Category Archives: Children’s Literature

Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll

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.


Ten More Words We Got from Literature

Our previous post, on ‘Ten Words We Got from Literature’, was so popular with readers that we have decided to write a sequel. We had several great suggestions from readers which we’ve incorporated into this list. As with the previous post, we’re interested only in words which have a definite origin in a literary work. We’re not so interested in cases where the earliest citation of a word probably already in common use (as is often the case with words attributed to Shakespeare) is found in a work of novel, play, or poem. So, here are ten more words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.


1. Nerd. From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. The word is first used to mean ‘geek’ shortly afterwards, later in the 1950s.

2. Trilby. As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier – grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier – published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby – the heroine – and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist. From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn’t feature in the novel itself) and the term ‘svengali’, meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.

3. Mentor. This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer – specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word ‘odyssey’, meaning an adventure). Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we’d heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses). In Odysseus’ absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – hence the modern connotation of the word of ‘mentor’ as ‘adviser’.

4. Stentorian. This is also from Homer, but this time, it’s from his other epic poem, The Iliad. Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective ‘stentorian’, meaning ‘loud and thundering’ (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.

5. Malapropism. From Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. The word ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’, hence Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the meaning of ‘malapropism’, namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. ‘pineapple’ for ‘pinnacle’ in ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’. In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word ‘malapropism’ itself: an office worker had described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (instead of ‘repository’), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ (instead of ‘malapropism’). Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a ‘Dogberryism’, after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John’s evil scheme. ‘Dogberryism’ is attested by the OED from 1836.

6. Syphilis. This word had its origin in a 1530 poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem recounts how Syphilus, a shepherd boy, is afflicted with the disease (which was commonly known at the time as ‘the French disease’).

7. Pamphlet. Pamphlets have a long literary history, with Daniel Defoe being a prolific pamphleteer, but what most people probably aren’t aware of is the fact that ‘pamphlet’ is itself a word derived from a literary work: the word comes from a comic love poem dating from the fourteenth century and written in Latin. The poem, ‘Pamphilus; or, Concerning Love’, somehow became associated with unbound booklets (we say ‘somehow’, because the word’s modern political connotations didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century). The name Pamphilus is actually from the Greek meaning ‘friend of everyone’ or ‘lover of all’.

8. Gargantuan. This word, denoting something very large, is from French writer Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a long work full of bawdy and scatological references written in the sixteenth century. Gargantua, in Rabelais’ novel, is born calling for ale, and with an erection a yard long.

9. Serendipity. Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, coined the word ‘serendipity’ in the eighteenth century. It means the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka).We have written about Walpole previously, and in more detail, here.

10. Robot. The word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for ‘drudge’ or ‘slave’. However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word. Or rather, Karel Čapek didn’t. The playwright was searching for a word to call the androids which featured in his play and was dissatisfied with labori (from the Latin for ‘work’). He sought advice from his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word ‘robotic’ – Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.

More linguistic interestingness can be found in our collection of great trivia about words.

Some Literary Facts in Honour of World Book Night

Today, 23 April, is World Book Night (sometimes known, confusingly, as World Book Day). It is also the birthday (according to convention; nobody knows for sure) of William Shakespeare, and also the date on which he died, in 1616. On different calendars, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and William Wordsworth also died on this day, in 1616 and 1850 respectively. In honour of this literary event, we thought we’d compile 23 literary facts about the world of books, poetry, plays, novels, and other bookish delights for you to revel in and share today. We hope you enjoy them!


The first detective novel in English is often said to be The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868). However, The Notting Hill Mystery (which, sadly, doesn’t feature Hugh Grant in Victorian gaiters going around on a killing spree) got there first, in 1862-3. The author of this – the bona fide first detective novel – is unknown, but it was published under the pseudonym Charles Felix. The novel came back in print last year, for its sesquicentenary.

Aesop’s fables gave us the phrases ‘to cry wolf’ and ‘sour grapes’. Some lesser-known fables by Aesop include ‘The Mouse and the Oyster’, ‘The Man with Two Mistresses’, and ‘Washing the Ethiopian White’ – this last has led scholars to propose that Aesop may have been an African slave. He may also have been disabled, if he ever existed.

Never mind protesting in the London streets: if you really want to voice your displeasure with the Government, take a leaf out of the Roman poet Virgil’s book. He is rumoured to have held a lavish funeral for a house-fly, which he claimed was his pet, in protest at the government’s plans to confiscate the lands of the rich to give to war veterans.

The first novel in English is often held to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). But many dispute this: some claim that Aphra Behn’s short ‘novella’ Oroonoko (1688), about a ‘royal slave’ from West Africa transported to South America, takes the honour. The debate continues.

One of the greatest English poems of the thirteenth century was The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem which treats, among other things, the subject of toilet training.

The three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights – Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor – don’t actually come originally from the 1001 Nights, but are ‘orphan tales’ which were added to the volume by Antoine Galland, the first French translator of the tales, in the eighteenth century.

Scholar Stephen Greenblatt has claimed, in his book The Swerve, that the start of the Renaissance can be traced back to the moment when a librarian discovered the manuscript of a classical Latin poem, De rerum natura (‘On the nature of things’) by Lucretius. This poem inspired many of the key figures in the Renaissance, and was ‘how the world became modern’.

Sir Thomas Elyot, ancestor to the poet T. S. Eliot, was the compiler of one of the earliest English dictionaries. He also coined the words encyclopedia, democracy, and education.

The girls’ name Pamela was invented by the poet Sir Philip Sidney in the sixteenth century.

Poet Fulke Greville (1554-1628), friend and biographer of Philip Sidney, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled servant while doing up his breeches as he returned from the toilet.

Playwright James Shirley died of shock following the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Poet Robert Herrick kept a pet pig which he trained to drink from a beer tankard.

Isaac Newton’s famous phrase, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, was actually a cliché even when he wrote it. The phrase has been found as early as the early twelfth century, and is credited to Bernard of Chartres. It is famous for adorning the £2 coin in the UK, and as the title of an album by rock band Oasis.

Three of the moons of Uranus are named after characters from Pope’s 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock. The other 24 are named after Shakespeare characters.

Horace Walpole wrote the first ever Gothic novel in 1764, and presented it to the public as a true story. He coined many words and phrases we use to this day, including fairy tale, serendipity, beefy, malaria, and souvenir.

Anne Bradstreet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650), was the first published poet, male or female, from America.

According to legend (sadly, it probably isn’t true), as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves.

Herman Melville was almost completely neglected in his own life. His novel Moby-Dick is now recognised as a classic, and it even gave the coffee-house chain Starbucks its name (after a character in the novel), but it was a failure at the time both critically and commercially, and after its publication Melville’s reputation never really recovered. His last novel, the 1857 work The Confidence-Man, drew on the idea of a confidence trickster or con-man (then a new idiom in American society): the novel, which is all about a man who fools people, was set on one day, April Fool’s Day, and was appropriately enough also published on this date. However, the book was not a success and after this Melville gave up writing, and lived out the remainder of his life as a customs house official. His short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, is also a classic, which inspired the name of the book website.

Mark Twain is the first writer to have ‘written’ a book on a typewriter. However, many people think the book in question was Tom Sawyer, partly because Twain himself repeated the myth; it seems, on the contrary, that Life on the Mississippi should instead have that honour.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, liked to write naked. It was said to help with writer’s block.

The pioneering New Woman writer George Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne and was nicknamed ‘Chav’ throughout her life.

The phrase ‘lest we forget’ – often found on war memorials – is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem ‘Recessional’, which was critical of empire.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, author of A Doll’s House, kept a live pet scorpion in an empty beer glass on his desk while writing his play Brand.

If you enjoyed these facts, do have a read of our other blog post (this time in honour of World Book Day) about the bestselling novels of all time among other interesting things.