It’ll be November soon, the month in which Alice’s Adventures Underground was begun and (two looong years later) finally delivered to its intended recipient, Alice Liddell. It’s one of the most myth-drenched areas of Lewis Carroll’s life. So it does no harm to use the upcoming anniversary to take another look. (By the way, for those who know what I’m talking about, I think of the image on the right as being captioned “trying to engage in rational argument on an e-list.” )
Anyhoo…The creation of Alice’s Adventures has always – until recent times – been presented as something ‘ Lewis Carroll’ did entirely and spontaneously and willingly for the little girl. Indeed, Charles Dodgson himself later defined it that way when, in the Theatre magazine many years after the event, he claimed he wrote the story “for a child I loved”. Though the fact he added the rather odd qualification “I cannot remember any other motive” might alert us that a little bit of creative ‘amnesia’ is going on. Maybe by then, some twenty years after the event, that was how he actually remembered it. But the truth, while not exactly an entire contradiction, was a lot more ambiguous
Let’s begin with a univeral constant though. One thing that is definitely true – Lewis Carroll did begin writing Underground because Alice Liddell asked him to, in fact his diary records her request in July 1862. But this is where the Myth and the Reality tend to part ways. The Mythic version goes on to have him writing down the entire story the very night that Alice asked him to do so, or at least very soon afterwards (chronologies can tend to be vague in these accounts). It has the story finished inside a few weeks/months, and the book lying on a table at the Deanery where it chances to be seen by a family friend, who urges Mrs Liddell to get a shy and reluctant Carroll to publish the book. Hence, the story goes, an unassuming, unwordly Don stumbles into immortality, and all because he loved a child.
It’s a lovely tale, to which, as the glorious Fielding (I never tire of quoting it) says, I have only one objection – namely that it is not true. Or at least it’s not the whole truth. It’s not even nothing but the truth. This is what really happened.
- Summer of 1862. Charles Dodgson is telling the ‘Alice’ story to the three famous sisters, Ina, Alice and Edith Liddell, while on their famous river-trips. Indications are the girls loved the tale and were always begging for new instalments, but that Dodgson was less enthusiastic (on one occasion he calls it the ‘interminable’ Alice’s Adventures, and is peeved because he wants to sing them a new song he just made up instead). At around the same time Alice asks him to write her story down. He promises he will do so.
- July 1862. He writes what he calls the ‘headers’ of the story on a train journey to London with the Liddell family (OT – why is he travelling to London with the Liddells? One of those things he never explains) .
- July-November 1862. He apparently forgets all about the story for about four months.
- Nov 1862. He meets Alice Liddell by chance in the quad at Christ Church, and that evening notes in his diary that he has started writing the story (we can assume it is because she has reminded him of her request).
- Feb 1863. The story is finished, but pictures not done. He gives the MS – not to Alice - but to George MacDonald – best selling children’s author and close friend. He doesn’t say why he does this, but I think we can deduce that, while writing it, he’s begun to think it might have a commercial life and is canvassing opinions from writers and their children.
- May 1863. Mrs GM tells him he should publish the book. Alice Liddell still has not received her MS, 10 months after asking for it. Dodgson is still, intermittently working on the pictures and ticking himself off for taking so long.
- October 1863. He meets Alexander MacMillan. His diary doesn’t say why, but subsequent events make it obvious he is talking to him about a possible publishing contract. Meanwhile Alice still does not have her book, 15 months after asking for it.
- December 1863. He is trying to get an introduction to Tenniel to ask him to do the illustrations for Wonderland. Alice still has not received her book, 17 months after asking for it.
- Sep 1864. Wonderland is being readied for publication. He finally finishes the pics on Underground, 2 years and 2 months after Alice asked for her book. But Alice still doesn’t receive it for another two months.
- November 1864. Alice finally gets her book, mailed to her by Dodgson, even though she only lives across the quad. She has been waiting 28 months to receive it, and for 21 of those months it has been sitting in Dodgson’s study, pictures unfinished, or passed round to the MacDonalds, to Tenniel, to MacMillan, and even to his friends the Ottleys, and, of course, developed and adapted in to Wonderland, which is now itself almost ready and will be published in just six months.
This is the blurry, mundane truth. He didn’t write it down all at once just to please a child he loved, for all that Dodgson conveniently “couldn’t remember” otherwise. He wrote it after a longish delay, and apparently rather reluctantly to begin with, and, before it was even finished he had begun thinking about publishing it in some form. The story of the book lying on the table in the Deanery and being accidentally spotted is a piece of charming apocrypha. There’s no record of any such event in Dodgson’s papers. Alice didn’t see her book before Nov 1864, and by that time Dodgson was already well into publishing Wonderland for himself. He didn’t need nudging into professional authorship. He was eager for it already. And why not? He deserved that much.
Does all this lessen the meaning of his work? Of course not. ‘Alice’ is much too powerful to need some anemic mythology to prop it up. Does it even mean he didn’t love Alice Liddell? No, of course not. He clearly did love her and her sisters. It just means he was a human being, not an impossible, idealized Saint Lewis. When he made Underground the basis of Wonderland, and when he gave that creative process priority over his gift to the ‘child he loved’, he was, unquestionably being rather selfish, and I think he knew it, which is why he reinvented the creation-story inside his own head, and why – probably – he preferred to mail the belated gift to the child, rather than have to explain why it had taken him so long.
But I think he should have spared himself the self-deception, because he didn’t need it. There was nothing wrong with what he did. Genius requires a little selfishness. And the fact is, if he’d been entirely unselfish at that moment, Alice might have gotten her book on time, but Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would probably never have been written at all, and that would change the landscape of the modern world more than we can ever want to imagine. His small human selfishness reaped a huge and generous reward. So, I think we can forgive him – though I’m not sure Alice Liddell ever did
But that’s another story isn’t it.