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Lewis Carroll

How the creator of “Alice in Wonderland” found logic in madness

Bee Wilson | July/August 2015

It famously started on a boat, one “golden afternoon” in Oxford in 1862. Three small sisters, Alice, Edith and Lorina Liddell, begged their companion, the Rev Charles Dodgson, for a story with “lots of nonsense”. Dodgson, a maths don, obliged. Since his childhood with seven sisters in a Yorkshire rectory, he had been a lover both of stories and young girls (just how much he loved them remains a matter of debate). Three years later, his story escaped being called “Alice’s Doings in Elfland” or “Alice Among the Goblins” to be published as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.

A shy 33-year-old with a stammer, he hid behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. “Please never praise me at all,” he wrote to a child fan. “I just feel myself a trustee, that is all.” As Alice turns 150, Dodgson has become the author of the third-most-quoted work of literature in English, after the Bible and the complete Shakespeare. His prose in “A Syllabus of Plane Algebraic Geometry” (1860), dry and academic, had given no hint that here was an imagination full of Mad Hatters and Mock Turtles.


KEY DECISION Making it a dream. As Walter de la Mare said of Carroll, “Dreaming is another state of being, with laws as stringent and as elastic as those of the world of Nonsense.” Carroll’s particular blend of truth and absurdity requires a dream structure to come alive. In Alice’s waking life, she is a polite child, aware that drinking from bottles of poison will “disagree with you”. Down the rabbit-hole, she is brave enough to tell kings and queens that they are nothing but a “pack of cards” and does crazy things like swimming in her own tears.


STRONG POINTS Comic pastiche. Much of “Alice” ridicules the sermonising of earlier verse, but Carroll’s own poetry was so effective that the parodies eclipse the originals (cf. “How doth the little busy bee” by Isaac Watts and Carroll’s “How doth the little crocodile”). And they’re funny even if you don’t know the source. In “Through the Looking-Glass”, his masterpiece, he kept the rhythms of pastiche but turned them into “Jabberwocky”, the greatest piece of abstract nonsense ever written.


GOLDEN RULE Show the logic in madness and vice versa.  If there is such a thing as Mock Turtle Soup, there must be Mock Turtles. Alice soon begins to think that “very few things indeed were really impossible”. Carroll is deeply anti-authoritarian, forever undermining existing rules and making new ones. The books are a critique of the rules imposed on children.


FAVOURITE TRICK Double meanings. The question, as Alice tells Humpty Dumpty, is “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things”. Much of the humour lies in switching homonyms – porpoise for purpose. “Lessons”, says the Gryphon, are things that “lessen from day to day”. This reaches its apogee in “The Mouse’s Tale”, amazingly modern, a concrete poem shaped like a mouse’s tail.


ROLE MODELS Mother Goose and Maths. No one but Carroll – a maths prodigy at Rugby School, where he was miserable – could have combined Euclidian logic with Humpty Dumpty.


TYPICAL SENTENCE “If it had grown up it would have made a dreadfully ugly child; but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.” It’s a neat twist, and endearing: finding herself holding a pig-baby, our heroine is not horrified but curious (and curiouser).

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