Life & Times About the Author

The author of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass was in fact a Charles Ludwidge Dodgson (1832—98). He published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll because he wished to maintain anonymity and so remain relatively immune to any criticism of his poetry and prose. He actually came up with his pen name by translating his first two names into Latin ‘Carolus Lodovicus’ and then Anglicizing them to ‘Lewis Carroll’, a perfect example of his love for the playfulness of language.

Charles Dodgson’s place of birth was a parsonage in the county of Cheshire, England, as his father was an Anglican parson. The family moved to the county of Yorkshire when he was eleven, by which time Queen Victoria had been on the throne for four years.

He and his siblings were home tutored which had an inevitable effect on their ability to socialize. All of the children also suffered from speech stammering. As a result, this self-consciousness was something that pervaded and continued to affect Charles for the rest of his life.

For two years Dodgson attended a school in Richmond, Yorkshire, and then he was sent to Rugby School at the age of fourteen. Like his father, he showed great promise as a mathematician and went on to academic success at Oxford University, even winning a lectureship, which kept him fiscally well off for many years.

Like his father, he decided to enter the church and became an Anglican deacon at Christ Church, Oxford, although his relationship with Christianity was one with which he wrestled. He was, at heart, a liberal thinker, as his literary work would eventually betray.

As well as his stammer, which he referred to as his ‘hesitation’, he was also deaf in one ear and had a weak chest, resulting from childhood ailments. It may well have been these psychological and physical flaws that translated into his drive to succeed as a writer and him becoming a prominent member of society.

Having always written short stories and drawn illustrations, Dodgson began publishing his own magazine in 1855 as a means of creative expression. It was titled the Mischmasch (German for ‘mishmash’) as the magazine was a mishmash of ideas designed for the amusement of his family. Then, in 1856, he had the opportunity to officially publish some work in The Train: A First-Class Magazine, which was a short lived monthly magazine and prompted him to invent his pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

It was at this time that Dodgson became acquainted with a new colleague, Henry Liddell, and his young family. It’s likely that he felt less intimidated by children, and so was probably less self conscious about his stammer. Dodgson grew very fond of Liddell’s son and three daughters and they proved to be the perfect audience for his imaginative stories. It was in this way that he was encouraged to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The story goes that he orated the first version to Liddell’s three daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith, whilst on a boat trip and it was Alice Liddell who urged him to commit the adventures to paper. It took him three years to complete the manuscript to his satisfaction and to finally have the book published in 1865. The book quickly caught the collective imagination of Victorian society and became something of a publishing sensation. In fact, it has never been out of print and has been translated into almost every language, such is its universal popularity.

In 1871 Dodgson published a new book about Alice, titled Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Apparently his inspiration was another conversation with Alice Liddell, where they discussed what it might be like to enter the reflected world in a mirror. Although a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there are no references to the events of the first book, but the themes, ideas and characters do seem to echo and mirror those of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This second book was every bit as successful as the first.

The Victorian Era

There was a paradox about the Victorian era during which Dodgson lived. On the one hand it was conservative and formalized, but on the other it was progressive and dynamic. In 1859 Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, in which he had revealed his theory of biological evolution by natural selection. It famously caused a great deal of scientific and theological argument, but it also had the effect of allowing people to think more laterally or outside of the box, because it showed that preconceived ideas may no longer be appropriate or correct.

Dodgson was already a creative mind and it was in this revolutionary environment that he allowed his imagination to ferment the fantastical ideas that would evolve into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His fertile imaginings were honed by using the Liddell children as his sounding board, so that he developed an instinct for writing prose that appealed to children and adults alike.

His two books about Alice are now described as literary nonsense as he was the first author to allow himself the creative license to go wherever his mind took him. As a result he produced stories that enter absurd worlds with anthropomorphic animals and other strange characters with exaggerated personality traits. All of the time though, Dodgson uses the scenarios to tackle problems relating to logic, reason and philosophical conundrums, so that there is far more to the books than there would immediately seem.

Queen Victoria herself was a fan of Dodgson’s work, demonstrating that she and many other Victorians were open to the idea of allowing a little nonsense into their lives. It probably came as a welcome counter balance to the weight of austerity that typified the age in other respects.

Dodgson’s work also set a benchmark for new writers. Literary nonsense became a genre in its own right and many subsequent authors have drawn inspiration from Dodgson’s ability to delve into his subconscious, almost as if he were taking psychedelic drugs to conjure a dream-like place, that he called Wonderland. In effect, Dodgson realised that literature is a true art form, just like painting or sculpture, in that so-called rules are there only to be tested and reset in the creative process.

Incidentally it seems likely that Dodgson had indeed tried hallucinogenic drugs. Opium smoking dens existed in Victorian London as it was long before the drug was made illegal. In addition to this, it was known that Psilocybin mushrooms could be consumed to induce mind bending effects. In the book a shrunken Alice meets a caterpillar, smoking a hookah pipe and reclining on a mushroom. Alice consumes morsels of mushroom that make her first shrink even smaller and then grow back to her normal size. Surely drugs had something to do with such ideas.

Themes of the Book

It is perhaps inevitable that people have read between the lines a great deal with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. That is to say, they have searched for a hidden meaning, agenda or allegory that Dodgson wished to express through his work. It seems more likely though that it is what it is – literary nonsense. The books are an exploration of imagined possibilities.

Dodgson doesn’t seem to have harboured any desire to pass comment on Victorian society. Although it is known that many of his literary characters were based on the personalities of his friends, it seems that this was merely an aid to character creation and development rather than any intention to parody them in any way. He was a humanist at heart, so he used his friends because he enjoyed and celebrated their idiosyncrasies and foibles.

It was this encapsulation of the human condition that seems to have made his work so popular, because the characters are in fact familiar stereotypes, so that readers can recognise traits in themselves and in the people they know. What is more, they are ubiquitous traits, so that they exist in people the world over. For example; Alice is the attractively inquisitive and naive girl, the white rabbit is the neurotic clerk, the caterpillar is the laid back artist, and so on.

Visit for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.