Today would have been Lewis Carroll’s 185th birthday. If he were alive today, I wonder what he would make of the world, or more importantly, what the world would make of the calm, stuttering Englishman with the bizarre, upturned imagination?
Growing up, Alice in Wonderland was one of my favourite stories. I didn’t realise how nonsensical it was until I reread it years later. Alice’s underground adventure with fantastical animals and animated objects was a humorous tale which spoke to my unquestioning, childlike brain. Carroll’s characters could exist in ignorant certitude there, I would never have dismissed Alice’s non-fatal fall into Wonderland as ridiculous, or been concerned that using Flamingos as croquet mallets was really not the done thing. His world takes logic and turns it on its head, almost entirely opposite to the work his brain would have engaged in during his real life as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician and Deacon of the Church of England.
As I reread Carroll’s work, I wonder at how an adult can produce tales that speak to children so. If I try to imagine something that would snuggle nicely into the magical realism genre, I can’t think of a thing that hasn’t been used before. My brain just doesn’t work on that level. Many people believe that Carroll’s ability to do so was due to his affinity with children and a desire to hold onto happier times growing up with ten siblings. During the Victorian era in which he lived, children were expected to be seen and not heard, to mind their manners and do as expected of them in polite company. Carroll understood their suppressed hearts and knew they longed to break their curiosities free of these constraints. Alice is written for them. She is a character who likes to explore, question and generally do the unexpected. She is precocious, argumentative and even hostile on occasion. All contrasting behaviours to those expected of seven year old girls at the time. We have come to learn these qualities were greatly appreciated by Carroll, which is why his stories focus on Alice’s adventures and not on preaching morality, as almost all children’s stories published at the time were.
The root of Carroll’s vivid imagination and ability to upturn logic with word play has been widely discussed. One theory put forward to explain some of his talent is the effect that migraines had on his mind. We know that Carroll experienced auras during attacks as his diaries tell us, however, some experts believe he may have suffered a certain type of migraine which manifests itself in the visual cortex, giving the sensation of objects growing and shrinking (micropsia and macropsia), providing the sufferer with an altered perspective of their own size. An experience we can easily imagine as having influenced Alice’s experiences in Wonderland.
Carroll was a keen photographer and one of the leaders of ‘Gentleman’s Photography’. If he had never written the Alice books (or his pen name had never been revealed), he would have been famous for his pioneering work in this new art form. Approximately a thousand of his photographs survive to this day and amongst his many subjects he can boast Lord Tennyson as one of his notable sitters. It is often said that the gradual appearance of the image on the photographic plate during the development process inspired the appearance and disappearance of the Cheshire Cat in the Alice books.
You can’t explore Carroll’s influences and imagination without mentioning other darker theories of his character which have grown in popularity over time. There is divided opinion over whether his preference for spending time with pre-teen girls, even photographing some of them in artistic nude poses, was a product of the accepted innocence of the age or a more sinister, repressed pedophilic tendency. The fact that the theory has developed gradually could be a result of our increasing discomfort with a behaviour we now consider unacceptable, but which was not viewed as abnormal in Victorian times. Since there is no evidence to prove or disprove these theories, some factions point to missing diaries and the undocumented reason that the ‘real’ Alice’s parents suddenly forbade their seven year friendship continuing. Other factions simply believe that since Carroll was a deeply religious man, any suggestion of improper behaviour is ludicrous. An argument in untouchable morality we challenge today for good reason. Whatever the truth, puzzling references in his diaries to his ‘sins of the flesh’ have been interpreted to mean he may have had impulses he never gave in to. It’s all a bit murky and circumspetial for any conclusions to be drawn.
We will never know all of Lewis Carroll or Charles Dodgson’s secrets, he was ultimately a private man who preferred to keep his real life and his nom de plume separate but one thing’s for sure, our childhoods wouldn’t have been the same if he’d never published Alice in Wonderland. His books have been translated into more languages than the Bible and we’ve grown up with dozens of stage and screen versions. How many times have you repeated the phrase ‘we’re all mad here!’ without associating it with the Mad Hatter? Or used the term ‘curiouser and curiouser’ and not known it was the Cheshire Cat speaking? My absolute favourite quote, and one which I think applies to all us writers is this:
Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
Such simple advice, but so hard to follow. Have you got several abandoned manuscripts lurking on your PC or is that just me? I think this will become my mantra for 2017 – and I’ll conveniently forget that it was also my mantra for 2016 and 2015! – bloody writers!
Do you have a favourite Lewis Carroll quote? What is your favourite book or character?