Life and Work
Of all Lewis Carroll’s major works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has a unique standing in the category of whimsical, nonsense literature. Much has been written about how this novel contrasts with the vast amount of strict, extremely moralistic children’s literature. This is true; Alice is quite different from all other Victorian children’s literature. Yet, as odd as this story appears in relation to the other Victorian children’s stories, this short novel is odder still because it was written by an extremely upright, ultra-conservative man — in short, a quintessential Victorian gentleman.
Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832, in the parsonage of Daresbury, Cheshire, England, the third child and eldest son of eleven children of Reverend Charles Dodgson and his wife, Francis Jane Lutwidge. The parents were descended from two ancient and distinguished North Country families. From the Dodgsons, the son inherited a very old tradition of service to the Church and a tradition that he belonged to one of the most respected lineages in England — for example, family legend has it that King James I actually “knighted” either a loin of beef or mutton at the table of Sir Richard Houghton, one of Carroll’s ancestors. This incident has been thought by some critics to have inspired the introductory lines in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when the Red Queen introduces the leg of mutton to Alice: “Alice — Mutton: Mutton — Alice.”
For the sake of those who are curious about pen names and how authors choose one over another, “Lewis Carroll” is an interesting example. While teaching at Christ Church, Oxford, Charles Dodgson (Carroll) wrote comic literature and parodies for a humorous paper, The Train. The first of the several pieces submitted to The Train was signed “B. B.” It was so popular that the editor asked Dodgson to use a proper nom de plume; at first, Dodgson proposed “Dares,” after his birthplace, Daresbury. The editor thought that the name was too journalistic, so after struggling over a number of choices, Dodgson wrote to his editor and suggested a number of variations and anagrams, based on the letters of his actual name. “Lewis Carroll” was finally decided on, derived from a rearrangement of most of the letters in the name “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.” Clearly, Carroll was fascinated with anagrams, and he will use them throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; his interest in anagrams also explains much about the writings in his later life, and his mathematical works. Concerning Carroll, one cannot safely exclude any influence, least of all hereditary ones, but a good case can be made for the formative effect of Carroll’s father on him. Those who knew Reverend Dodgson said that he was a pious and gloomy man, almost devoid of any sense of humor. Yet from his letters to his son, there is recorded evidence of a remarkable sense of fun. For example, in one letter to his son, he speaks of screaming in the middle of a street:
Iron-mongers-Iron-mongers — Six hundred men will rush out of their shops in a moment — fly, fly, in all screwdriver, & a ring, & if they are not brought directly, in forty seconds I will leave nothing but one small cat alive in the whole town of Leeds, & I shall only leave that because I shall not have time to kill it.
To a boy of eight, such correspondence from his father must have greatly heightened his later love for literary exaggeration; indeed, such fanciful letters may have been the genesis for Carroll’s so-called nonsense books.
As we noted, Reverend Dodgson was said to be an austere, puritanical, and authoritarian Victorian man; Lewis Carroll’s mother, however, was the essence of the Victorian “gentlewoman.” As described by her son, she was “one of the sweetest and gentlest women that had ever lived, whom to know was to love.” The childhood of Lewis Carroll was relatively pleasant, full of ideas and hobbies that contributed to his future creative works. His life at Daresbury was secluded, though, and his playmates were mostly his brothers and sisters. Class distinctions did not permit much socializing between children of the parsonage and the “lesser” parish children. Curiously, a number of the Dodgson children, including Carroll, stammered severely. More than one author has suggested that, at least in Carroll’s case, his stammer may have arisen from his parents’ attempts to correct his left-handedness. Isa Bowman, a childhood friend of Carroll’s, has said that whenever adults approached them on their walks, Carroll’s speech became extremely difficult to understand. Apparently, he panicked; his shyness and stammering always seemed worse when he was in the world of adults. This stammering made him into a bit of a “loner” and explains, somewhat, Carroll’s longtime fascination with puzzles and anagrams, solitary games to amuse himself. It was as though the long suppressed, left-handed self endured in the fanciful, literary adult Carroll — in contrast to the very stern adult librarian, mathematics lecturer, deacon, dormitory master, and curator of the dining hall. Carroll was, seemingly, the archetype of the left-handed man in a right-handed world, like his own White Knight in Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
And now if ever by chance I put
My fingers into glue
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe . . .
Carroll’s fondness for games, language puzzles, and the world of the bizarre is further demonstrated in his flair for amusing his brothers and sisters — especially his sisters, which explains, perhaps, his lifelong attraction for little girls. In fact, a great deal of Carroll’s childhood was spent taking care of his little sisters. At home, it was he who was in charge of these seven sisters, and his imagination was constantly being exercised in order to entertain them. In one of his fanciful storygames that he invented, he imagined a sort of “railway game,” and as one of the rules of the game, at least three trains had to run over the passengers in order for the passengers to be attended to by physicians. Fortunately, though, rarely were Carroll’s amusements cruel, and when the family moved to the Croft Rectory, Yorkshire, where Carroll’s father assumed the Archdeaconry, Carroll wrote, directed, and performed light, gay plays, and he also manipulated puppets and marionettes for his family and friends.
In addition to the plays that Carroll wrote and the scripts that he composed for his puppet theater, he also wrote poems, stories, and humorous sketches for his own “magazines.” In his “Useful and Instructive Poetry” magazine, for example, a volume that was composed for a younger brother and a sister, he satirized a copybook of stern, dogmatic maxims (a typical Victorian children’s book), and in this poem, he alluded to his own handicap:
Learn well your grammar
And never stammer.
Eat bread with butter;
Once more, don’t stutter.
Other poems in the volume focus on the theme of fairy tales, an interest which played a large part in the creation of Alice. An early poem of Carroll’s, for instance, “My Fairy,” suggests the contrariness of the creatures that Alice will meet in Wonderland:
I have a fairy by my side
Which cried; it said, “You must not weep.
“If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
It says, “You must not laugh.”
When once I wished to drink some gin,
It said, “You must not quaff.”
Similarly, in another early poem, “A Tale of a Tail,” there is a drawing of a dog’s very long tail, suggestive of the very slender, increasingly smaller mouse’s tail in Alice, which coils across a single page in a sort of S-shape. Also, an early poem about someone falling off a wall anticipates Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, and a “Morals” essay reminds one of the ridiculous conversations between the ugly Duchess and the evil Queen in Alice. It is difficult to ignore the writings of Carroll as a child in any analysis of his works, for in his childhood productions, we find conclusive evidence of early imitations, hints, allusions, suggestions, and actual elements of imaginary creatures, dreams, and visions that will appear in his later works.
All his life, Carroll was a scholar; when he was not a student, he was a teacher, and until two years before his death, he was firmly imbedded in the life of Oxford University. Quite honestly, though, nothing very exciting ever happened in Carroll’s life, apart from a trip to the Continent, including Russia. His vacations were all local ones, to his sister’s home in Guildford, his aunt’s home in Hastings, and to Eastbourne, the Lake Country, and Wales. He did not begin his formal schooling until the age of twelve, when he enrolled in Richmond Grammar School, ten miles from the Croft Rectory, but he had already received a thorough background in literature from the family library. Yet it was mathematics — and not English literature — that interested Carroll most. When he was very young, for example, Carroll implored his father to explain logarithms to him, presumably because he had already mastered arithmetic, algebra, and even most of Euclidian geometry.
Carroll entered Rugby in 1846, but the sensitive young child found the all-boys environment highly unpleasant; the bullying abuse, the flogging, and the caning was a daily part of school life. Nonetheless, Carroll was, despite his three years of unhappiness there, an exceedingly studious boy, and he won many prizes for academic excellence.
Carroll matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1851, and remained there for forty-seven years. But, two days after entering Oxford, he received word of his mother’s death, something which deeply distressed him and seemed to have worsened his stammering. By all accounts, Carroll was not an outgoing student; with little money, and because of his stammer, his circle of friends always remained small. Yet in his academic work, he applied himself with the same energy and devotion that characterized his career at Rugby. He won scholarship prizes, honors in Classical exams, and also won a First Prize in Mathematics. His scholastic efforts were rewarded by a lifetime fellowship and a residency at Christ Church, so long as he remained unmarried and proceeded to take Holy Orders.
In 1854, the year Carroll took his B.A. degree, he began publishing poetry in the student magazines and in The Whitby Gazette. Carroll’s writings had already established him as both a superb raconteur and humorist at Oxford, and in 1854, he began to seriously teach himself how to express his thoughts in proper literary form; it was at that time that his writings began to show some of the whimsy and fantasy that are contained in the Alice books.
In 1857, Carroll took his M.A. degree and was made “Master of the House.” During those years, he immersed himself in literature, mathematics, and also in the London theater. He produced freelance humorous prose pieces and verses for various periodicals, explored theories of dual identities, wrote satires, published mathematical and symbolic logic texts, invented word games and puzzles, and took up photography, a hobby that would make him famous as one of the best Victorian photographers. In short, Carroll became a sort of lesser English equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci. He invented the Nyctograph, a device for writing in the dark, and he also invented a method of remote control self-photography. Helmut Gernshein, the author of Lewis Carroll: Photographer, calls Carroll’s photographic achievements “astonishing”; in his estimation, Carroll “must not only rank as a pioneer of British amateur photography, but I would also unhesitatingly acclaim him as the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century.”
Carroll’s Interest in Little Girls
In every study of Carroll’s life, one finds that Carroll had only the most formal encounters with mature women. There was seemingly no romantic interest in adult women. Some biographers have attributed this asexual interest to Carroll’s stammering and his self-conscious shyness about it. On the other hand, Carroll’s diaries and contemporary accounts about him are full of his encounters with children, nearly always with little girls. He obviously delighted in the company of little girls twelve years old and younger, and his diary records in great detail the aesthetic pleasure that he took in viewing “nice little children.” Carroll’s attractions for little girls were honorable and above reproach — at least we have, almost a century later, absolutely no evidence to the contrary.
Carroll’s interest in discovering new little girls for his photographic studio seems to have amounted to his discovering hundreds, perhaps thousands, of girls in his lifetime. And in nearly every recorded case, Carroll produced a masterpiece of character study. His photographs are filled with unusually sensitive and candid “personalities” of the subjects. They caught the essence of human beings; they were not merely stiff, embalmed-like “objects.” Occasionally, there is an extraordinary sense of straightforward eroticism — but it is straightforward; it is not murky or perverted. And in nearly every recorded case, Carroll had the full approbation of the child’s parents, and invariably his work was chaperoned, at least indirectly. Had there been any intimacies between Carroll and his young female subjects, it would long ago have been ferreted out by the multitude of Freudian-oriented literary critics.
Today, we can understand why, occasionally, certain people thought Carroll’s photographs to be erotic. Most people now, however, wouldn’t consider them to be. His photographs are alluring; they look as if they almost could speak. They all have a provocative quality about them. But, they are “safe,” and as we view them, they help us to understand Carroll’s interest in seeing children as his own personal, private, peculiar escape from mature sex.
In 1846, Carroll met Alice Liddell, the four-year-old daughter of Dean Henry George Liddell of Christ Church. Carroll had already established himself as a close friend of Alice’s elder sister and cousin. But it is Alice who figures most prominently in Carroll’s most famous creation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
On July 4, 1852, Carroll and a friend, Rev. Robinson Duckworth, took the Liddell children, Lorina (13), Alice (10), and Edith (8) on a boat ride (a row boat) up the Isis River (the local name for the Thames River). As they made their way upstream, Carroll began telling a story about the underground adventures of a little girl named Alice. According to Duckworth, the story “was actually composed and spoken over my shoulder for the benefit of Alice Liddell, who was acting as ‘cox’ of our gig. I remember turning around and saying, ‘Dodgson, is this an extempore romance of yours?’ And he replied, ‘Yes, I’m inventing as we go along.'”
Upon disembarking, Alice asked Carroll to write out Alice’s adventures for her, and Carroll promised to do so by the following Christmas, but the work was not completed until February 10, 1863. By that time, Alice was eleven, and Carroll was no longer seeing her with the regularity that he used to. Now he had made a new friend, the famous ingenue Ellen Terry, who was nearly seventeen. His interest in Ellen Terry is the closest relationship that Carroll had with an adult woman, apart from his family, of course.
From an initial length of 18,000 words, Carroll’s manuscript expanded to 35,000 words, and the famous English illustrator John Tenniel read it and consented to draw illustrations for it. As Carroll searched for a publisher, he gave anxious thoughts to a perfect title. Various ones came to him: Alice’s Golden Hour, Alice’s Hour in Elf-land, Alice Among the Elves, Alice’s Doings in Elf-land, and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Finally, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was chosen, and Macmillan, the publishers for Oxford University, agreed to publish the book on a commission basis.
Alice was an immediate critical success when it appeared in 1865. The Reader magazine called it “a glorious artistic treasure . . . a book to put on one’s shelf as an antidote to a fit of the blues.” The Pall Mall Gazette wrote that “this delightful little book is a children’s feast and a triumph of nonsense.” About 180,000 copies of Alice in various editions were sold in England during Carroll’s lifetime; by 1911, there were almost 700,000 copies in print. Since then, with the expiration of the original copyright in 1907, the book has been translated into every major language, and now it has become a perennial bestseller, ranking with the works of Shakespeare and the Bible in popular demand. In the words of the critic Derek Hudson: “The most remarkable thing about Alice is that, though it springs from the very heart of the Victorian period, it is timeless in its appeal. This is a characteristic that it shares with other classics — a small band — that have similarly conquered the world.”