Lewis Carroll: maker of wonderlands
On 14 January it's the 125th anniversary of the death of Lewis Carroll, mathematician, polymath, and author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His book has captured our imaginations for over 150 years, and has been enjoyed around the world. But who was the man behind the beloved tale? And what made him so uniquely able to write a story that would stand the test of time?
Quite surprisingly, since Carroll’s reputation has become so welded to that of the city and University of Oxford, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – the name of the man behind the pseudonym – was actually a 'northerner'. He was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, and spend much of his childhood in Croft-on-Tees, before he ventured south for his years at Rugby School.
Childhood correspondence sheds light on these early days: not much went on around the parsonage, and one of the most exciting things was apparently to "see a horse carriage go by". All the more exciting when greater glimpses into the cityscapes of the northern industrial cities opened up, and with them, a window into their history.
From one of his father’s business trips to the city of Leeds in January 1840, the young Charles wished for a file and a screwdriver. Charles Dodgson senior, who was the Archdeacon, responded in a letter; its tone leaves little to guess where Carroll’s wit, humour, and way with words came from: "As soon as I get to Leeds I shall scream out in the middle of the street Ironmongers, Ironmongers. Six hundred men will rush out of their shops… Pigs and babies, camels and butterflies, rolling in the gutter together – old women rushing up chimneys and cows after them… At last they bring the things I have ordered."
The Oxford wonderland
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson came up to Oxford in 1850, where he spent almost the entire rest of his life. Not from a background as affluent as the ‘gentleman commoners’ of Victorian days, but with a clear talent for mathematics, he soon enough distinguished himself. Constantly pushing himself to do better and work harder, he wrote the best examination in mathematics the college would see in decades to come – a success not quite replicated in Classics, where (much to the disappointment of his father, who had great plans for his son to follow his footsteps as a clergyman) the younger Dodgson only collected a third class grade.
But the young mathematician distinguished himself in another, notable way. Comic verse, satire and more serious poetry began to appear in Victorian periodicals, such as The Train: A First-Class Magazine in 1856, under the pseudonym 'Lewis Carroll' – a clever latinised and re-translated inversion of his names 'Charles Lutwidge' ('Carolus Ludovicus', which turned into Carroll Lewis, and eventually Lewis Carroll).
Most famously, however, the name of course came to adorn the covers of his Alice books.
The Alice books
The publication of the children’s classic was as unexpected as Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole itself. By the 1860s, Oxford had shaped Dodgson into a budding Victorian polymath, and the story of Alice began with an experiment in one of the latest Victorian crazes – photography. Attempting to capture Christ Church Cathedral’s spire with the new technology, he found himself surrounded by the curious children of Henry Liddell, the dean of the college– including Alice Pleasance Liddell (he had already made the acquaintance of Alice’s brother Harry, whom he tutored in mathematics). He distracted and charmed them with the storytelling skills honed as the oldest boy of 11 children in his youth at a remote northern parsonage.
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On another such occasion, on 4 July 1862, on a boat trip up the river accompanied by his colleague Robinson Duckworth, he told the Liddell daughters, Alice, Edith and Lorina, “the fairy tale of Alice’s adventures under ground”. And of all the stories he had told, this one was going to be different, as Alice asked him to write it down. Two years later, she was gifted the hand-written and hand-illustrated manuscript Alice’s Adventures Under-Ground.
But the publication of the story was not a matter of fact. As an accomplished mathematical tutor, publishing a children’s book had not been one of Carroll’s pressing issues. Significant credit for Alice in Wonderland, as we know it today, goes to a friend of the author, fellow fairy-tale writer and trained scientist George MacDonald, and his son Greville (later to become Queen Victoria’s ear-doctor). Having convinced Carroll to let him read the tale of Alice’s Wonderland to his children, Greville declared that "I wished there were 60,000 volumes of it". By now, there was no two ways about it: the story had to be published.
Running at almost twice the length of the original manuscript, and extended by some of the now most famous episodes, such as the Mad Tea Party, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was brought to the Victorian Christmas book market by Macmillan, illustrated by John Tenniel, then famous as chief cartoonist at political satire magazine Punch. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There soon followed, in 1871.
The man vs the myth
The books were best sellers, and the beginning of what we would now call a franchise. The sequel was followed by more and different versions of the tale: a 'People’s Edition'; an edition for younger children (The Nursery ‘Alice’); the reproduced manuscript; tea tins and stamp cases. It became a popular culture phenomenon that soon blurred the lines between the man, Charles Dodgson, and the legend, Lewis Carroll.
Before too long, the press spun stories about the mysterious author of the successful children’s book, including a story about Queen Victoria (in which the queen allegedly, so delighted by the tale of Alice, requested the next book of the author, and was gifted instead Carroll's mathematical treatise An Elementary Treatise on Determinants). Carroll, who was fond of the monarchy, sternly called out the tale as false. Among his personal records are registers of gift copies of Alice he sent – among them a copy, in special binding, to the royal household.
And this was only the beginning of myths and speculations – which still surround public discussions of Carroll today. Many of these have focused on the fraction of Carroll’s photographs portraying children – which, like a photograph itself, reveal a different picture, once a step back is taken and more than the narrow focus is revealed.
These photos have often been of unclear provenance, with some of the photos unable to be conclusively attributed to Carroll – even including faked photomontages. But they have nevertheless led to accusations from some quarters against Carroll of impropriety. Fictional re-imaginings sensationalising the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice have coloured much public debate, and acted as evidence in it even when contradicting historical accounts of those involved. In the meantime, Carroll’s acquaintances, including Alice herself, remember the author with warmth.
Similarly, historical documents, nowadays available in print, have consistently moderated these debates. Rather than ‘mysterious rifts’ between Carroll and the Liddell family, for instance, they show a short hiatus, after which contact swiftly resumed and continued to the end of Carroll’s life. But they also illuminate the complexities and differences of life in the past. The ‘changed nature’ of their contact indicated the transition of the Liddell girls from childhood to married life, which began much earlier for Victorian upper class girls than today.
Carroll’s now well-documented and catalogued photographs continue to be highly regarded for their artistic quality (Catherine, Princess of Wales, in fact, wrote her dissertation about them), and recent scholarship and exhibitions highlights neither their themes nor execution was out of the ordinary for Victorian times.
But as the tale of Alice perhaps itself perhaps illustrates – nothing beats a good story, and so photomontages and quotations attributed to Alice in Wonderland which are nowhere to be found in the books, continue to flood the internet, in coexistence with the now digitised original texts.
A life between celebrity and purpose
Although Carroll’s literary success was unexpected, he knew how to use his celebrity as author of Alice, but in much more complex ways than remembered today. He frequently intervened in Victorian public discussions, for instance, speaking up for animal rights and against vivisection, using the platform his famous name afforded him. And knowing full well that such mathematical works as An Elementary Treatise on Determinants were unlikely to make a best seller, he used his pseudonym to publish The Game of Logic, a playful approach to teaching children his much-loved discipline. His playfulness even permeated his teaching of mathematics: the book came with a removable cardboard game, with press-out buttons for learning the rules of symbolic logic, similar to the chessboard Alice traverses in Through the Looking-Glass.
Quite the opposite of how one could picture the life of a deacon and mathematics tutor in Victorian Oxford, Carroll’s social life was buzzing. He was well-connected in Victorian society and interested in nearly every facet of it. He corresponded with figures like Charles Darwin and Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. As an avowed G&S afficionado (The Pirates of Penzance was a favourite), Carroll asked Sullivan to set Alice to music for a stage adaptation; he even briefly considered Gilbert as illustrator for Looking-Glass.
His circles were also documented in his over 4,000 photographs. They included Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – and also specimens from the inventory of the newly-founded Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
A life dedicated to learning and teaching
The one theme that runs throughout Carroll's life, and links the Alice books to his mathematical works, is a dedication to learning and teaching. That the Alice books poke fun of unpopular teaching methods, such as rote-learning, is no coincidence.
Carroll was a man of science and amassed an enormous library covering any science and philosophy of his day. He referred to his dedication to teaching, especially of logic and mathematics, as his “work for God”, after he had abandoned the path to ordination.
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His literary writing was intricately entwined with this mission – and in that lies the key to understanding the man, of whom the modern imagination has made many things – as an anecdote surrounding one of his later publications illuminates. In the 1880s, Carroll published a serial called A Tangled Tale in which each chapter was built around a mathematical puzzle. Readers were encouraged to send in their solutions, which the author included (especially the bad ones) in the following episode of the tale – and one such answer struck Carroll as notable, despite its wrong conclusion. The unknown correspondent turned out to be the 18-year-old Edith Rix, who, upon learning she had been “working hard at mathematics”, Carroll advised generously on how best go about to study mathematics at university (at this point still not conventional for young women). Rix in due course successfully enrolled at one of Cambridge University’s women’s colleges.
Believing not only in women’s education, but also in the curative power of reading that would mix "the grave and gay", and gifted large numbers of the Alice books to children’s hospitals. His death prompted outpourings of fond memories of recipients. Among the young people Carroll supported in this way, were many later notable figures, from actresses to suffragettes.
Life and afterlife
Carroll unexpectedly passed away in 1898 at the age of 65, after a short but severe bout of pneumonia. He died at his sisters’ house in Guildford, and was buried in the same town, leaving behind many unfinished projects.
While many of Carroll’s later works may not be as famed as Alice, they were loved by contemporary audiences, and others such as The Hunting of the Snark are still widely read and enjoyed today. But Carroll also wrote both satirical and romantic poetry, sermons, innumerable riddles, even songs, essays and reflections, serious mathematical and logical works – among them a highly-regarded essay on proportional representation – letters to newspapers, judges, medics, authors, theologians – and many parodies and polemics of Oxford life.
His life and works have sparked the imagination of artists, thinkers and writers ever since.
From well before the first centenary of its author’s birth, Alice had already been re-imagined innumerable times – on the stage, or in the first silent film of Alice, made only five years after the author’s death. Since then, there have been more well-known film versions – by Disney, in 1951 and in 2010, and less-well known ones by Jonathan Miller or Jan Švankmajer. And Alice artworks from the who’s who of artists and designers from all over the world, from Salvador Dalí to Karl Lagerfeld. Alice has her own video games, has appeared in opera, and recently, in Alice in the Pandemic – a crossover of both.
She has also had a prolific afterlife in political cartoons: every British Prime Minister, since the publication of Alice has in fact been re-imagined as (at least!) one of the Alice characters. And, perhaps not altogether surprising, seeing the author’s own background, Alice has in particular also been an inspiration to scientists. She was the guide into the Science Pavilion at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and since became a guide to quantum mechanics and climate change. Scientific phenomena such as the 'Alice in Wonderland Syndrome', the 'Red Queen Effect' and 'Quantum Cheshire Cats' draw their names from Carroll’s novels.
A female pioneer into lands unknown, baffling, and wondrous, Alice also became the guide to some of the world’s most famous scientists – among them, her avowed fan Alan Turing, who repeatedly took out both Alice books and Lewis Carroll’s The Game of Logic from his school library.
The multifaceted mind of its author, who died in the same month as his birth in 1898, perhaps sheds a better light on why we are still so fascinated with what turns out to be much more than 'just' a children’s story. Its timelessness lies perhaps in that it is a universally relatable tale encouraging us to question, challenge, and go below the surface of what we see and accept, and be unafraid to confront, and perhaps even dismiss what is thus revealed to us. Thus, Alice perhaps encourages us to also reconsider how children’s stories are perhaps never 'just' that, when we really, truly reconsider the impression they leave on our childhood minds, and how they from there on shape and accompany us through our lives.
Franziska Kohlt is a researcher in 19th-century history of science and literature. She is the author of numerous articles on Lewis Carroll, Victorian culture and science, and the forthcoming Alice Through the Wonderglass: The unexpected histories of a children’s classic (Reaktion 2024), and editor of The Lewis Carroll Review, and the Through the Looking-Glass: A Companion (Peter Lang 2023). She is a research fellow at the University of Leeds, and part-time tutor at the University of Oxford, where she teaches a course on Lewis Carroll’s Oxford