Some books are products of their time – and remain there. Popular for a short period, they fade away as the years go by, only remembered by the occasional literary researcher. Other books are more fortunate. They become what we call “timeless” – they seem to exist outside of time, as if they had always been there and always would be. For these books, the passage of time diminishes neither their visibility nor their impact. They are books so culturally vital that not only do they never go out of print, but they also grow in popularity through critical and academic attention. They are the books that form or, in some cases, remake our culture.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of these influential books. Not only is it one of the most beloved books in the history of literature, but it is also one of the most fervently studied. Just this year, Martin Gardner’s exhaustive The Annotated Alice has been reissued and expanded, and a new study by Victorian-era scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, has added further weight to the Alice bookshelves. These books testify to the continuing relevance of a book that is now a century and a half old.
It isn’t difficult to understand the perpetual appeal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its unique combination of wild fantasy, subversive humor, and clever play with logic and language make it an almost inexhaustible source of the best kind of nonsensical fun. But, undeniable as the book’s entertainment value may be, within and underneath the nonsense there is also a rich seam of ideas that reward deeper exploration. The book continues to live because it’s both highly entertaining and ripe with ideas, equally at home in a nursery as it is in a university course.
Where did this book come from and why does it exist? How did it get published and what was its effect, then and now? Today Bio presents the biography of a book, one that has transformed the imaginative lives of innumerable children, and through them, the world they have grown up to inhabit.
Alice Meets the Professor
Like the character of Alice herself, Lewis Carroll was a fiction based on a real person. His real name was Charles Lutwedge Dodgson, his pen name having been chosen as a Latin play on his first and middle names (“Charles” became “Carolus” became “Carroll”; “Lutwidge” became “Ludovicus” became “Lewis”). Pen names were common enough in Victorian England, but they were especially useful to men of certain position who wanted to moonlight at other work. Dodgson was an Anglican cleric and math professor at Oxford University whose serious publications included A Syllabus of Plane Algebraic Geometry and the snappily titled An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, with Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations. There was no place for white rabbits and mad hatters in books like these.
His “serious” work aside, Carroll’s taste for whimsy had long been in evidence. He had been penning verse and prose for his own enjoyment since he was a child. A great number of these literary efforts were comical in tone, often turning traditional forms on their heads to make a joke or pull off a pun. It was a hobby, much like his love of a new technology that also grabbed his interest: photography. At the time, taking and developing a photograph was a laborious process, but the discipline and precision required to create a print suited Carroll’s personality perfectly.
At Oxford, Carroll's interest in photography became well known, and other professors and their families were often his subjects. One of these was the new Dean of Oxford, Henry George Liddell, who became dean the same year that Carroll received his permanent appointment as math lecturer, 1855. Carroll became a frequent visitor to the Dean’s home and a family friend to the dean’s wife and their four children. One of those children would come to play the key role in Carroll’s life – her name, of course, was Alice, and she stood out from her brother and two sisters by virtue of her humorous personality and active imagination.
Carroll, a childless bachelor, enjoyed the company of Alice and the other Liddell children, and he often used them as subjects for his photographs. He would entertain them with games and tell them stories. Like many Victorians, Carroll possessed a sentimental view of children as heavenly innocents who were closer to the divine than adults, but although his photographs often idealized them, his stories were usually more down-to-earth. Often, they upended the standard morality tales that were the largest share of a child’s literary diet in the mid-19th century, turning them nonsensical. The Liddell children thoroughly enjoyed visits from the ever-creative and ever-attentive Carroll, who was so unlike their own stern and taciturn father.
Alice Goes Underground
On July 4, 1862, Carroll, a colleague, and the Liddell sisters took a boat excursion up the Thames to go on a picnic – not an unusual occurrence. Carroll liked to go boating and rowing, and he often did so with Harry, Alice’s brother, or with a larger group of the siblings. As he did on land, Carroll liked to entertain his young charges on such trips with stories that he would improvise as he went along. On this day, however, he decided to try out a new story into which he’d made 10-year-old Alice a central figure. It was about a girl (named Alice, naturally) who goes down a rabbit hole and has many adventures underground, few of which obey any logical aboveground rules. Carroll spent much of the trip spinning his yarn, all the way up the river and even at the picnic spot once they arrived. By all accounts, the story delighted its audience with its outrageous developments and ever more surreal episodes.
Carroll’s improvisations on this day must have been particularly inventive; the next day, still buzzing about the story, Alice Liddell urged him to commit it to paper for her. Carroll wasn’t sure he could recreate his spontaneous story, but since Alice was so insistent that he try, he began to write down what he could remember. Putting it in writing naturally reshaped the tale, but it still retained its shaggy-dog, improvisatory character. Getting it down didn’t come easy, however; it took Carroll months to produce even a preliminary version. The story also kept taking new forms and moving in new directions as the Liddell children would ask him to continue the tale on his frequent visits to their home.
These visits became abruptly less frequent after a visit in June of 1863. The reason is unclear; Carroll’s personal diaries are missing pages, possibly removed by relatives after his death, and the Liddell family remained mum on the topic throughout their lives. Some researchers speculate that Carroll formally asked for the hand of Alice or Ina Liddell, after which he was rebuffed by Dean Liddell (in 1860s England, a girl of 12 was considered old enough to consent to marriage, so such a request would not be unheard of, but Carroll would not have been an especially appealing prospect to a family of the Liddells’ station). Other speculations include that Carroll made some attempt to move beyond the bounds of friendship with Alice or her sister; that Carroll had inappropriately approached the girls’ chaperone, a woman named Ms. Pickett; or that Carroll had simply offended Mrs. Liddell with a gift he’d given Alice, a book about three girls who need a man to take care of them after their mother dies.
Whatever the true reason for the sudden break, Carroll ceased to visit the Liddells for more than a year afterwards and met them in public very infrequently. He continued to work on his handwritten manuscript, however, even decorating the pages with his own sketches. By mid-1864, he had completed the first version of the tale, which he called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. He had it bound, and on November 26, 1864, he dispatched it to Alice Liddell as an early Christmas gift with the inscription “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer Day.” Alice was proud of the gift and shared it with visitors. Carroll, meanwhile, was happy that he had fulfilled his promise to her and realized his initial ambition for the story. Already, however, he began to see a potential in the tale far beyond the modest intentions behind its creation.
Alice Gets a Makeover
Through an Oxford connection, Carroll met with Alexander Macmillan, whose publishing firm had become a highly respected house for writers in its 20 years of existence. Macmillan agreed to publish a more developed version of the Alice story after seeing a completed chapter, which Carroll had put together at the same time as he was working on Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Carroll agreed to underwrite the production costs of the book as long as he could maintain full control over the project.
Soon, Carroll was working to improve and expand his original work. There were more puns and games, added characters (including The Mad Hatter and his tea party), and invented language (Carroll coined words like beamish and chortle that later became genuine English words). Perhaps most importantly, Carroll realized that his illustrations were not professional enough for a published version of the tale. Impressed by the work of Punch artist John Tenniel, Carroll convinced him to join the project. In some ways, Carroll regretted his decision – Tenniel was as much of a perfectionist as he was, and he slowed down the progress of the book considerably. Carroll had to admit when he saw the artist’s work, however, that his illustrations added a striking new dimension to the book. They were as distinctive in their way as Carroll’s text.
In mid-1865, over a year after Carroll had commissioned Tenniel to create art for his project, and after many proofs had been corrected and revised, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was complete. Carroll was delighted to hold a copy of the finished book in his hand that July, but Tenniel wrote him to say that he was unhappy with the print quality of his pictures. Carroll reluctantly asked Macmillan not to distribute the 2,000 copies that comprised the first run of the book, and at his own expense, he had the book reset and reprinted by a different printer. Tenniel was satisfied with this version, and Carroll agreed that it was superior: “a perfect piece of artistic printing,” in his own words. In November of 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland hit the bookstores in time for the holidays.
By this time, Carroll had already sent a specially bound and printed version of the book to Alice Liddell. He made sure that it was delivered on July 4, the day of the boat trip that inspired the tale. Carroll never lost sight of the fact that Alice was the inspiration for his book. As he wrote in a letter to her mother, Alice was the person “without whose infant patronage I might possibly never have written at all.”
Alice Enters (and Conquers) the World
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the Harry Potter of its day. Its second run sold out quickly, and the book was reprinted multiple times within its first couple of years on the market. Carroll recouped his losses on the first, unused printing by deciding to sell most of the copies to an American publisher, D. Appleton & Co. (the remaining copies were donated to a children’s hospital near Oxford). Thus, in April of 1866, the book began to be sold in the U.S., and as far as we know, no one complained about the print quality. On the contrary, it proved almost as popular here as it had in its homeland. In the next few years, the book would spread further across the globe once it was translated into French, German, and Swedish (Carroll himself supervised several of these translations, which proved tricky with a book so concerned with wordplay).
Lewis Carroll became a respected and recognized name almost overnight. Although he had ambivalent feelings about the attention that came his way, Carroll couldn’t deny that success had its benefits, including a move to nicer rooms on campus with a state-of-the-art photography studio added on, which provided more opportunities to photograph new acquaintances. One of these was Lord Salisbury, Chancellor of Oxford, who would later become Prime Minister of England. Carroll also sent copies of the book to people he was interested in meeting, including other writers and statesmen. He even sent a copy to the Queen’s daughter with his compliments.
Carroll did not rest on his laurels, however. In much the same way that the success of the first Harry Potter book resulted in a sequel soon afterwards, the success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland prompted Carroll to consider a sequel to his own hit book. He saw many possibilities for further adventures, some of which he already had written, and he was in negotiations with Macmillan by the end of the summer for a new Alice book. He began to assemble a new manuscript, although his other activities caused it to develop slowly. By early 1868, he was ready to ask Tenniel if he would be willing to create illustrations for the new Alice book. Although initially reluctant, Tenniel finally agreed by the summer. By Christmastime 1871, better late than never, the sequel finally emerged: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. An immediate hit, it sold even more quickly than its predecessor had.
Alice’s Lasting Legacy
The impact of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass on children’s literature was immense. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Carroll was the most flattered man in England. Books full of wonderland-style environments, books based on dreams, and books based on nonsense all flooded the market. Children’s literature, too long the province of writers more concerned with moralizing than with engaging their young readers, flowered into a genre of greater variety and imagination. Even adult non-fiction began to resonate with the effects of Alice. So widespread was the concept of a “wonderland” that soon the word began to be applied to actual places rather than imaginary landscapes.
Alice cast a long shadow, and for the rest of his life, Carroll would be known primarily for his Alice books. He took the legacy seriously, and created variations of his book to meet different needs, such as The Nursery “Alice,” a simplified version for very young readers that he issued in 1890. Although he would write other works of poetry and prose, some rather eccentric, Carroll never again reached as large of an audience. At times, he would chafe at the hold the Alice books maintained on his career, but mostly he was proud. He approved stage versions, and even contributed ideas to a couple of them. He even published a reproduction of the original version of the story that he had handwritten for Alice Liddell in 1886 so that fans could see the book in its original form. (Alice Liddell still possessed this original version and would hold onto it until a few years before her death. Today it resides in the British Museum.)
When Carroll published the facsimile of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Alice Liddell became more widely recognized as the inspiration for the creation of Wonderland. She would carry this notoriety for the rest of her life, even after a society marriage and three children (two of whom were killed in World War I). Just as being Alice’s “father” sometimes irked Carroll, the strain of being “the real Alice” could sometimes be wearisome for Alice Liddell, now Alice Hargreaves. Late in life she wrote to her son, “Oh, my dear I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland! Doesn’t it sound ungrateful & is – only I do get tired.” As much as a respectable upper class lady could, however, she remained a booster for Carroll and the books until her death in 1934, even taking part in a Carroll centenary celebration in New York in 1932.
After Carroll’s death in 1898 and the expiry of the copyright on the original book in 1907, the floodgates opened and new sequels appeared by other writers, as well as new editions with pictures by different artists. Since 1907, over 150 artists have done interpretations of the Alice books; even Salvador Dali did one. This proliferation of editions ensured that the story was constantly before the public, as did cheaper editions approved by Carroll when he was still alive. For the first time, these editions brought the story to families who couldn’t afford to purchase expensive hardbound books.
Another important reason for Alice’s longevity had to do with technological innovations in entertainment. Alice had already graduated to the stage by the late 19th century, but at the dawn of the 20th, the advent of the moving picture created an entirely new arena for the Alice phenomenon to take hold. As early as 1903, a version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, retitled Alice in Wonderland, had appeared in England. Edwin S. Porter, the man who directed The Great Train Robbery, adapted the story in the U.S. for the first time in 1910. Dozens of versions followed, most famously Walt Disney’s animated version from 1951. Variations on the story continue to appear in cinemas in this century, the most high-profile film of recent years being the revisionist Alice in Wonderland from 2010 starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mia Wasikowska. A sequel to this film, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is in production and due to be released next May. The characters created by Lewis Carroll continue to fascinate.
Since his death, many biographies of Lewis Carroll have appeared, some more favorable than others. Contemporary writers sometimes look with a jaundiced eye at Carroll’s private life, particularly his interest in photographing children, and pronounce judgment. Judging Victorian culture by modern standards can be precarious, however, and speculating about questionable behavior in the absence of solid evidence can be unfairly damning. Perhaps it’s only natural that readers want to know more about the motivations of a man who created a book that features, and was written for, a young girl, but these readers may be losing sight of the key point – the book itself, which has grown so far beyond the circumstances of its creation, continues to delight and fire the imaginations of generations of children, long after its author ceased to be. A tale created to please one child has gone on to fascinate millions. A man is not timeless, but his work can be, and that is the case with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a book that will live as long as children (and adults) enjoy it on its own terms, irrespective of the ebb and flow of its creator’s reputation.