Alice’s Adventures Underground

Alice Liddell, photographed by Charles Dodgson

Alice Liddell, photographed by Charles Dodgson

On this day in 1865, one of the most remarkable books ever written was first published, but its genesis can be traced back to the summer of 1862.  On 4th July that year, Dodgson went on one of his many boat trips with little Alice Liddell and her sisters, the daughters of a friend and colleague of his, and improvised much of the Alice story.  The real Alice insisted he write the story down, and Alice’s Adventures Underground (as he originally called it), was eventually published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, after a great deal of hassle trying to get illustrations drawn to his liking by John Tenniel.  The following are two contemporary newspaper articles, reflecting the positive reception the book received when it was first published:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. By Lewis Carroll. (Macmillan and Co.) This is a very elegant piece of fancy-work wrought by clever brain for the amusement and even instruction of children. Externally and internally it is well suited for the season at which children receive if they do not expect all manner of gifts, amongst which books are not the least conspicuous. The pleasant volume contains forty-two illustrations due to the practised pencil of John Tenniel, and that fact should of itself be a strong recommendation.

The above quote is from the Illustrated London News, 16th December 1865.  Next we have a review from the Pall Mall Gazette, 23rd December 1865, as part of an article looking at the wider world of Christmas gifts for children:

Of gift books for young people there are abundance; we doubt whether so many really good ones have ever been published in one year. First among them we may mention “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (Macmillan and Co.), embellished with more than forty illustrations by John Tenniel. This delightful little book is a children’s feast and triumph of nonsense; it is nonsense with bonbons, flags and music; never inhuman, never inelegant, never tedious. Take a rabbit, a dodo, a little girl, a boarding-school prospectus, a mouse, a griffin, a cat, a puppy, a guinea-pig, and almost anything else you can think of that is innocent and unexpected; shake it all up in a Brobdignag-Lilliput kaleidoscope, and you have (when you have done it) a tale like the one before us…

Alice’s own account of the Dodgson telling her the Wonderland story is quoted in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, written by Dodgon’s nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood and published in 1898:

Most of Mr. Dodgson’s stories were told to us on river expeditions to Nuneham or Godstow, near Oxford. My eldest sister, now Mrs. Skene, was “Prima,” I was ”Secunda,” and “Tertia” was my sister Edith. I believe the beginning of “Alice” was told one summer afternoon when the sun was so burning that we had landed in the meadows down the river, deserting the boat to take refuge in the only bit of shade to be found, which was under a new-made hayrick. Here from all three came the old petition of “Tell us a story,” and so began the ever-delightful tale. Sometimes to tease us – and perhaps being really tired – Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, “And that’s all till next time.” “Ah, but it is next time,” would be the exclamation from all three; and after some persuasion the story would start afresh. Another day, perhaps, the story would begin in the boat, and Mr. Dodgson, in the middle of telling a thrilling adventure, would pretend to go fast asleep, to our great dismay.

After the publication of Alice, Dodgson was generally very keen to keep his own life separate from the work of “Lewis Carroll” and continued to deny the connection long after it was an open secret.  The exceptions to that rule were his many female child friends, who could be impressed by his alter ego and sent copies of his Alice books, but Dodgson sought no public recognition from the world of adults, as the following quote from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1st January 1890) illustrates:

A most entertaining volume in the Canterbury Poets series… is that devoted to Humorous Poetry of the century, edited by Ralph Caine. The thoroughness with which the editorial work has been done may be gathered from the statement that some seventy English and American humorist poets have been drawn on, and each of these is briefly biographed at the end of the volume. In preparing the work Mr. Caine appears to have met with at least one quaint adventure. It has been generally supposed that Mr. “Lewis Carroll,” the author of most delightful fairy stories, was the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, of Oxford. To this gentleman accordingly Mr. Caine addressed himself, and received the following reply in typewriting:—”Mr. C. L. Dodgson begs to say, in reply to Mr. Caine’s letter received this morning, that he has never put his name to any such pieces as are named by Mr. Caine. His published writings are exclusively mathematical, and would not be suitable for such a volume as Mr. Caine proposes to edit.”

Dodgson died in 1898 after his cold symptoms took a turn for the worst and he fell victim to pneumonia.  With remarkable efficiency, his nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood had published an excellent biography of his life by the end of the year.  The following quote is taken from The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, and concerns an aspect of Dodgson’s personality I can relate to myself:

He had a wonderfully good memory, except for faces and dates. The former were always a stumbling-block to him, and people used to say (most unjustly) that he was intentionally short-sighted. One night he went up to London to dine with a friend, whom he had only recently met. The next morning a gentleman greeted him as he was walking. “I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Dodgson, ‘‘but you have the advantage of me, I have no remembrance of having ever seen you before this moment.” “That is very strange,” the other replied,” for I was your host last night!”

I share a terrible memory for faces, despite a good memory for other things.  In my line of work I have to deal with customers who place orders, and sometimes when collecting they will just say hello and then nothing more, waiting for me to head off and find their order for them, assuming I will remember them, which invariably I don’t.  That’s understandable when several days have elapsed since their first visit, but like Dodgson I have often been guity of forgetting a face by the following day, or even the same day!  It’s not an age thing either – I’ve always been like that.  Science is yet to explain the variations in ability to recognise faces, although studies have proven that not-insignificant differences exist from one person to another.  At the most severe end of the scale exist those with “prosopagnosia”, or “face blindness”, with some sufferers even unable to recognise their own faces.  At the other end of the scale are “super recognisers” who can sometimes perform better than face recognition software, and are therefore useful to criminal investigations.

The biography written by his nephew offers us a fascinating insight into the author of Alice.  Included below are a few snippets that I found interesting, from The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll.  To provide a little context first, Dodgson was not generally keen on foreign travel, preferring to spend his summers at Eastbourne or on the Isle of Wight, but in 1867 he did travel abroad on a tour of Europe with his friend Rev. Henry Liddon, with his ultimate goal to explore Russia, a country that fascinated him.

During the whole of this tour Mr. Dodgson kept a diary, more with the idea that it would help him afterwards to remember what he had seen than with any notion of publication. However, in later years it did occur to him that others might be interested in his impressions and experiences, though he never actually took any steps towards putting them before the public.

“The pen refuses to describe the sufferings of some of the passengers during our smooth trip of ninety minutes: my own sensations were those of extreme surprise, and a little indignation, at there being no other sensations — it was not for that I paid my money…

“We landed at Calais in the usual swarm of friendly natives, offering services and advice of all kinds; to all such remarks I returned one simple answer, ‘Non!’ It was probably not strictly applicable in all cases, but it answered the purpose of getting rid of them; one by one they left me, echoing the ‘Non!’ in various tones, but all expressive of disgust.”

In particular, Dodgson wanted to see the Nijni Novgorod fair, an important event for Russian commerce and entertainment, held annually until 1929:

One of the objects of the tour was to see the fair at Nijni Novgorod, and here the travellers arrived on August 6th, after a miserable railway journey. Owing to the breaking down of a bridge, the unfortunate passengers had been compelled to walk a mile through drenching rain.

“We went to the Smernovaya (or some such name) Hotel, a truly villainous place, though no doubt the best in the town. The feeding was very good, and everything else very bad. It was some consolation to find that as we sat at dinner we furnished a subject of the liveliest interest to six or seven waiters, all dressed in white tunics, belted at the waist, and white trousers, who ranged themselves in a row and gazed in a quite absorbed way at the collection of strange animals that were feeding before them. Now and then a twinge of conscience would seize them that they were, after all, not fulfilling the great object of life as waiters, and on these occasions they would all hurry to the end of the room, and refer to a great drawer which seemed to contain nothing but spoons and corks. When we asked for anything, they first looked at each other in an alarmed way; then, when they had ascertained which understood the order best, they all followed his example, which always was to refer to the big drawer.”

Dodgson’s journal, quoted in the biography, relates an amusing encounter with a “drojky-driver”.  A “drojky”, more commonly spelt “droshky” or “drosky” is a low, four-wheeled, open carriage.

After a hearty breakfast I left Liddon to rest and write letters, and went off shopping, etc., beginning with a call on Mr. Muir at No. 61, Galerne Ulitsa. I took a drojky to the house, having first bargained with the driver for thirty kopecks; he wanted forty to begin with. When we got there we had a little scene, rather a novelty in my experience of drojky-driving. The driver began by saying “Sorok” (forty) as I got out; this was a warning of the coming storm, but I took no notice of it, but quietly handed over the thirty. He received them with scorn and indignation, and holding them out in his open hand, delivered an eloquent discourse in Russian, of which sorok was the leading idea. A woman, who stood by with a look of amusement and curiosity, perhaps understood him. I didn’t, but simply held out my hand for the thirty, returned them to the purse and counted out twenty-five instead. In doing this I felt something like a man pulling the string of a shower-bath — and the effect was like it — his fury boiled over directly, and quite eclipsed all the former row. I told him in very bad Russian that I had offered thirty once, but wouldn’t again; but this, oddly enough, did not pacify him. Mr. Muir’s servant told him the same thing at length, and finally Mr. Muir himself came out and gave him the substance of it sharply and shortly— but he failed to see it in a proper light. Some people are very hard to please.

In Russia Dodgson and Liddon encountered some language barrier issues, but muddled through somehow:

In the afternoon we went down to the Archbishop’s palace, and were presented to him by Bishop Leonide. The Archbishop could only talk Russian, so that the conversation between him and Liddon (a most interesting one, which lasted more than an hour) was conducted in a very original fashion — the Archbishop making a remark in Russian, which was put into English by the Bishop; Liddon then answered the remark in French, and the Bishop repeated his answer in Russian to the Archbishop. So that a conversation, entirely carried on between two people, required the use of three languages!

Later on the tour of Russia they were staying at a friend’s house at Kronstadt, and met with some difficulties when the time came to leave:

Liddon hand surrendered his overcoat early in the day, and when going we found it must be recovered from the waiting-maid, who only talked Russian, and as I had left the dictionary behind, and the little vocabulary did not contain coat, we were in some difficulty. Liddon began by exhibiting his coat, with much gesticulation, including the taking it half-off. To our delight, she appeared to understand at once — left the room, and returned in. a minute with — large clothes-brush. On this Liddon tried a further and more energetic demonstration; he took off his coat, and laid it at her feet, pointed downwards (to intimate that in the lower regions was the object of his desire), smiled with an expression of the joy and gratitude with which he would receive it, and put the coat on again. Once more a gleam of intelligence lighted up the plain but expressive features of the young person; she was absent much longer this time, and when she returned, she brought, to our dismay, a large cushion and a pillow, and began to prepare the sofa for the nap that she now saw clearly was the thing the dumb gentleman wanted. A happy thought occurred to me, and I hastily drew a sketch representing Liddon, with one coat on, receiving a second and larger one from the hands of a benignant Russian peasant. The language of hieroglyphics succeeded where all other means had failed, and we returned to St. Petersburg with the humiliating knowledge that our standard of civilisation was now reduced to the level of ancient Nineveh.

There have been many biographies of Dodgson.  Apart from his nephew’s account, which is understandably not far enough removed from its subject to be especially candid, the one I would recommend is by Michael Bakewell, first published in 1996, which is probing but fair.  Of course, the problem with reading a biography is that you know how the story is going to end, and after reading about a person’s life in such detail it is sad to read about how it came to an end.  The following obituary was published in Globe, on 15th January 1898:

By the death of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known to all the world as “Lewis Carroll,” the gaiety of two nations is eclipsed. It is perhaps hardly right to restrict the sense of his loss even to England and America, since we believe that there is no European language into which his two immortal books have not been translated. But we doubt whether anyone to whom English is not his mother-tongue could fully appreciate the proverbial wit of the Cheshire Cat, the sorrows the Mock Turtle, the rage of Tweedledum, or the pathetic perplexities of the White Knight. The two Alices are among the most exquisite examples of real humour which have ever been given to the world. That they should have been written by a studious mathematician of Christ Church is still a marvel to everyone.

And thereby hangs a tale. When Alice in Wonderland was first written to amuse Dean Liddell’s little daughters the Queen was so delighted with it that she commanded the author to send her his next book. Her Majesty must have been almost as much surprised as Bill the Lizard himself when it proved to be “An Elementary Treatise on Determinants.”

This is a lovely story that has been perpetuated ever since, but sadly it is complete nonsense and never happened.  To end this article celebrating one of the greatest writers of nonsense poetry, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The biographical quotes and newspaper cuttings used above were first featured on our sister blog Windows into History.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Six Degrees of Who: Alice

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Books, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Alice’s Adventures Underground

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It’s amazing how much there still is these days to learn about the backgrounds of our most famous classics. Thanks, RP.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ShiraDest says:

    Interesting: thank you for the history behind this, Roger.

    Liked by 1 person

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