Author of Alice— Lewis Carroll


DISCOVERIES in the sciences seem to cast rays of their light across the age which precedes them: there are many examples in nineteenth century literature where we catch sight — directly and authentically — of ideas misunderstood in their own time, but which are now so orthodox that they stand as transparent as truths. Amongst this literature the two Alice books rise high. And the extraordinary thing about them is that they really were written for children. The whole tenor of the story of the unfolding of Alice’s Adventures Underground during an Oxford river-trip, the subsequent long-hand transposition to paper under the editorship of the author and his three young readers – with drawings by the author – publication and distribution – overseen by the author again – the whole tenor suggests that Lewis Carroll [1] regarded his Alice stories as being intended exclusively for children, in whose company he felt at ease. (He came from a family that grew to eleven children, and he clearly enjoyed entertaining his younger siblings.)

And in the pages of these two books is a meticulous analysis of the age in which the writer lived – an analysis, a formal taking apart, a clean attempt to discover how the human world is assembled, as though it were a created entity which might be touched and handled. This is the most remarkable insight amongst insights which stretch forward beyond those systems of thought which have themselves become dusty with redundant symbolism— phenomenology, behaviourism, psychoanalytic theory. His act of self-examination (itself refreshingly free of symbolic baggage) is surely the most modern of a diverse array of insights into a contemporary world-view. Indeed, it is difficult to read

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

without thinking that one might be reading a popular present-day text explaining modern theories of electron behaviour: the act of observation alters the state of the system it observes. Yet when Carroll continues, and has Alice experimenting with her findings:

‘but I tell you what—’ she added, as a sudden thought struck her. ‘I’ll follow it up to the very top shelf of all. It’ll puzzle it to go through the
ceiling. . .’

Is Alice speculating upon a possible quantum genesis of thought? At which root thought itself (as we seem to experience it) becomes impossible because unlinkable to any cause or effect? Possibly —

But even this plan failed: the ‘thing’ went through the ceiling as quietly as possible, as if it were quite used to it.

Notice the quietly added ‘as if’. A qualifier as bold and as significant as the words ‘it is said.’ The ‘thing’ has acquired some of Alice’s sentience by being looked at. Evasive though it is, it is in some way a part of Alice herself.

And when the sheep asks Alice: ‘Are you a child or a teetotum?’ we realize the speed at which her observations have been taking place.

Through the Looking-Glass is evidently based on a chess game: but one seen in a dream, where the rules of chess do not apply— in fact, no rules apply consistently. The knights move more obscurely than do the knights of the surface world. (It seems odd that the parlance of modern psychiatry calls erratic and unpredictable thought knight’s move thinking.) To a knight there are no such rules which tie him: they are implicit in his character: his move is as straight as a beam of light: to him the one square/one diagonal move has no meaning; it is a learning-tool for the apprentice. As he is not constrained by what he is able to see – the one inobstructable piece on the board, with the possible exception of the king – he disappears from the square he is on and reappears on the square on which he is to go, as determined by thought.

‘The great art of riding,’ the Knight suddenly began in a loud voice, waving his right arm as he spoke, ‘is to keep—’
Here the sentence ended. . .

And always, beneath the line of the story, there is, for the reader, the intimation of mortality. Alice does not appear to feel this at first; she still wears a confident sense of immortality as though she were aware of the distinction between ‘dream-danger’ and ‘real-danger’. As Alice enters the rabbit-hole (which has become a terrible, deep mine shaft, down which she falls with a dream-like slowness) she says:

‘After such fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! . . . ‘Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!’ (Which was very likely true.)

Alice’s apprehension of the temporality of life begins only when she comes upon the sleeping form of the Red King, who, it is said, dreams the world with Alice in it.

References to poison abound:

. . .if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’, it is certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. . .

It is poison. Tenniel had drawn a bottle of the kind in which laudanum (tincture of opium) was sold.

‘I must be shutting up like a telescope!’

Had the bottle been larger (and had she emptied it)—

‘for it might end. . . in my going out altogether, like a candle.’

The changes of both shape and the understanding of shape grow bizarre and extreme:

. . her head struck against the roof of the hall. . .

Another poison bottle put to the mouth: unlabelled, this time:

. . .she had to stoop to save her neck from being broken. . .

and after eating a piece of a toadstool—

. . .the next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin. . .

for it had struck her foot.

In this world, all is mutable – identity, selfhood, personality, size, proportionality, memory, place, language, knowledge, grammar, meaning, distance, sensation, progress, speed, time. All these things were to be examined carefully in the decades following Lewis Carroll’s death, perhaps in no systematic fashion – ideas emerge and sink into the background again: history may present them otherwise in its ordering of the half-ordered, and even that was not unpredicated by Carroll. It is not always truth which prevails in this world; and no more does it prevail in Alice’s. There is truth: there is reality: so it seems to be in Alice’s world and our own: and these worlds are closer than we think. But it seems that any kind of active speculation along systematic lines makes rather than finds: and what is made is, like all earthly treasure, subject to misinterpretation and corruption.


Astonishingly, there are specific instances of a prophecy of thought:.

“Can you do addition?” the White Queen asked. “What’s one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?”
“I don’t know,” said Alice, “I lost count.”

This brief portion of dialogue looks forward to Edmund Husserl’s theory of number which was published in 1887, and which examines the understanding of multiplicity within a group and the unity of a group (making the point that the definition of number as ‘multiplicities of units’ is incomplete unless it defines both terms.) His work skirts the problems of unity and concentrates on multiplicity, and might be said to fall into the very error against which he warns.

[Perhaps unity is indefinable because any definition would be exterior to it and analytic of it. Once unity is looked at, it becomes a moiety. Perhaps, perceptually, unity has to ‘wrapped’ in perceptual syntheses before it can be carried, added to other unities, or dealt with mathematically. The ‘wrapping’ may be specific and concrete; it may reside in vague universal concepts like ‘something’; it may be itself undefined and taken for granted and thus passed from mind to mind as a paradoxical ‘unacknowledged understood’. At all events it belongs to the perceiver and user rather than to whatever might be (or might not be) within the wrapping. The patterns of the ‘unities’ are perceptual possibilities because they reflect interior patterns in the mind: ‘unity’ in itself is perceptually possible only in terms of the vanishing-point at the centre of perspectival patterns.]

Husserl says that totality or multiplicity is ‘one something’ and ‘one something’ and ‘one something’ et cetera. Further, he says that the concept of multiplicity contains two interior concepts: the ‘something’ and the combinatory link. The concept of abstract multiplicity one - and - one - and - one - and - one - etc is ended by the indeterminate etc.

But mental processes are not like this: the whole, the ‘wrapped’ unity is grasped as a whole rather than as a series of shuffling (and, as Alice said) forgettable steps. We go from one ‘wrapped’ unity to another unity with a different ‘wrapping’ [of pattern, of scale.] Perhaps, inside, it is the same unity.

So the little dialogue between the White Queen and Alice shows something fundamental about the phenomenology of number and about the patterning of number; in the White Queen’s repetition of and-one-and-one-and-one is the absurdity of any concept of linearity of thought. To paraphrase the Red Queen: ‘She can’t add up.’

Speculation> speculum> mirror> through (rather than reflecting from) the Looking-Glass> entrance >world >self without name.

In the end, though, the author of Alice’s Adventures and Through the Looking-Glass was drained by his work. His further writing – Sylvie and Bruno – is, to my mind, laboured and very nearly unreadable. The lucid brilliance of the Alice books (all the more clear because they bear no moral or symbolic burden) is here exchanged for a style heavy with submerged moral references which from time to time break the surface. The early grammatical idiosyncrasies have lost their fluidity and have become merely pedantic. The preface to Sylvie and Bruno is telling:

Perhaps the hardest thing in all literature – at least I have found it so: by no voluntary effort can I accomplish it: I have to take it as it comes – is to write anything original. And perhaps the easiest is, when once an original line has been struck out, to follow it up, and to write any amount more to the same tune.

Sylvie and Bruno contains numerous references to ideas which would have been hypothetical in its author’s day, such as weightlessness; and there are clear references to relativity of time and space. But these are pulled in heavily and consciously, in the manner of an author mining the ideas of his youth. Sparks of poetic brilliance fly, to be sure, as in the astonishing poem Little Birds and in the intelligence of this verse from The Song of the Mad Gardener:

He thought he saw an argument
That proved he was the Pope.
He looked again and saw it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
A fact so dread, he faintly said,
Extinguishes all hope.

Intelligence, because there is real comedy in the abstraction being mistaken for the concrete, and, more, in a line of logic (by which the abstraction stands apparently real) being mistaken for the concrete: and, anyway, how concrete is the concrete? The poem is metrically good, and there is something comic about the insertion of soap between Pope and hope - the long o (which vowel had a special significance in the poetry of the time, and to some extent still does) abruptly ended by the p. (The humour might be seen as slightly Beckettian. The sense of I is unquestioned no matter how irreconcilable its observations (Watt? Knott). And terminal consonants (or their lack) have a strange effect on assertions: Yes, yeah; no, nope. The unspoken question and answer— ‘Hope? — Nope.

Yet these two poems are built into the text in the manner of windows in a high wall. However hard you wished it otherwise, you find it difficult to avoid the feeling that these poems were written years before, saved, and added: the feel of the poetry is different from the feel of the surrounding text.

And, tragically, because it cannot be tragic, his final poetry is disappointing. Convention begins to win out at last, in the expression of a love which the poet sought to feel but apparently could not.

It is astonishing to see the variability of work by the many artists who collaborated with him.

John Tenniel’s powerful and extraordinary drawings, inseparable from the text and filled with the vigour of the finest attributes of the age: these mark the two Alice books. Tenniel, after finishing his drawings for Carroll, vowed that he would illustrate books no more. No more he did. Although he was clearly emotionally in tune with the work he claimed that he did not understand it. There may be some truth in this. His drawing of the Red King is surprisingly mild and even perfunctory. The Red King is one of the strangest of all the characters in Through the Looking-Glass: according to the Tweedle brothers (who are caricatures of the worst kind of nit-picking academic and not to be trusted with the truth) he is the unconscious creator of the world. Were he to wake from his dreaming sleep, they say, the world (with Alice in it) would silently collapse in upon itself. Alice would have no existence. These are uncanny thoughts, and suggest that Carroll was aware that his own unconscious thinking was not conventionally Christian.

Tenniel understands the metamorphosis of the characters. The Red Queen, fast, powerful, coercive, alarming, uttering out-of-context adult maxims–

Faster! Faster! Cried the Queen.
John Tenniel, from Through the Looking-Glass

– is at the end of the story transmuted into the familiar form of a kitten. The change of bodily ratios (neoteny) is very skilfully drawn by Tenniel. Though the Queen, her mystery gone, has become tiny, her limbs shrinking in powerlessness, her head and eyes have developed babyish proportions. (A similar transition of power in the context of a different metamorphosis occurs at the end of Alice in Wonderland where the characters lose a dimension and become flat.) Tenniel's drawings are especially remarkable considering he had lost the sight of one eye in childhood.

John Tenniel - from Through the Looking-Glass

Then Henry Holiday, whose hallucinatory drawings aptly accompany The Hunting of the Snark. Holiday was an accomplished sculptor, his manner one of intense visual realism. In The Hunting of the Snark he has let his imagination soar, though he keeps strictly to the story; he was utterly familiar with the under-text, that deep ocean (depicted as a blank chart) on which the Snark-hunting vessel sailed directionlessly.

Henry Holiday - The Butcher and the Beaver, from The Hunting of the Snark

His drawings are strangely modern: you quite often see copies of them, taken out of the context where their point lies, illustrating other matter: this seems a pity. Arthur Rackham, notable for his forests and avenues of strange, lopped trees. A few more: Arthur Frost, at his best in Hiawatha’s Photographing – a merciless lampoon of Longfellow’s poem, and in A Sea Dirge. This drawing conveys absolutely the spirit of the poem.

Arthur Frost - A Sea-Dirge

Emily Gertrude Thomson, a polymathic artist born into an academic family, illustrated Three Sunsets, a poetry collection. The title poem, though hardly great literature, was written in 1861 when Carroll was 29. It tells of a romance which begins impulsively but which does not last. The man, having lost his love, becomes so self-absorbed that he does not recognise the woman when she returns to him:

Too rapt in selfish grief to hear,
Even when happiness was near.

Three Sunsets is such an unusual and idiosyncratic work that it may well contain an element of coded autobiography. The theme of unrequited love is strong in this poem, and, indeed, in other poems in this collection. Carroll never married but had a number of close friendships with adult women, including Thomson. Indeed, Carroll and Thomson remained very close friends until his death.

Gertrude Thomson - from Three Sunsets

Gertrude Thomson wrote a brief biography for a women's periodical and drew Carroll's portrait. The biography is wittily written and surprisingly frank. Thomson describes a meeting with a rather unoriginal Oxford matron who begins thus:

"I hear that you spent the other day in Oxford, with Mr. Dodgson."
"Yes, it was a most delightful day."
"It's a very unconventional thing to do."
"We are both very unconventional."
"Mr. Dodgson is not at all a ladies' man."
"He wouldn't be my friend if he were."
"He's a confirmed bachelor."
"So am I; and, what is more, he is old enough to be my father."

Lewis Carroll: a portrait by Gertrude Thomson

And the drawings of Harry Furniss, who, like Tenniel, was cartoonist to Punch or The London Charivari; Furniss’s work does not have the profundity of Tenniel’s.

Harry Furniss - from Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

The man himself could not resist divulging the unimportant details of Lewis Carroll’s personal foibles in The Strand Magazine after the writer’s death.

Lewis Carroll was himself a cartoonist of variable quality. As with his writing, he was as an artist at his best when working below the level of conscious thought. For instance, the demons which assault the domesticity of the family home in his youthful household magazine The Rectory Umbrella are indubitably alive and bubbling with energy. Perhaps they represent the vitality of the unconscious mind.

Lewis Carroll, demons: detail from The Rectory Umbrella


It is, to my mind, the brilliant originality of the Alice books — logical in their waywardness, moral in their denial of a moral weight, instructive in their dismissal of instruction — which makes the author unique in all literature.

I am indebted to Florence Becker Lennon’s Lewis Carroll - a biography, published in 1947 by Cassell, London. Chapter 14, which examines the psychology of humour, and the relationship between humour and anxiety, has many keen insights.

Dr. Marianne Sawicki has an erudite but very readable page on Edmund Husserl; this includes a biography, a bibliography and an introduction to his thought. My links page contains a link to this.

Jenny Woolf has written a biography of Lewis Carroll. It is well researched and well written. Titled The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, it contains a thorough investigation of the social mores of the period in which Carroll lived and within which he wrote. It is difficult to imagine the changes which have taken place between his time and ours.

[1] Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson.

David Wheldon, Bedford, 2000
Updated 10th July 2016


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