Brighton Festival 2015: Gillian Beer & Alice in Wonderland, and Masha Gessen

Another Brighton Festival has come to an end (the Fringe lives on for another week) and the buzz of heading to event after event is slowly dissipating. I still have no idea what I’ll do this month, but a succession of dinner dates with lovely friends has helped bridge the gap thus far.


Gillian Beer on Darwin & Alice in Wonderland

Gillian is a is a British literary critic and academic.

‘Are you animal, vegetable or mineral?’ – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Gillian Beer (GB) began by reading from Alice in Wonderland. GB took us on a journey through the life of Carroll, using his real name which got a little confusing, and how Darwin influenced what he wrote and how he depicted it.

In Through The Looking Glass Alice meets a Unicorn, who had always thought of a child as a ‘fabulous monster’, saying to Alice, ‘if you believe in me, I’ll believe in you.’ Alice is the anomaly in this land, the Unicorn is natural. GB began describing classification, a process which allows us to understand what isn’t immediately obvious.

Classification was (I believe) based around animal, vegetable or mineral. Darwin questioned this rigid classification, arguing that classifications aren’t stable – he suggested that a bear swimming could eventually evolve into a whale. GB explained both Alice books pick up themes pertinent to classification.

Alice is constantly categorised by the creatures in Wonderland, which is Alice’s first taste of the subjective nature of classification. The regular taxonomy of Alice’s world isn’t relevant in Wonderland. She is a predator, serpent, dying flower – ‘persistently challenged by those she meets.’

Lewis Carroll adopts more than Darwin’s evolution in his Alice novels. Darwin’s twist on Victorian architecture is also depicted. Traditionally kitchens were hidden from view in Victorian homes. In Alice, humans and creatures are barely indistinguishable, and homes open right into the kitchen, the most private part of the home. Species are interchangeable, as is seen when Alice holds a baby that then trots off on its own. There is no hierarchy to these creatures, GB explained, which is what the animal, vegetable, mineral classification relied on.

For a children’s book, Alice plays on adult questions about the world. Alongside questions of classification and depictions of the home, GB quoted a passage which comments on the strangeness of language, of the use of ‘nothing’ as a thing. ‘ I see nothing on the road’.

This was fascinating to hear GB talk and made me wonder if Carroll was taking what his peers found safe in their society morals, values, interpretations – and turned them on their head. However, this wasn’t to shock but to question. Alice is all at once a representative of the normal in a strange land and an anomaly in normality.

Masha Gessen

Masha is a Russian and American journalist, author, and activist.

You know when you listen to something and your mind lights up, that was this talk.

Masha Gessen (MG) read a lecture she was commissioned to write for Norwich Writing Centre. For me, it was a mash-up of Harriet Martin, Putin and politics.

‘Emperors do not die; they transpire out of love’ – Harriet Martin

MG began by talking about Russia and Putin. You forfeit agency to make it into the Russian elite. Power, however fleeting, affords rights that surpass the regular Russian citizen. When Putin disappeared MG was asked to write his obituary (not by Russian, obviously). MG explained that it was an eerie disappearance as Russian media stood still.

Putin, MG explained, has worked to more Russia backwards, to ‘traditional values’. He’s merged the state and church, he’s not the modern leader he seems post-Yeltsin. Putin is practically Stalin’s successor.

The talk then moved on to the Ukraine. MG argued that Putin invaded to uphold this idea of ‘traditional values’. He was frightened by the gay protests in 2012, so he ‘retrofitted totalitarian authority.’ He queer baited, people protested and he cracked down on rights – Pussy Riot were arrested. However, taking these actions was not enough, he needed an ideology, which brings it back to traditional values, the center point of this ideology. The Ukraine was set to sign with the west before Russia invaded, Russia’s opinion on this was that this would perpetuate homosexuality, which in their eyes is ‘a movement of the west.’ So they invaded to protect ‘traditional values’.

MG argued that the West cannot engage with Putin while he is riding this ideology, he wants war, he doesn’t want to sit down and discuss things with Europe. MG explained that Putin needs his country to be in a constant state of fear to have them be entirely malleable. He may wage war against his own country to do this, as though authoritarians have made it clear protestors are at risk it hasn’t created the level of fear Putin needs.

During the period for questions, MG made it clear that Putin could not be compromised with, and we need to change the way we converse with impossible people. We find Putin funny, but he is a serious threat.


Not much left to recount now, I may try to squeeze it into two more posts.

What are your plans for June? Doing anything bookish?

2 thoughts on “Brighton Festival 2015: Gillian Beer & Alice in Wonderland, and Masha Gessen

  1. Early June is busy busy busy, and then things will get a little back to normal, and I am planning to read like mad. My only regret is that it had to stop being spring and start being summer. My days of reading blissfully in the sunshine on a not-too-hot afternoon are over.


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