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.
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Why do people think mathematicians don’t have imagination? Mathematics is totally imagination.
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Number 6 completely contradicts what 5 says
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Reblogged this on The Lust Manifesto and commented:
Reblogged this in http://thelustmanifesto.wordpress.com/.
I am fond of literary nonsense. I can quite identify with LC. I love words, yet I work as a test engineer. Tsk.
Thanks for the reblog :)
Its so nice to read about Lewis. Even I used to think about fairylands as a child. The adventures of Alice just made me feel its nothing unusual. Moreover Lewis Caroll just proved even mathematicians can have amazing imagination.
Indeed, Carroll (and Dodgson the mathematician) was evidently a man of astounding imaginative abilities. Sylvie and Bruno (though I’m in the minority in saying this I know) is also worth reading.
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How interesting, I adore Alice in Wonderland. Glad to have come across your blog!
Thanks Jessica, much appreciated!
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Your research could start here: http://snrk.de
Yet there stlill remains surprises to be discovered, e.g. Henry Holiday’s allusions in his illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark”. That poem (text and illustations) often has been classified as “nonsense literature”. That may be wrong. Conundrums are not nonsense.
Ooh, thanks for that. Will have to do some research into these conundrums!
Reblogged this on Kirsty's Review Blog and commented:
This is a wonderful article on a literary and mathematical genius. Please read this, it is truly fascinating…!
Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!
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This was an interesting post about a great writer. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, glad you liked the post!
Now I’m embarrassed – half a page on China Miéville on my fledgling blog is a drop in the ocean compared to your blog! Fascinating and incredibly thorough (still feeling inadequate though!)
That’s why it’s a fledgling blog – every blog has to start somewhere, after all! And if you’re writing about China Miéville then you’re the kind of blog we love to follow. Once had a very nice email exchange with the man. Genuinely lovely chap.
Shame that story is apocryphal!
Alas, all the best ones are (or almost all)!
I’m hoping to review Kingsley’s The Water-Babies soon, so was interested in your noting parallels between the two Charlies. I’d already noted the Cheshire cat and March hare phrases in The Water-Babies (the hyphen is rarely used nowadays though it was there in the original), and of course they both deal with fantasy landscapes.
Kingsley also suffered from a stammer (perhaps both men had domineering fathers), liked drawing (I have somewhere an edition of Alice which contains Carroll’s original sketches for this, though many of Kingsley’s have sadly not survived) and was feted by British royalty (he tutored the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, in History). Sadly, the moralisings (which you note) of Kingsley’s book have not gone down so well with modern-day younger readers, and Carroll’s sheer baroque burlesques with words, logic and images is not quite matched by Kinsgley’s, though the latter’s are not any less inventive.
Unlike W-B, Alice’s contemporary references have not got in the way of contemporary appreciation, and the fact that Alice gets adapted so frequently for the screen (where Carroll’s verbal subtleties are simply by-passed) and Tom the water-baby so rarely is a bit of a puzzle as Kingsley deals with much that should appeal to modern sensibilities: educational matters, for example, with satires on inspections and the obsession with exams.
Good point about the hyphen in W-B – thanks for the heads-up. It’s like Moby-Dick, Catch-22, and Ash-Wednesday in that sense – the hyphen is usually lost (including here by our own usually eagle-eyed IL blogger). Didn’t know about the stammer connection either, or any of the others. Superb! I think The Water Babies (or Water-Babies) definitely deserves a wider readership and more study on university degree courses – the recent OUP edition, brought out to mark the sesquicentenary, would make the perfect edition for study. Thanks for the insightful and informative comment, as ever!
You’re welcome! I’ve got a notated edition in Oxford World Classics which is useful, but I particularly treasure the illustrations by Edward Linley Sambourne in my 19th-century Macmillan edition. Must re-read!
I’ve finally reviewed The Water-Babies, if you’re interested: http://wp.me/s2oNj1-wb (with a link back to this post).
Sorry, been a bit slow in catching up on this – will go and have a good read now. (I’m preparing a piece on the book myself!)
No apology necessary. Look forward to reading your piece!
Fun and intersting as always. Thank you for your reliable posting.
Great article. Maybe writing was a great escape from a school born of logic.
The seeming jekyl and hyde nature reminds of Dahl. He wrote brilliant kids books, devoured by many, yet by many accounts disliked children and wrote even better adult fiction.
I didn’t know this about Lewis Carroll. It makes me wonder how someone with such a vibrant imagination was doing as a mathematician.
Terrific article on a writer I happen to know quite a bit about. Nice to see you putting together some important points about Carroll as writer and as a man. You missed out one of my favourite of Caroll’s writings though – Phantasmagoria!
Thanks, Ken! And yes, we love Phantasmagoria too – a wonderful poem. Perhaps for a ‘sequel post’ we’ll mention it (there’s stuff to say about ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ too)…
I’d love a follow up post on this! Lewis Carrol in my opinion, changed children’s literature for the better at the time. His books inspired many writers after him and still to this day he is an inspiration in his style, imagination and ability to entertain the minds of all ages.
Lovely article! I was most surprised when I found out (and I am not sure how reliable the source was) that Lewis Carroll was one of the hundreds of suspects for Jack the Ripper. Hmm..
Please do continue producing such wonderful content! :)
I’d forgotten that! Thanks for reminding us of that little gem of a fact. I believe the poet Francis Thompson has also been proposed at one point.
No problem. Well the suspects included even some royal figures :)
This article sheds quite a bit of light on the subject of Lewis Carroll’s double life.
This is Brilliant!
Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
There’s a lot in this post about Lewis Carroll that I did not know. Give it a read!
Thanks for the reblog!
My pleasure :)
See my blog: Alice in Numberland “@michael9murray. wordpress com
There does still seem to be a distance in how more academic writers of biographies and assessments of the books consider this information. Surprising, really.
How so? Most of this in accordance of what I have read in biographies/ learned through my academic work – although some of the “facts” are not undisputed, which is, really, a question of evidence.
You just made my whole day! Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland is my very favorite book, so it is fun to learn some new information about Lewis Carroll.
Interesting information! Thanks for sharing.
Reblogged this on Bluxome Street Post.
Thanks for the reblog!