Dodgson's Alice

November 26: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland made its first appearance on this day in 1864, in the form of a handmade, author-illustrated, one-copy book titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground given by Charles Dodgson to twelve-year-old Alice Liddell as a Christmas present. Dodgson had begun telling the story to Alice and her sisters some twenty-eight months earlier; by the time of the Christmas gift, so many had heard and liked the story that Dodgson was well along with his plans to publish. The first commercial edition came out in time for Christmas the following year, selling out immediately.

 

Dodgson was an Oxford lecturer in mathematics, but one bitten by the new craze for portrait photography. As remembered by 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 girls whose company he liked to keep but expressing his innermost feelings within enjoyable parameters, whether photograph, cryptogram, satiric poem, or fantasy literature. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, Karoline Leach's provocative 1999 biography, interprets new evidence to suggest that, for all his casual attraction to his young girls, Dodgson expressed a deeper interest in a number of adult women, Mrs. Liddell among them.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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