Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character

By Jenny Woolf

Alice’s curious adventures down the rabbit hole have intrigued readers ever since they first appeared in 1865, and ‘Lewis Carroll’ – whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was a fascinating man. A mass of self-contradictions, he was prim yet broadminded, solemn yet teasing, a natural performer who hoped for fame yet shunned it when it came.

His father, a clergyman, had planned a conventional life for him. As the eldest son of 11 children, young Charles always knew that he would eventually become head of the family, responsible for the welfare of his three younger brothers and seven sisters, and he would also be expected to follow in his father’s footsteps at Christ Church, Oxford. He was apparently happy to accept these responsibilities, for his family mattered to him a great deal. He did not attend school until he was 12 years old, but the Dodgsons’ rural home was lively, happy and affectionate, and it provided him with a secure background. Equally importantly, it offered full rein to his gift for entertaining children. Throughout his childhood, Charles tirelessly created games for his band of brothers and sisters, nursed and amused them when they were ill, and devised a stream of funny stories, poems, puzzles, magic and puppet-shows to make them laugh. By the time he took up his college existence, telling jokes and stories to children had become part of the person he was.

In those early Christ Church days, Dean Liddell’s young children seem to have become almost a substitute family for him. He became friends first with Harry, the eldest, then with the next three: Lorina, Alice and Edith. He looked after them, sang with them, told them stories, took them out, created games with them and helped them with their projects, just as he had done with his own brothers and sisters. Perhaps their company also offered him some emotional relief, for in some ways Christ Church life did not suit him very well. Although he was clever and conscientious, he could not keep order, and he had problems tutoring wealthy and undisciplined young men who ridiculed his stammer and did not want to learn. He coped with his social difficulties by developing a solemn, chilly public image that kept others at bay. This facade was so successful that many colleagues who lived alongside him for years hardly knew of his startling originality, subversive humour or wide range of artistic interests. Although his subject was mathematics, he owned hundreds of books of poetry, myth, legend and magic, as well as a collection of toys and fancy dresses. He was a keen photographer, and he was passionate about the dazzle and glitter of the theatre.

The medieval rules at Christ Church required him to remain celibate or quit his Studentship (Fellowship), but from his twenties onwards, his liking for women’s company sometimes attracted critical attention from gossips; a problem that he, his family and friends always played down. In his late twenties he experienced some kind of serious problem in his personal life. Information about this has been suppressed, but throughout his thirties and forties, he made particular efforts to confine his female friendships to young girls, respectable mothers or older women with whom there was no chance of romance.

He was always an instant social success with children, and the company of little girls became very important to him – and important to many of them, too. ‘I look back upon the hours spent in his dear and much-loved company as oases of brightness in a somewhat grey and melancholy childhood’ remembered Ethel, the niece of Matthew Arnold. She was just one of many girls (and some boys) who remembered him with affection. Although he named his celebrated heroine after Alice Liddell, there is no evidence that Charles ever fell in love with this ‘real’ Alice, as has sometimes been suggested. Although he was very fond of the bright, feisty little girl, the friendship died away as she developed into a conventional young woman, and he said more than once that she was not the Alice of his books.

As he grew older Charles remained kind, generous and highly involved with his friends and family, but his behaviour with outsiders became increasingly difficult and eccentric. He continued to hold firmly to the religious faith in which he had been raised, but his piety sometimes appeared extreme. To some of his contemporaries, this also sat oddly with his ever-growing entourage of affectionate women-friends, but he insisted that he was now entitled to these, having reached an age, he said, when ‘all romantic sentiment has quite died out of my life’. His later books were self-conscious and rather mediocre, but he continued to tell original, funny and brilliant tales to the children he loved. Sadly, they vanished ‘like rainbows’, for none of his young friends had the commercial acumen to ask him to write them down.

We now know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion Through the Looking-Glass were both created at times of great personal stress for him. In writing them, he would have returned in imagination to the loving and carefree company of the young Liddells, to whom they were originally told. His authentic voice speaks in both books but, typically, he always refused to discuss them with adults, while simultaneously taking endless pains to ensure they reached the widest possible child audience.

Over the last 150 years, generations of children have grown up on his stories, and many of them have later repaid him by producing their own works of art inspired by Alice’s adventures: a group of works as interesting and multi-faceted as Charles Dodgson himself.

Jenny Woolf is the author of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, a thematic biography of the author of Alice in Wonderland, published by Haus (UK) and St Martins Press (USA).

This article from The Royal Ballet house programme, courtesy The Royal Opera House.

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