The Afterlife of Alice In Wonderland Exhibit: Biography of Charles Lutwidge Dodson (Lewis Carroll)

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    Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis CarrollLewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832, is best known for his nonsensical work of whimsy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The shy clergyman, a student of mathematics and photography, was attracted to literature even as a child; family documents show a young Carroll reading Pilgrim’s Progress at the age of 7. Though intellectually gifted, Carroll would suffer from a stammer all his life. His stammer has recently been offered as evidence of Carroll’s pedophilia (popular myth holds that when in the presence of children, the stutter vanished), but of course this myth – known as the “Carroll Myth” – cannot be satisfactorily substantiated.

Carroll is most noted for his relationship with Alice Liddell, whom he befriended in her childhood. One “golden afternoon” (July 4, 1862) Carroll and his friend, Robinson Duckworth, were rowing the Liddell sisters Loraine, Edith, and Alice, down the river Isis at Oxford. To pass the time, Carroll began telling them a story; thus, Alice’s adventures were born.  Heeding the urgings of close friend (and noted fantasy writer) George MacDonald, Carroll finally plunged into the rabbit hole and published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in time for Christmas 1865, although the imprint carries the date of 1866. This edition included illustrations by the celebrated illustrator Sir John Tenniel.

Carroll’s book gained popularity almost instantly; his parodies of well-known public figures and scholars (most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and writer Isaac Watts) and his intertextual references delighted audiences from the first. Many popular stories would follow, including Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), “The Hunting of the Snark” (1874), and Sylvie and Bruno (1889). He is widely acknowledged as the father of the portmanteau and inventor of the term, itself. Carroll wrote that in a portmanteau “there are two meanings packed up into one word” (Through the Looking-Glass). For example, the word “chortle” (also coined by Carroll) comes from “chuckle” and “snort.”

Alice LiddellFrom 1855-1881, Carroll was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University. In 1881, however, Carroll resigned from the position in order to pursue a career as an author. He admitted in his diary that the lectureship position bored him, and though he had a natural ability for mathematics, he had a propensity for writing that outweighed his skill with numbers.

Besides being a popular children’s book author and reluctant mathematician, Carroll was an accomplished photographer. Beginning in 1856, Carroll would become fascinated with the art. He took pictures of all the Liddell children, as well as many of their friends. He also took portraits of such notable persons as Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Recently, several controversial pictures by Carroll of nude children have been unearthed and published, giving new fuel to the “Carroll Myth” fire. But considering the predominance of nude female paintings in Carroll’s era, perhaps his pictures are not such a scandal, after all.

From his first publication of Alice in 1865 to his death in 1898 from pneumonia, Carroll charmed and delighted his readers. Even now, 142 years after its first public debut, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still enjoys a key position in popular culture and the literary imagination. In fact, Wonderland is never as far away as it may seem…   ~ © 2007 Cari Keebaugh

For Further Reading:

Lewis Carroll’s biography:

  • The Lewis Carroll Society
  • Bakewell, Michael. Lewis Carroll : A Biography. London: Heinemann, 1996.
  • Carpenter, Angelica Shirley. Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2003.
  • Stoffel, Stephanie Lovett. Lewis Carroll in Wonderland: The Life and Times of Alice and her Creator. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1997.

Lewis Carroll as Photographer:

  • Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995.
  • Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll, Photographer of Children: Four Nude Studies. New York: C. N. Potter, 1979.
  • Gernsheim, Helmut. Lewis Carroll: Photographer. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969

The “Carroll Myth”:

  • Brooker, Will. Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
  • Leach, Karoline. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding Of Lewis Carroll. Chester Springs: Dufour Editions, 1999.