noisy, wet sobbing. Perhaps the narration’s equanimity is a form of tonal reassurance: Alice will, ultimately, survive this predicament. But first, she must do penance for her body’s too muchness—too many emotions, tears, secretions. In Wonderland, the stakes are high for a female body in flux; but then, that has always been the case, everywhere.

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Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. A past contributor at Jezebel, she has written for the New Republic, PitchforkCatapultHazlitt, Rolling Stone, the Poetry Foundation, Buzzfeed, and Literary Hub

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Excerpted from TOO MUCH: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.