Monday, 8 February 2010


Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a mathematics don at Oxford Universtity who loved word play and puzzles as much as he did the study of Euclid. But then, Dodgson was a man of many and diverse talents, and was something of an enigma himself.

A skilful pioneer of photography, Dodgson was one of the first to create personal portraits - his work being much sought after by such fashionable luminaries as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Daniel Rossetti, John Millais, and Ellen Terry. But, despite loving to visit art galleries and the theatre, the stuttering, unmarried clergyman was never truly comfortable in the adult 'society' world, preferring to indulge in the uncomplicated friendship of children. Such sincere and intense 'relationships'  have since led on to controversy and speculation - though the VV is keen to stress that there is no actual evidence that Dodgson's intentions were anything more sinister than the actions of a sensitive man who was overly fixated on his own innocent childhood years.

But, the company of boisterous male pupils was not something to be enjoyed and, while working as a teacher in 1856, Dodgson was to write in his diary: "School...again noisy and troublesome...I have not yet acquired the arts of keeping order." One can imagine the nervous young man being mocked for his shy dispostion and stammer - an impediment that may well have explained the reason why he never became a fully-ordained minister, finding formal public speaking to be an embarrassing ordeal. 

At Oxford he sought a quieter life, mingling with the families of fellow clerics and dons while applying himself to research and study. He published many mathematical textbooks. He wrote plays and political essays, discussing matters such as voting theories in The Principles of Parliamentary Representation. But, despite such serious, prosaic matters Dodgson has always been best known as the author of 'nonsense' poems like Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark and, in particular, for his fantasy: Alice in Wonderland.

By 1865, the original handwritten version of Alice's Adventures Underground had been reworked and expanded from 15,000 - 27,500 words. It was published by Macmillan and Co under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, though the author's own illustrations - which were not without some merit - were replaced by those of John Tenniel, a far more accomplished artist who was already famous for his work with Punch magazine.Tenniel and Dodgson had a somewhat strained relationship, with the artist regularly complaining that the author was meddlesome and too demanding regarding the precison of his work. But then, Tenniel was not averse to making complaints himself, and the first 50 books to be printed were swiftly withdrawn from sale when he was dissatisfied with the quality of reproduction. Those rejected copies were distributed to children's hospitals and institutions, of which 23 copies still survive, known as the '1865 Alice'.

The phenomenal success of Alice in Wonderland  was followed in 1871 by Alice through the Looking Glass. Even Queen Victoria wrote personally to the author to say how much she enjoyed his work. But then, she and Dodgson shared a mutual interest in 'other worlds' that some may have mocked
as being, at best, mere flights of fantasy - at worst, a blasphemous indulgence.

The widowed Queen was fascinated by spiritualism - even going so far as to engage the services of mediums who performed seances in the hope of making contact with her deceased husband, Prince Albert. Dodgson was sympathetic to such practice. Being a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research, he believed that the human mind was able to percieve other realms, and that science would one day enable all men with the means of speaking with the dead.

Perhaps Dodgson felt that the spirit world had provided the muse for his own vivid imagination (though others have been more cynical, citing the use of hallucinogens). In fact, much of his inspiration seems to have come from a far more down to earth source, with characters and themes in the Alice books reflecting people and places familiar to Dodgson's upbringing and subsequent life in Oxford - all of which were skilfully woven into a convincing, alternative 'whole'.

Tenniel's rendition of Alice
The character of Alice was based on Alice Liddell and has been discussed in detail in my previous post.
It has been suggested that the Cheshire Cat was inspired by ecclesiastical stone carvings, such as that at St Wilfred's church near Warrington where Dodgson's father was a rector. At a nearby mediavel church - St Christopher's at Pott Shrigley - a grinning cat is carved into an outside wall. There is also a gargoyle at St Nicholas, Cranleigh, where Dodgson was once known to worship.

But, Dodgson was not the first to use the description of a 'grinning cat'. One was mentioned in 1795, in Pindar's Lyric Epistles - 'Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.'

The city of Chester once had cheese warehouses on the banks of the river Dee and it was said that cats thereabouts had ample hunting with mice and rats and were, therefore, very happy. In the Cheshire village of Daresbury, cheeses were moulded into animal shapes - one of which was a grinning cat. And, it is thought that the British Blue breed of cats,  known for their 'smiling' expressions were descended from cats in Cheshire.

The White Rabbit is said to be based on Alice Liddell's father. As Dean of Christ's Church, Oxford, Henry Liddell was known for always being late, anxiously consulting his fobwatch. And, a narrow twisting staircase behind Christ Church's main dining hall was called the rabbit hole. This inspired the dark tunnel through which Alice was to fall when following the rabbit into Wonderland.

As far as the Hatter is concerned, the term 'as mad as a hatter' derives from a hazard of the trade in which mercury was used in the processing of felt used as lining. Mercury poisoning could cause tremors and peculiar speech patterns, even hallucinations. In Oxford, it was generally held that Tenniel's Hatter was a caricature of the local merchant, Theophilus Carter - a decidely eccentric man very rarely seen without his top hat.

Tenniel surely based his depiction of the Duchess on this 16th century painting by Massys, an imagined portrait of the Countess Margarete Maultasch who lived in the 1300's - and was notoriously ugly!

Some critics insist that the Queen of Hearts is based on Queen Victoria. But, Victoria enjoyed the Alice books. Would she really have been so amused by such an unpleasant caricature, or was she simply too vain to see any glimmer of resemblance? Without any proof whatsoever the VV finds herself wondering if the Queen of Hearts might represent Alice Liddell's mother. Croquet - the game in which Alice is challenged - would surely have been played on the deanery lawns, and might Alice's mother have sometimes interrupted her daughter's games with Dodgson, thus being viewed as something of a tyrant?

Whatever the truth of the matter, The Queen of Hearts (played by Helena Bonham Carter) is wonderfully conceived in a new film, directed by Tim Burton -


Whereas the Disney version of Alice never held much allure for the VV, with Johnny Depp playing the Mad Hatter she is very much looking forward to Burton's animated adaptation which follows an older Alice returning to Wonderland. The film goes on general release this spring and if you would like some more information with trailers and stunning stills, then do take a look here.

And, thanks to a tip from my friend, Arturo Sanchez Garcia, you may also be interested to see another alternative vision of Alice's surreal world. Alice (1988) directed by the Czech film maker, Jan Svankmajer, is well worth an investigation - though the VV would not recommend this one for children as it is very tense and creepy. You can watch a clip here and here and here.


  1. In I compared Henry Holiday's illustrations to "The Hunting of the Snark" to works from other artists. I think, Holiday's contribution to Carroll's poem has been quite underestimated until now. Holiday did not simply copy, rather he poited to other paintings and illustrations as a part og his interpretation of the Snark. As he cooporated very well with C.L.Dodgson, his way to interpret the Snark probably was appreciated by Dodgson.

  2. Here is an interesting article on Holiday's Snark illustrations by John Tufail:

  3. Thank you for this information, Goetz - Holiday's illustrations are wonderful!

  4. You already have a link to us (http://, so can I suggest looking over our site and then thinking about your post again? "shy and stammering man" is one of the myths we are trying to correct

    You have a good blog though - do visit ours,

  5. After seeing the recent Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp my daughter still loves the Emmy-winning Alice in Wonderland from NBC dated 1999 better. Starring a very young, very talented Tina Majorino as a sometimes slightly dazed now a family favorite. I think it's been overlooked maybe because of the TV label, but Martin Short as the Mad Hatter and Francis Wright at the March Hare are hilarious. Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle singing 'Beautiful Soup' is the best! You can buy the CD at or perhaps rent it still?

  6. Always good to have personal recommendations. Thank you.

  7. What utter garbage. Are you a firm believer in never reading anything written in the last fifty years?

  8. Justin, I'm genuinely open to constructive and informative dialogue.

  9. The shy stammering weirdo who could only get a whole word out in the presence of children and had to hide under the table whenever he saw an adult coming was exploded years ago. I'd suggest reading Dodgson's letters and diaries for starters, to see just how outgoing and adult-centred his life actually was. Check the footnotes for the ages of his correspondents/dinner companions/etc. (Karoline Leach's biography and Hugues Lebailly's articles make this point, but the evidence was there all along).

    Dodgson himself commented more than once that the fictional 'Alice' was entirely a creature of his imagination and had nothing in common with Alice Liddell but her name (Letters pp. 607 & 674).

    I doubt there's any evidence that Queen Victoria ever read the Alice books; there's certainly none that she wrote to the author about them, a story which he expressly denied.

    I haven't read your last entry so I don't know what you wrote about Dodgson's relationship with Alice Liddell, but if I may anticipate:

    No, he never proposed marriage to her.
    There is no evidence he was ever any fonder of her than of her sisters.
    There are only four or five individualised diary entries about Alice, two of them distinctly unflattering.
    Documentation regarding the six-month 'break' with the Liddell family in 1863 came to light fifteen years ago and it was nothing to do with Alice.
    When he grew up he was on far chillier terms with her than most of his young woman friends, including her sister (check the letters).

    1. Did you just insult Dodgson or backing up for him?

  10. “Through the Looking-Glass”… Chess… The “Jabberwocky”...
    It is an amazing tale, of course a fascinating work of art…. All the analysis and what has been developed or said, written about it is so interesting! Some passion in all this (reading the comments too!)!... “Oh, que oui! Et c’est excellent!!!”... Simply, I enjoy as much as I can, reading all those thoughts, which show me how much of a monument the master piece is. All those translators in different languages “fighting”, “playing” with the “portmanteau words” and simply again because of these “words” they are respectively creating or inventing new words or expressions in their old native tongues!!! ???...An amazing game still ongoing of a become mythical 1870s “pseudonym”.
    It might be interesting to notice, in those late 1870s again, while Carroll is presenting the “portmenteau words” that an ophthalmologist, another pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto (doctor Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof) , is working on the “dawning” Esperanto then offered to the world by 1887.
    I should say: “who better than a russian ophtalmologist could have passed “through the Looking Glass” at that time?!”... Funny no?!..... “Hmmmm”…
    On my side I was very much disturbed by a French chess master last evening, and its conclusions, a theory about the chess game involving the “red queen” (V) and all the explanations about the white king and queen, the dean of Christ Church and wife, Dodgson as knights while Alice was a pawn… An excellent work criticized and that could be flirting with esotericism?… Numerology?… Might be... in those days… Shall we find a way to ask V about spiritualism and the century....? Was Dodgson really involved in those things?.....
    Just after that my computer crashed!!!! “Error 851” ….. For that kind of problem Microsoft says: “Error 851 is caused by the extra backslash characters within the computer’s database.”
    “Ah, bon?!...” (excuse my french!)………. Then some roman numbers did come to me…… I, D, C, L:
    L I D E L L = 50 + 1 + 500 + E + 50 + 50 = E+651
    C A R R O L L = 100 + A + R + R + O + 50 + 50 = ARRO+200
    L I D E L L + C A R R O L L = E R A R O 851
    “ERARO” means………………… “error” in………………………… Esperanto!
    Have a nice day!

  11. Thank you very much Essie, it's too much and not as brilliant as you say!... However, quite a coincidence as the "ERARO" message might have come just because I "missed" something like "500" into Alice's family name no?!... Who knows?!....

  12. Hello?!...
    May the 4th A.L. was born...
    A.L. died in November 27th...
    Hmmm... Any chance Dodgson met Mrs Lovelace?
    Bonne soirée,