The Secret World of Lewis Carroll

As part of my varied research and preparation towards writing my extended composition, I came across a TV documentary marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

It looks at the author’s life and how he came upon his remarkable story, what inspired him to write it and ultimately it’s place in children’s literature.

  • 2015 is the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s (LC) famous story.
  • Inspiration for the titular character was a little girl called Alice Liddell (AL).
  • LC’s real name was Charles Dodgson and he was a mathematics don at Christchurch College, Oxford.
  • It was on a boat trip with Alice and her two sisters that LC came upon the Wonderland story.
  • Considered a ‘revolutionary’ book; after the bible and Shakespeare, LC the most potent author on earth.
  • AL was the daughter of the Dean at Christchurch.
  • LC and AL’s relationship has been the subject of much speculation and LC has been dogged by questions surrounding his child friends and the photos that he took of them.
  • Every 4th July is celebrated in Oxford as ‘Alice Day’ – 04 July 1862 was the date the infamous boat trip was taken and LC imagined and told the story to the Liddell sisters.
  • Game-playing is a theme in the stories; playing cards in ‘Adventures in Wonderland’, chess in ‘Through the Looking Glass’
  • LC captures how a child responds to a world when some things we take for granted when we’re older are still fluid as a child; the barriers between dreams and reality, for example. He grasps the psychology of such situations.
  • AL only 4yrs old when LC met her; he was 24yrs old.
  • LC was very neat, fixed, orderly; probably considered borderline OCD nowadays.
  • The dons at Christchurch had to be celibate and LC become Reverend Dodgson but he never converted to full priesthood.  His speech impediment made reading a service almost impossible, with his mouth opening but no words coming out.
  • Spent nearly all his adult life a bachelor don at Oxford.
  • LC always kept his identity a secret telling porters to ‘return to sender’ any letters that arrived for Lewis Carroll.
  • He didn’t like being photographed, despite being a gifted photographer; he wanted to stay anonymous.  He even pioneered a new art form in photography; photographing hundreds of portraits of artists, writers, celebrities; and Alice.
  • Indeed, it was LC’s attempt to get the Liddell sisters to sit for him that started his friendship with AL.
  • LC kept very detailed diaries. First day he met the Liddell sisters he wrote ‘I mark this day with a white stone’, a phrase he used if it was a special day.
  • AL was pushy, imperious, always shaking her head and her fringe from her face.  She bossed everyone around and was very self-assured; she enjoyed being photographed.  I believe LC captured these qualities in his pretend Alice.
  • LC soon became friends with the Liddell sisters and quickly came to spend every day with them, either at the Deanery or at his apartment.
  • When the sisters were old enough to leave the Deanery, LC would organise boat trips for them.  The most famous one was with the three girls and his academic friend Robinson Duckworth, when they took a boat up the River Thames to Godstowe.
  • That day, AL pleaded with LC to tell them stories AND to write them down.  He’d been used to making up stories for the girls but this time, AL wanted him to document them.
  • He unwillingly told them the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, making it up as they went along.
  • The story had in-jokes and references to real places along the journey, such as the Treacle Well near the river, a scene from the Mad Hatters Tea Party.  There is also codes in the story; Lacie is an anagram for Alice. Elsie represents the capitals L & C of his name, and Tillie was the nickname of Alice’s sister Edith.
  • The boat journey ended 4 miles upstream with a picnic on the riverbank at Godstowe.  They would have seen rabbits there and Alice would have gotten tired of being with her sisters, too – the opening lines from the book.
  • It took a year or so for LC to write the story down and he presented it to AL as a Christmas present.  He wrote it out by hand and drew all the pictures himself, calling it ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’
  • It was perfect in every way and Carroll had practiced the drawings over and over beforehand.  All the characters seem mournful, as though trapped somehow in Wonderland, like an open prison.  Alice is the only one on an adventure – the others are there as extras.
  • LC was friends with a publisher, Alexander MacMillan, and after continued pressure from friends, LC decided that the story should go into print.
  • LC was undecided about the title; considered ‘Alice’s Hour in Elfland’ but settled on ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
  • It was published in 1865 – good timing because other great children’s stories were published during the same era, including David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Water Babies.  The Victorian age found the child, placing them at the focus of the story.
  • Carroll wanted a red leather cover for the book stating that it would appeal to children.
  • Interestingly, there were stories that made the published version that hadn’t been included in the version he gifted to AL, such as the Tea Party.
  • John Tenniel, the Punch illustrator, was persuaded by LC to do the drawings, some of which were set in amongst the text.
  • The character Alice is very confident and untroubled by all the strange circumstances she finds herself in; she is the voice of common sense. She is feisty and funny, challenging all the creatures she meets.  In fact, Alice challenges everything she is expected to obey.
  • By keeping her composure, Alice is a very unlikely heroine; ultimately, LC creates a rebel of a character when he himself is a man who embraced order but through his literature was prepared to break the rules (the croquet game and the caucus race being two examples).
  • LC also had Duckworth in the boat so there were many jokes that would appeal to a fellow adult, albeit an academic one; philosophy, logic and maths featured in the story.
  • It’s also a frightening story, too; Alice’s neck growing very tall, the falling down a hole and not knowing when you’ll reach the bottom.
  • Alice’s encounters with creatures in Wonderland are a literal account of what adults look like to children; they shout things, e.g. ‘Off with his head!’, which sounds very similar to ‘Go to your bed!’
  • LC born near Warrington in 1832.  His father was a Clergyman in Daresbury.
  • LC was the eldest son, had two brothers but lots of sisters.
  • When LC was 11yrs old, family moved to Darlington. It was here that LC started making comics, magazines with illustrations to amuse and entertain his siblings.
  • 100 years on, there were some articles found under a floor board at the rectory; letter from LC’s mother, a tea pot lid, a white glove, a thimble; all items that would eventually feature in his famous story.  They all must have held some importance to him.
  • LC’s child friends remained at centre of his life throughout adulthood; he came alive with children.
  • What was the nature of his relationship with AL?
  • He had asked for a lock her hair – seen nowadays as a love token but was it?
  • Family members believe he was in love with her but LC would have never admitted it to himself.
  • LC’s repressed attraction to AL makes the story very powerful.
  • However, by the time the story was published, his friendship with AL had all but come to an abrupt end but why?
  • In June 1863, LC was exiled from the Deanery; something had happened.  Pages in his diary from around this time are missing having been removed.
  • Over the course of the following 5 months there wasn’t a single mention of the Liddells in the diaries until December 05.  The Liddell children attended a theatrical evening and he noted that he was ‘aloof from them as I have been all this term.’
  • AL’s mother likely cause of the split.  She thought LC’s manner got too affectionate.  AL’s mother was a snob and wanted her daughters married to princes, kings, etc. She burnt all letter that AL had received from LC.
  • There could also be two other reasons; sister Lorina and the Governess Mary Preppett.
  • On a note written by a niece (one who had removed pages from the diaries): ‘LC learns from Mrs Liddell that he’s supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess.  He’s also supposed to be courting Ina (Lorina, AL’s elder sister).
  • Another document has been found, a letter from Lorina to Alice written when they were both in their ’80s.  Lorina tells AL she’s been interviewed by a biographer and she’s worried about the explanation she’s given for the rift. Lorina said ‘his (LC’s) manner became too affectionate for you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it.  That offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again, as one had to give some reason for all intercourse ceasing.’
  • When LC was invited back to the Deanery for tea, everything had changed.  Everything was formal.  He took a last photo of AL in which she looked painfully sad.
  • AL eventually married Reginald Hargreaves and chose a revealing name for one of her sons; Carroll. She always denied it had anything to do with LC.
  • LC re-created Alice in the sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There’. There was merchandise and spin-offs, too, but it wasn’t ever for the money.  He wanted to try to maintain contact with Alice. It kept him safe living in the worlds he’d created.
  • LC had hundreds of child friends over his lifetime; he ‘collected’ children. Met them on trains, via friends, at the seaside.
  • Were there any complaints about this behaviour back then?  Not that anyone has found.
  • He photographed the children he collected and in some shots the children were naked.  He would sometimes send the images to artist friends for them to paint the children into a scene, turning them into artistic nudes.
  • LC had an obsession with childhood innocence and saw beauty in the pre-pubescent female body.
  • Victorian era saw many photographers using naked children as their subjects. This remains a controversial subject and has led many to assume that LC was a pedophile.
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