Would Not, Could Not: Carroll in Wonderland

By Roberts, Rex | Insight on the News, December 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

Would Not, Could Not: Carroll in Wonderland


Roberts, Rex, Insight on the News


July 4, 1862, a hot summer day ... perfect for a river picnic. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, delighted in escorting the charming daughters of the college dean on such outings, accompanied by the children's governess. Sometimes they would drift down to Nuneham Park and have a lunch of cold chicken and salad in the woods. On other occasions, they would row upstream to Godstow, as they did on this day with Dodgson's friend Robinson Duckworth, a fellow of Trinity College, helping at the oars. It was an odd but merry party, the three girls and the two dons, and they had tea on the bank of the river and rested in the shade of haystacks.

"Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream - the three little maidens and I - and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit," Dodgson later recalled. "Yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon."

On the evening of the 4th, however, one of the girls, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, implored Dodgson to write out the day's stories, an extravagant fantasy that began with its young heroine falling down a rabbit-hole. Two years later, Dodgson delivered her request, making Alice a Christmas present of a green leather booklet containing the handwritten story he titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground.

In 1865, Dodgson's work was published as Alice's adventures in Wonderland, followed in 1871 by Through the Looking Glass. His books were destined to become world famous, translated into almost every language and adapted for stage and film. Dodgson would die a celebrity, although the world knew him by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, a Latinized reversal of his first and middle names. He also would die a lonely man, his heart broken by the very heroine of his enchanting books.

Indeed, by the time the 31-year-old Dodgson presented his gift to his "ideal child friend," he had become estranged from the Liddell family. Though the dean and his wife had long tolerated Dodgson's affection for their children, something happened in the summer of 1863 that caused them to break off with him. Dodgson recorded the trouble in his diary, but a censorious niece ripped the pages out after his death in 1898. Carrollites have speculated on the event ever since; some maintain he proposed marriage to Alice.

"He would certainly not have proposed to Alice directly or even asked her parents for her hand then and there," writes Morton N. Cohen in Lewis Carroll (Knopf, $35, 600 pp), an unflinching but sympathetic portrait of its subject. "That simply was not done. However insensitive he was or appeared to be in some matters, he was well trained and responsive to Victorian conventions." But Dodgson may have provoked or extemporized upon a teasing remark by Alice about prospective suitors - enough to make her parents chary.

"Ah, teasing," sighs Cohen, who occasionally indulges in Carrollian flights of fancy. "That might have had much to do with the case. Young females can bat their eyes, shake their heads, toss their locks about, feign innocence, and make outrageous suggestions - all with the intent to shock and call attention to themselves. And the three clever Liddell sisters were probably expert in these arts."

The matter is of some importance, but not because it suggests a dark stain on Dodgson's character, revealing Lewis Carroll to have had ulterior motives in making so many child friends. A man of deep religious conviction and moral rectitude, he maintained a vigilant decorum in his public and private lives. If he was attracted to young girls, he sublimated his desires: Dodgson idealized children after the fashion of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, authors he admired and emulated. Still, he was capable of writing letters like this one to Gertrude Chataway:

"When a little girl is hoping to take a plum off a dish, and finds that she can't have that one, because it's bad or unripe, what does she do? …

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