Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. A mathematician, author and photographer, he is best known for his timeless ode to childhood and imagination: Alice in Wonderland. He imagined worlds “where Childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band, / Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers / Pluck’d in a far-off land”, defining children’s literature as we know it today.

Mathematician and poet

Charles Dodgson spent his childhood in Yorkshire surrounded by his ten brothers and sisters, for whom he loved to make up puppet shows. A gifted young man with an unassuming personality, he became a professor of mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1855. At the same time, he was ordained as a deacon by the Anglican Church, but he decided not to become a priest, citing his shyness and his stammer. In addition to his love of mathematics, Charles Dodgson had a passion for arts and literature. He published numerous poems in The Train magazine and took up the burgeoning art of photography. His love of riddles, puns and parody made him one of the grand masters of literary nonsense. Notably, he popularised the “doublet”, a puzzle that involves turning one word into another by changing one letter at a time, with each successive change always resulting in a real word. He chose to publish his creations under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. 

He quickly began to excel at photography and became a renowned photographer.

In Wonderland

The origins of the work that would give Lewis Carroll his place in history date back to July 1862, and a boat trip with the three daughters of the university dean. While rowing, the author made up an enchanting story, naming the main character Alice after Alice Liddell, the youngest of the sisters. 

It didn’t take him long to put the story down on paper, and it was published a few months later in 1865, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. This masterpiece of modern literature was an immediate success, even among Victorian intellectuals, who found it an endless source of inspiration. The same can be said of the works that followed, Through the Looking-Glass (1872) and The Hunting of the Snark (1876).

On a lovely spring day, Alice, a good little girl, falls asleep to the sound of her sister’s voice and sets off on a dreamlike journey that is as educational as it is fanciful. She follows a rabbit carrying a pocket watch and saying that he’ll be “too late” down his hole. Alice then enters a muddled world where everything is topsy-turvy, with a sense of humour and fragility; a world that is none other than the realm of childhood. 

She has a series of surprising encounters, from the Cheshire Cat to the fearsome Queen of Hearts. And everyone knows the famous chapter where the Mad Hatter invites Alice to have a cup of tea. During that delightfully absurd episode, they discuss time, which seems to have stopped at tea time, and make arrangements to drink tea continuously without ever being able to answer the riddles they ask themselves. 

These encounters allow the author to analyse the behaviour of adults using humour and metaphors. Adults are often shown to be impolite and authoritarian. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad”. The passage from childhood to adulthood, communication and identity are Lewis Carroll’s underlying concerns that punctuate Alice’s journey. What was once simply a children’s story ultimately offers the reader an endless source of reflections and interpretations. 

Throughout his life, Lewis Carroll challenged himself, seeking to surpass himself and become a better version of himself: more intelligent, more imaginative, more accurate. He struck up friendships with other children, for whom he created other stories. These friendships were sometimes brief, and sometimes deeper, giving way to lengthy correspondence, but all received a copy of Alice as a gift.

“‘Be what you would seem to be’ — or if you’d like it put more simply — ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

Text : Amélie Cabon