Lewis Carroll and Victorian Children’s Literature

From Intern Nathan Keckley:


Some people fell in love with the works of Lewis Carroll as children; others consider them to be opium-induced nightmares. Personally, I just want Tim Burton to stop drenching them in guyliner and angst. Regardless, it can’t be denied that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass; and What Alice Found There remain some of the most popular children’s literature to this day.

As with many books, however, this wasn’t always so. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (who understandably used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) was a mathematician and logician, and friend of the Liddell family. Charles famously began the work as a story to three children, including the not-so-coincidentally-named Alice Liddell. Allegedly, Alice requested that Charles write the story down, and so the novel began to take shape.

When Alice’s Adventures Underground, to use its original and less enthralling title,[1] first hit the shops in 1865, however, critics were not grinning like Cheshire cats at what they read. To be fair, it’s easy to understand why people think Charles Dodgson took laudanum when one reads the book, particularly near the end when a bunch of sea creatures begin to sing about soup; the famous “Jabberwocky” poem itself is just a hop and a skip of the white rabbit’s legs from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-saturated “Kubla Kan.” Actually, perhaps it’s no wonder Tim Burton wanted in on this level of strange.

In addition to its rather psychedelic episodes, however, Alice was simply not the sort of children’s book the Victorians approved of. While eighteenth-century morality stories had been replaced by a more entertaining genre, young adult and children’s books still exhibited a desire to better their readers through example. One of the most obvious instances is Little Lord Fauntleroy, the most popular children’s book of the time period (so popular, in fact, that the Hunters owned two copies). Books like Little Lord Fauntleroy, with their sickeningly sweet child protagonists, were meant to set an example for Victorian children, just like the Captain Underpants books most definitely do not do in this century. Other children’s books favored a more realistic setting, with mischievous characters, seeking to empathize with their readers, such as Tom Brown’s School Days and the novels of Mark Twain. The Hunters themselves owned both Tom Brown and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Later on, however, these goody-goody and picaresque books were replaced with the faerie tale collections of Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang, the latter bringing over a dozen of his chromatic faerie-books to thousands of avid adolescent readers. I myself have fond memories of listening to public domain recordings of Lang’s Blue, Lilac, and every other color under the sun faerie books, proof of their timelessness.

The Alice books, on the other hand, were just plain weird. Amidst hearts hidden in needles and magical pumpkin coaches, traditional faerie tales at least maintained some sense of reality. With Carroll, however, all bets were off: shops could become rivers; chess pieces and playing cards walked and talked as people. Despite this, by the time Through the Looking Glass rolled off the press six years later, the first novel shared in its sequel’s success, eventually rising to take its place among the paragons of preteen literature. Notably, the famous playwright and all-round fabulous Irishman Oscar Wilde read and enjoyed the Alice books. Joining the fan club as well was Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself, then in her mid-forties. Apparently the taciturn monarch finally found something that amused her.

One of the reasons for their popularity is that despite their sheer amount of weird, the Alice books actually contain a multitude of clever jokes in subjects such as mathematics, logical semantics, French vocabulary, and Latin grammar. For instance, at one point a monkey named Pat digs for apples in the ground; pomme de terre, the French word for potato, literally translates as “apple of the earth.” All these are topics Victorian children would be very familiar with (particularly if they were upper class). Dodgson clearly knew his audience, and his works are by no means simply a bad acid trip.

Furthermore, the books heralded a new era of literature. Dodgson’s Alice books helped to introduce the concept of fantasy works lasting longer than a few pages, as faerie tales had done. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of the first fantasy adventure novels, a genre which would later be elaborated on by George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin[2] and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, finally culminating in the works of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and the despicable authors of the pulp fantasy genre. Carroll’s works were also some of the first children’s works to make extensive use of illustrations in the form of John Tenniel’s delightfully iconic drawings. This idea would be carried on by Beatrix Potter and other children’s authors before culminating in full-on picture books near the end of the Victorian era.

Finally, Carroll was not alone in his nonsense literature. The poet Edward Lear was, during the same time period, writing extensive works of nonsense poetry, including “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which were received very favorably by the public.

Now Lewis Carroll’s books are some of the most popular works among children and adults the world over. They have been adapted into numerous dramatic performances and films, including Disney’s charming animated one and Tim Burton’s horrid emo one. I feel certain that if Mr. Dodgson could see what a delight his stories are to readers of all ages, his ghostly grin would be wider than any cat’s.

[1] Another title Carroll considered was Alice’s Golden Hour, which would make an excellent title for an alt rock band.

[2] The Hunters owned its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, both of which are delightful and charming children’s chapter books.


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