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August 27, 2020

A Deep Dive into Lewis Carroll and His World of Alice

by Donna Huber

I recently listened to the audiobooks of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. It is the first time I've "read" these books and it made me curious about Lewis Carroll and the lasting popularity of these stories. So I decided to take a deep dive into the life of Lewis Carroll and his world of Alice.
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Life of Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson who was born on January 27, 1832, to Charles and Frances Jane Lutwidge (his parents were first cousins). He had 2 older sisters and 8 younger siblings. 

Like his father, Carroll was a talented mathematician and followed in his father's footsteps to study at the University of Oxford as a member of Christ Church. Unlike his father, he did not go into ministry after earning his degree. Instead, he remained at Christ Church, obtaining the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855 and holding other positions, until his death in 1898. He was just a couple of weeks away from his 66th birthday when he died from pneumonia following a bout of flu.  

Apparently, members of Christ Church are expected to be ordained into the priesthood. But Carroll was not. 

That is only one of the mysteries surrounding his life. While reading the Wikipedia page for Carroll, I was struck by the statement, "Speculation about the nature of his relationships with children has foundered on lack of evidence." And then again with the mention of an adult friend accompanying him when he took the Liddell children rowing and how when he photographed children a parent was present. It wasn't until near the end of the entry that it is revealed that several late-twentieth-century biographers questioned his sexual preference. The view that he was sexually attracted to children has been refuted by other scholars and that the nature of Carroll's photography (apparently there were some of nude children) is in the vein of the "Victorian Child Cult"

There's also speculation why there was a break in the relationship between Carroll and the Liddell family (Henry Liddell was the dean of Christ Church and the father of Alice Liddell). Some say he proposed marriage to 11-year-old Alice, while others suspect that there was a relationship between the eldest Liddell daughter or Liddell's wife (both have the same first name). 

Carroll, like many educated people of the time, kept diaries his entire life. However, several pages from existing diaries have been removed and whole volumes from a 5 year period are missing. Were they simply lost or were the purposing lost/destroyed by members of Carroll's family? Needless to say, these missing documents have fanned the flames of speculation.

The World of Alice

While possibly his best-known work, Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, is not Carroll's first published work. 

Like many writers of the time period, his early poetry and short stories were published in magazines under his real name. As Charles Dodgson, he also published a number of academic type works focused on mathematics. For his later literary works, his editor chose the pen name Lewis Carroll from a list of names submitted by Dodgson.

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland was published in 1865, followed in 1871 by Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. In all, Wikipedia list 15 literary works by Carroll, 12 mathematical works, and 4 other works (I'm kind of curious about Some Popular Fallacies of Vivisection). 

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, or its original title of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, began as a story told to Liddell children on their rowing trip. The youngest daughter, Alice, thought it was so wonderful that he should write it down. Some people think that the character Alice was based on Alice Lidell, but Carroll himself denied it. 

After sharing it with his friend George MacDonald, Carroll sent the "unfinished" manuscript to the publisher Macmillan who loved it. Several titles were considered and rejected before Alice's Adventure in Wonderland was settled on. Sir John Tenniel was commissioned for the illustrations.

According to the 2009 article "Alice's adventures in algebra: Wonderland solved" in New Scientist, the story told to Alice did not include the Mad Hatter's tea party, Chesire Cat, the trial, or the Duchess's baby. In the article writer's quest to find out why these scenes were later added she ran across a literary paper where Helena Pycior linked the trial to algebra. During the Victorian age, new mathematical concepts like imaginary numbers were introduced. Carroll thought a lot of it to be "non-sensical". It's an interesting article, you should read it.

Literary criticism of the work seemed to be centered around a Freudian interpretation, but I found this website that discusses themes of feminism and marxism in the story. Feminism in a Victorian literary work would seem very modern (but things were changing for women - Marie Curie went to university in France in the 1890s. According to critics, Alice's curiosity and confidence are signs of rebellion against the traditional role of women. It may be one of the reasons for the continued popularity of the books. Given Carroll's more conservative views, I don't think feminism (at least in a positive light) was on his mind. Particularly given the Queen of Hearts character whose power has gone to her head and she acts on whim rather than reason. 

To me, Marxism seems like a strange theme in a Victorian children's story. But there was a lot of political unrest during the Victorian age. Unemployment and poverty were high and the aristocrats were largely out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens. Alice, who comes from an upper-class family, is a bit snobby and at times feels other characters are beneath her. Was Carroll trying to make a statement or did he just see the entertainment value of these stereotypes?

The Continuing Popularity

While exploring themes of feminism and Marxism or Freudian interpretations or whatever other literary merits critics have bestowed on the work can be interesting, I'm not sure any of that matters to the intended audience. My introduction to Alice was the 1951 animated Disney movie Alice in Wonderland. I was mesmerized by the crazy, colorful characters - I remember vividly the Mad Hatter and the Queen proclaiming "off with her head!". As a child, I had an active imagination, and I had possibly created a world of my own that could rival that of Alice's Wonderland.

But it's continued popularity beyond a classic children's story is probably largely due to elements mentioned in the literary criticism. As the story was published prior to copyright law and is considered in the public domain there have many several derivate works based on the characters in this series. We have even reviewed two of the books in the adult retelling series, The Chronicles of Alice by Christina Henry (see Elisabeth's reviews of Alice and Red Queen).

It's now just the books (retellings and multiple editions of the original and movies that prove the popularity of Alice. Did you know there is a National Mad Hatter's Day? It's October 6.

Also the merchandise you can buy. You can get just about anything Alice-themed. 

Tea Party kit
I once won an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland tea party kit. 

Pocket watch necklace
I love this pocket watch necklace. Buy at Amazon

Cheshire Cat bag
I might have to add this to my collection of literary-themed bags. But at Amazon.

These socks look fun! Buy at Amazon.

Alice in Wonderland face covering
You can show off your love of Alice while protecting the health of others. Buy at Amazon.

Do you love Alice? 

If you made it this far, then you must be a fan of Alice. Even with the length of this post, I feel like I probably only to a shallow dive as I don't have the time or space here to truly do this subject justice. But, if like me, your curiosity is piqued there are plenty of people who have dug deeper with biographies and discourses on the man and his works. Also, primary sources like most of his journals and some of his photography have survived for you to do your own research. The Wikipedia page linked up above is a great place to start.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. I'll admit that I didn't know much of anything about Lewis Carroll's life, though I think I've vaguely heard of some of these speculations. Seems like people have spent a lot of time trying to figure him out!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction