Lewis Carroll (1832-98) is celebrated around the world as one of the great purveyors of ‘literary nonsense’: his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) have entertained countless readers since they were published nearly 150 years ago. For many, the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ is synonymous with children’s literature.
But ‘Lewis Carroll’ was really a man named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford. As such, he led something of a double life: to the readers of his Alice books he was Lewis Carroll, while to the world of mathematics and to his colleagues at the University of Oxford he was (Reverend) Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who formed his pen name by reversing his first two names (‘Charles Lutwidge’ became ‘Lewis Carroll’).
There is a famous anecdote about Carroll and Queen Victoria. Victoria enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so much that she requested a first edition of Carroll’s next book. Carroll duly sent her a copy of the next book he published – a mathematical work with the exciting title An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Unfortunately, like most good anecdotes, this one isn’t true: Carroll himself refuted it. However, such a story does highlight the oddness of Carroll’s double life. Carroll, despite the radical nature of his nonsense fiction, was a conservative mathematician who resented and dismissed many of the new ideas emerging in mathematics during the nineteenth century.
Was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland intended as a scathing satire on these radical new ideas in nineteenth-century mathematics? Melanie Bayley thinks so, and published an article in the New Scientist in 2009 in which she set out her thesis. You can read Bayley’s article here.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published just two years after Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), another fantasy novel for children written by a reverend. The similarities between the two are interesting: both feature a child leaving behind the real world for a fantasy world where normal logic and systems are inverted; Kingsley’s novel features a lobster (inspiration for the Lobster Quadrille in Carroll’s book?) and the phrases ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’ and ‘as mad as a March hare’. We at Interesting Literature find these crossovers suggestive, at least. One key difference is that, whereas Kingsley’s novel was intended to provide a moral message for readers (drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Kingsley proposed a moral ‘evolution of the soul’), Carroll detested moralising in his work for children.
Alice Liddell is well known to have been the inspiration behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but what is less well known is that she wasn’t the girl who inspired the Alice in the follow-up book, Through the Looking-Glass: the ‘Alice’ in that book’s subtitle, And What Alice Found There, refers to Carroll’s five year-old cousin, Alice Theodora Raikes. The reason for this was that, by the time he wrote the sequel to the first Alice book, Carroll was no longer on speaking terms with the Liddell family. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871, but it was postdated to 1872, meaning that both years are technically ‘correct’ for the book’s publication.
One persistent stain on Carroll’s literary reputation is the tricky subject of child photography and the precise nature of his ‘relationship’ with these young girls, such as Alice Liddell. It is true that he photographed many young girls, and some of these are nude photographs. But Karoline Leach has argued, in her 1999 book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, that there is a ‘Carroll myth’ which has become more powerful than the facts. Leach and others have argued that accusations of paedophilia against Carroll are unfair and inaccurate. Other scholars, such as Hugues Lebailly, have argued that the nude photography should be viewed in the context of Victorians’ idealisation of the child as a figure of innocence. Modern sensibilities are likely to find the matter a rather thorny one, however. It remains a contentious issue.
Carroll was a shy man who suffered from a stammer throughout his life and from being deaf in one ear (the result of a fever he suffered from in childhood). Carroll identified himself with the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, leading some to suggest (though it remains only a suggestion) that this was because of Carroll’s own difficulty in pronouncing his last name (‘Do-Do’, from Dodgson).
Carroll returned to children’s literature in The Hunting of the Snark (1876), a long narrative nonsense poem, and Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), an 800-page novel which, it is generally felt, was something of a failure. It certainly was in terms of its sales: it sold just 13,000 copies, which, given Carroll’s literary reputation and success by the 1890s, was a relative flop. Here at Interesting Literature, we are in a minority in seeing value in this later work of Carroll’s. It’s a compelling mixture of science, poetry, parody, plays, psychical research, romance, and silliness, albeit with the occasional dull spell. It is also frequently funny, too. It is available in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.
What is also less celebrated is Carroll’s talent as an inventor: he not only invented the words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ (both in the poem ‘Jabberwocky’) and the term ‘portmanteau word’ (for words such as ‘brunch’ and ‘motel’, which blend the sounds and meanings of two existing words), but also an early version of the word game Scrabble, a new system for parliamentary representation, and a device he called the nyctograph, which enabled the user to note down ideas at night in the dark without getting out of bed. The Oxford English Dictionary seems uncertain as to whether the sense of ‘mimsy’ in common use (‘feeble, weak, lightweight’) is derived from Carroll’s earlier use of the word in ‘Jabberwocky’; the two subtly different senses of the word are given two separate entries in the OED.
If you enjoyed these Lewis Carroll facts, check out our analysis of his classic poem ‘Jabberwocky’ and our facts about the poem here. You might also enjoy our fascinating facts about Dr Seuss and our compendium of Edward Lear facts.
If you enjoyed this literary trivia about Lewis Carroll, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
You can get the complete illustrated Alice collection in this fantastic volume: The Complete Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.