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October 24, 2017

Charles Dodgson's Alice

On this day in 1862, while rowing on the Thames at Oxford, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) began to tell the three Liddell sisters the story that would become Alice in Wonderland. Alice, the ten-year-old middle sister, was so taken with this improvisation that she badgered Dodgson to complete it; when he had it done two and a half years later he presented it to her, with his own illustrations and bound in leather, as a Christmas gift. By this time many friends had read or listened to the story with enthusiasm, and Dodgson was already well along with his plans to publish. When the book came out in 1865, most critics seemed relieved to find a children's book that was not preachy-sugary, nor yet more Grimm, but a tale of "nonsense so graceful and so full of humor that one can hardly help reading it through." Alice in Wonderland and its sequels were wildly popular throughout Dodgson's lifetime, and remain among the top handful of all-time best-sellers.

Dodgson was an Oxford lecturer in mathematics, but one bitten by the new craze for portrait photography. As remembered by Alice Liddell, Dodgson's storytelling was a habit developed as part of his photographic technique, something to relax and occupy his young models while waiting for the right pose or for the chemicals to work:
    We used to go to his rooms . . . escorted by our nurse. When we got there, we used to sit on the big sofa on each side of him, while he told us stories, illustrating them by pencil or ink drawings as he went along. When we were thoroughly happy and amused at his stories, he used to pose us, and expose the plates before the right mood had passed. He seemed to have an endless store of these fantastical tales.... Sometimes they were new versions of old stories; sometimes they started on the old basis, but grew into new tales owing to the frequent interruptions which opened up fresh and undreamed of possibilities. In this way the stories, slowly enunciated in his quiet voice with its curious stutter, were perfected....
From such snapshots the usual portrait of Dodgson has been drawn: the stuttering bachelor and duty-bound don, sitting perhaps too closely to the pre-pubescent girl but expressing his innermost feelings within enjoyable parameters -- photograph, cryptogram, satiric poem, fantasy literature. A recent biography, Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, interprets new evidence to suggest that, for all his attraction to his "child-friends," Dodgson expressed a healthy interest in a number of adult women, Mrs. Liddell among them.

But Dodgson delights in leading those who would know him or his book a merry dance. Speaking of which, to one of his young friends: "As to dancing, my dear, I never dance, unless I am allowed to do it in my own peculiar way.... The last house I tried it in, the floor broke through. But then it was a poor sort of floor -- the beams were only six inches thick, hardly worth calling beams at all: stone arches are much more sensible, when dancing, of my peculiar kind, is to be done." And speaking of the Lobster Quadrille, to Alice:
    "Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail,
    "There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my
          tail.
    See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
    They are waiting on the shingle -- will you come and join the
          dance?

    Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the
          dance?
    Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the
          dance? ..."

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