Lewis Carroll’s Victorian grotesquery (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum B)
There is a rumor Queen Victoria had loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so much she asked the author to dedicate his next work to her. That author was Lewis Carroll, actually the nom de plume of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford lecturer on mathematics. His next book was An Elementary Treatise on Determinants: with their application to simultaneous linear equations and algebraical geometry (1867). This dainty dish was therefore set before the queen, who, one imagines, was unamused. While this tale is entertaining, it’s also easily debunked, as one biographer wrote:¹
He always refused to admit to any but especially privileged persons that he was Lewis Carroll. […] It would have been clean contrary to all his practice to identify himself as author of Alice with the author of his mathematical works.
One of the biggest failings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) show, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, was in conflating Carroll with his alter ego, Dodgson. They effectively drew a straight line from the staid Victorian Oxford don to the production of the Alice books. While this may seem a slight oversight, it actually erases some crucial information about both the author and his work.
First, Dodgson was very much a man of his times. Besides being a mathematics lecturer, he was also an ordained deacon in the Church of England, and was conservative personally and politically as well. As the quote above notes, he maintained a clear separation between his “normal” life and his fanciful writings about the world of Alice. Another of the many who have written about Carroll describes him in his day job as:²
An inveterate publisher of trifles [who] was forever putting out pamphlets, papers, broadsheets, and books on mathematical topics [that] earned him no reputation beyond that of a crotchety, if sometimes amusing, controversialist, a compiler of puzzles and curiosities, and a busy yet ineffective reformer on elementary points of computation and instructional method. In the higher reaches of the subject, he made no mark at all, and has left none since.
And indeed, where Carroll is almost entirely known for his two Alice books, Dodgson published no fewer than 15 works on mathematics, logic, and other serious subjects. None of these received any accolades to speak of, let alone becoming the kind of massive international phenomenon the Carroll books did.
There’s another myth Carrol himself created and which the V&A show perpetuates, that the first Alice book is largely the same as the tale he told Alice Liddell, whose name the protagonist took, and her sisters while they boated and picnicked along the River Isis in Oxfordshire. In fact, the book’s publication and this incident were separated by over three years and with multiple successive versions and expansions. Apart from some of the basic themes, it’s difficult to believe a work of such depth and complexity, running to 27,500 words, was anything like an extemporaneous tale of an afternoon, even if Carroll were some kind of savant.
And despite scientific and technological advancements, the general character of the Victorian era (1837–1901)—and even more so the mid-Victorian heyday of 1851–79—was just as drab as Dodgson outside the Alice books. Culturally, it was a repressive and moralizing time. These societal values came about as industrialization drove the rise of the middle class. As one literary critic noted of the status of art in Victorian England:³
[B]ourgeois capitalism restructures social and political life in such a manner that art and society appear related and yet somehow unrelated.
A different pair of literary critics put a still finer point on it:⁴
When the bourgeois consolidated itself as a respectable and conventional body by withdrawing itself from the popular, it constructed the popular as grotesque otherness. But by this act of withdrawal and consolidation it produced another grotesque, an identity-in-difference which was nothing other than its fantasy relation, its negative symbiosis, with that which it had rejected in its social practice.
It should already be getting clear on which side of the equation of acceptable literature versus grotesque the Alice books fall on, but for comparison, we can look at some of the other children’s literature of the age. Moralism, above all else, was the matter of such works. The fairy tale, which had been introduced into literature in the 18th century, was pressed into new service by the Victorians. The model provided by Hans Christian Andersen earlier in the century, using the form to present protagonists showing virtue and determination in the face of troubles, was an especially favored one. Even this was criticized by some as being too focused on amusement rather than education. Stories for Victorian children focused still more on teaching boys how to become diligent and loyal workers and girls, wise and dutiful wives and mothers.
When urged by his publisher to make some pretense toward moralizing in his first book’s title, Carroll ultimately refused, writing:⁵
Of all these I at present prefer “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In spite of all your “morality”, I want something sensational.
This book, first published in 1865, would come to be more commonly known simply as Alice in Wonderland (AiW). It’s also worth noting while the papers of the time did review Carroll’s later works—and none measured up to AiW in the critics’ eyes—that original work was all but unheralded; a simple announcement of its publication was all that appeared. Regardless of title, however, there could be no disguising the book’s content, as James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature, noted of it:⁶
Alice in Wonderland engages in a […] thoroughgoing frustration of moralism; few works have ever been more subversive of the pieties of childhood.
With this information, we’re able to place the Alices solidly in the realm of the grotesque. And, as it mocks the Victorian-bourgeois status quo, it’s all the more marginal to that milieu. None of Carroll’s classical, historical, and mathematical references, his puns and witticisms directed at the highly educated, can save it from this categorization. Two elements in particular cement the works as grotesque: nonsense and satire.
Nonsense literature was clearly an offshoot of literary otherness. However, it’s not without precedents, even from ancient times. Horace, for example, in the first century BCE recommends it thus:⁷
Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.
Mingle a little foolishness with your prudence;
It’s pleasant sometimes to be unwise.
But the form truly blossomed in Victorian England with the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear, and then later, the works of Carroll. This, again, can only be seen as a reaction to the repressive culture of the times:⁸
Nonsense literature charts the fear of meaninglessness which bubbles below the surface of Victorian culture, with its terror of godlessness and anarchy, and it does so by distorting and exaggerating precisely those new ideas and images which most shocked and disturbed the contemporary world view.
In part, the nonsense in Carroll’s work is a spillover from Dodgson’s professional realm:⁹
This is the […] insight of a logician who appreciates the limits of his own speciality. When the characters at the mad tea party demand that Alice speak in logically rigorous language, they absurdly fail to appreciate that the conventions governing everyday social life are fundamentally arbitrary. When logic is applied outside its proper sphere, it can seem mere bullying—which is what Alice encounters in most of her attempts at conversation.
This misapplication of logic joins puns, parodies, strange anthropomorphic creatures, and usually inanimate objects imbued with life, so that:¹⁰
The effect is “nonsense” not as sheer gibberish, but as a concerted comic disruption of ordinary sense. In Wonderland, Alice experiences the power of rules in everyday life—the rules of language, social conduct, legal institutions—precisely through their subversion, which makes her experience akin to playing a game whose rules have been withheld, or are constantly changing in unpredictable ways.
Some of this, of course, plays into the satirical element of Carroll’s works. A parody can simply use the form of another work, but more typically, it’s meant as a commentary on that work. Especially in AiW, other contemporary literature for children, particularly of a moralizing kind, is targeted. For example, Carroll turns Isaac Watts’ tedious and preachy “Against Idleness and Mischief”, now remembered via AiW if at all—essentially a verse praising the industry of bees and informing us idle hands are the very workshop of the devil, and apparently required knowledge for British children of the time—into this sublime piece of topsy-turvy:¹¹
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
Nor does Carroll shy away from lampooning the most sacred Victorian institutions, including politics, the legal system, and the monarchy, among others. Indeed, Alice’s many size changes are a metaphor for one of AiW’s central concerns: how a girl can fit into this society whose rules are both strict and arbitrary.
Just as with nonsense literature, satire reached new levels in the Victorian era, driven in part by the growth of education and the middle class, which led to an explosion of literacy—90% for both men and women by 1870—and with it, engagement with politics. This was embodied in particular by Punch magazine, launched in 1841. And the fact that Carroll chose John Tenniel, the satirical magazine’s chief cartoonist, to illustrate AiW is by no means coincidental.
Carroll even somehow manages to satirize satire itself, as Adams points out thus:¹²
Of course the very phrase “make fun of” reminds us that aggression is an integral part of humor. It was Carroll’s genius to discover this impulse in the heart of Victorian domesticity.
One can see why Dodgson let only a few close personal friends and relations know he was behind the Alice books, and would even deny it if asked directly. The works were an act of rebellion in an age of conformity, which reflected rather poorly on a serious and respectable member of the Victorian bourgeoisie, an educator and ecclesiastic.
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- T. B. Strong, “Mr. Dodgson: Lewis Carroll at Oxford”, The Times, January 1932.
- Peter Heath, The Philosopher’s Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, 1974.
- Kathy Alexis Psomiades, “‘The Lady of Shalott’ and the Critical Fortunes of Victorian Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, 2000.
- Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 1986.
- Lewis Carroll to Tom Taylor, 10 June 1864, quoted in Annemarie Bilclough, “Creating Alice”, Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser, 2020.
- James Adams. “Literature for Children”, A History of Victorian Literature, 2009.
- Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Carmina (Odes), VI.12, 13 BCE. My translation.
- Jackie Wullschläger, “Victorian Images of Childhood”, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A.Milne, 1995.
- Adams, 2009.
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.
- Adams, 2009.