Monday, November 12, 2012

Lewis Carroll: his creations, his illustrators, and his biographers

As reported in the Telegraph, "An 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' chess board, hand-crafted in 1875 by the 'Alice novels' illustrator Sir John Tenniel, has been discovered and 150 limited-edition replicas made." Slide show here.

One of the most recent illustrators of this enchanting series is Rodney Matthews. Left and below are several images from his vision of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Not only Lewis Carroll's books, but his persona continue to fascinate. According to Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was nearly titled Alice's Hour in Elfland and its author—a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford—almost called himself Edgar U.C. Westhill. It's hard to decide which of these would have been worse. Once she tumbles down the rabbit-hole, Alice encounters many strange creatures and, according to the sinister Cheshire Cat, all of them are 'mad,' but none of them are elves.
Happily, too, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson rejected that stodgy anagram and instead Latinized Charles to Carolus and Lutwidge to Louis, then fiddled a bit to produce the now immortal penname: Lewis Carroll.
Alice in Wonderland (1865), as it is commonly abbreviated, and its darker, even more brilliant sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871), are the two most translated works of English literature after the plays of Shakespeare. And well they should be. By avoiding didacticism and sentimentality, these playful, dreamlike books inaugurated modern children's literature. As readers the world over know, they are charming and fantastical, a bit frightening in places and, most of all, deeply enigmatic. Are they pure nonsense? Satires of Victorian eminences? A child's-eye view of grown-up behavior? Or Freudian displacements of their author's troubled sexuality?
More than anything else, though, Lewis Carroll's masterpieces are concerned with logic and language, with the overall slipperiness of words and the instability of their meanings. 'as if he were trying which word sounded best.' To know Alice in Wonderland only as a Disney cartoon or through the Gothic vision of Tim Burton—as appealing as each is, in its own way—is to allow visual spectacle to overwhelm much of the semantic complexity and verbal deliciousness of the books themselves. 
Dirda makes these observations in his review of a Carroll biography by Jenny Woolf called  The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland. Among the book's new nuggets is the suggestion that Alice Liddell's older sister had an unreciprocated crush on Carroll, which caused him to distance himself from the family. The author has also uncovered the fact that Carroll donated a sizable portion of his income to to charities that assisted "distressed women and wayward girls." In discussing Carroll's fascination with Alice Liddell and her ilk, Dirda points out that "Victorian mores differed radically from our own. People were deeply sentimental about angelic little girls"—although to my mind, the success of the Alice books rests on her feistiness and truculence rather than any angelic aspects (and on the author's delightful satire of Victorian sentimentality itself).
Dirda also puts in a good word for the obscure late fantasy Sylvie and Bruno, illustrations from which appear below.
... a two-volume hodgepodge of fairy romance, poetry, philosophical reflection, tedium, saccharine cutesiness and a bizarre experimentalism involving three levels of reality. So far as I can tell, only the French seem to like the book, but everything about it, except for Bruno's twee baby talk, sounds appealingly modern, not to say—dread word— postmodern.


  1. The Matthews illustrations are wonderful--the Cheshire Cat exactly as I imagined him.
    Dodgson was also a photographer, and his pictures of little girls would likely cause a modern cop to confiscate his hard drive. But the repression seemed complete; his behavior without known scandal.
    It wouldn't be the first time that repression was the driving force behind creativity.

  2. Wow I would love to get my hands on THE CHESS BOARD, the artistry of the board is so complex and detailed. I wonder how much a replica board is going for?

  3. I couldn't agree more. Alice was feisty and free-spirited. Though a touch angelic, I like to think of her as adventurous and tough.