Thursday, October 12, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent a summer’s afternoon telling an unlikely and fantastical story to the daughter of some friends. Young Alice Liddell liked it so much that she persuaded the Reverend Dodgson to write it down. And Alice in Wonderland was born. He followed it with Through the Looking Glass and then the Hunting of the Snark, making the trio the sum total of the average person’s knowledge of the works of Lewis Carroll. It’s not surprising, since Dodgson, as well as being an active cleric, was a prolific writer but hardly the sort of stuff that was going to make the Victorian best seller list. Queen Victoria had liked his fantasies so much that she requested that he dedicate his next book to her. He did so. But it turned out to be an abstruse mathematical treatise, hardly what she had in mind and, not amused, it probably wound up in the Royal outhouse.

Allegedly he chose the pen name of Lewis Carroll from a rather dubious Latinisation followed by an Anglicisation of his names and had been using it, long before Alice came on the scene, for his more scholarly writings.

But Alice is what he’s remembered for – and quite rightly too. Both books are a joy and Jabberwocky is one of the only poems I can recite by rote.

Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the best read of any president of the United States and a lover of English literature, once remarked, on hearing that he was to entertain Elizabeth Wharton, an intelligent female activist, “Well, I’m glad to have someone at the White House to whom I can quote The Hunting of the Snark without being misunderstood.”

Yesterday it was a gloomy, rainy day and I cheered myself up by taking a trip down the rabbit hole to meet my old friends and got to wondering whether Lewis Carroll wrote the books just for Alice. I think that she inspired him but that he wrote them for his own amusement, plus a little profit along the way since they became extremely popular.

Some years ago I wrote a story about mermaids, The Truant Mermaid, for my daughter who was going through a mermaid phase at the time. Girls do, apparently. But it turned out to be much more entertaining for me to write than it ever was for her to read – and I think it might have been that way for Carroll as well.

He was a man of many parts in an era when such men thrived, unrestricted by the modern dreary need for specialisation. In addition to his church work, his mathematics and his writing, he turned himself into a photographer of considerable ability. Photographers were hardly ten a penny in those days and the quality of the surviving examples are a tribute to his skills at the craft.

They also gave rise to one of the popular myths about Lewis Carroll – that he was not only interested in telling stories to young girls. For one of the models for his art often turned out to be young Alice Liddell. And in an age when young girls were normally hard to find underneath their layers of clothes, Alice frequently appeared in what seemed to be the altogether.

In the years since his death, reams of paper and countless volumes have been taken up with the question of Lewis Carroll, his life and his penchant for taking pictures of young girls, sometimes scantily dressed. That he took a great many more pictures of other subjects seems to be forgotten. Frankly, I think we should just be glad that he wrote the wonderful books which pass that litmus test for all literature, no matter how often they are read, you can still get pleasure from them, time after time, as I did yesterday.

And Alice herself seems to have grown up into a perfectly normal young lady, fully clothed.

But it does pose a question. If Lewis Carroll, famed author or not, had taken those pictures today, he’d have been in the slammer in a trice on a complaint from some morally misguided citizen. It seems the Victorians may have been a better balanced society. Still, Oscar Wilde did some good stuff while residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, I suppose.

If you’re really short of reading matter, “The Truant Mermaid” is available as a free download from my website,

But it’s not a patch on Alice, I’m afraid.


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