On 4 July 1862, a shy young Oxford mathematics don with a taste for puzzles and whimsy named Charles Dodgson rowed the three daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, five miles up the Thames to Godstow. On the way, to entertain his passengers, who included a 10-year-old named Alice, with whom he was strangely infatuated, Dodgson began to improvise the "Adventures Under Ground" of a bored young girl, also named Alice. Wordplay, logical conundrums, parody and riddles: Dodgson surpassed himself, and the girls were enchanted by the nonsense dreamworld he conjured up. The weather for this trip was reportedly "overcast", but those on board would remember it as "a golden afternoon".
This well-known story marks the beginning of perhaps the greatest, possibly most influential, and certainly the most world-famous Victorian English fiction, a book that hovers between a nonsense tale and an elaborate in-joke. Just three years later, extended, revised, and retitledAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, now credited to a pseudonymous Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (its popular title) was about to become the publishing sensation of Christmas 1865. It is said that among the first avid readers of Alice were Queen Victoria and the young Oscar Wilde. A second volume about Alice (Through the Looking-Glass) followed in 1871. Together these two short books (Wonderland is barely 28,000 words long) became two of the most quoted and best-loved volumes in the English canon.
What is the secret of Carroll's spell? Everyone will have their own answer, but I want to identify three crucial elements to the magic of Alice. First, and most emphatically, this is a story about a quite bad-tempered child that is not really for children, while at the same time addressing childish preoccupations. (Who am I? is a question Alice repeatedly vexes herself with.) Next, it has a dreamlike unreality peopled with some of the most entertaining characters in English literature. The White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat and the King and Queen of Hearts are simply the most memorable of a cast from which every reader will find his or her favourite. Third, Carroll possessed an unforced genius for the most brilliant nonsense and deliciously mad dialogue. With his best lines ("What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?") he is never less than intensely quotable.
As well as the enchantment of Carroll's prose, both volumes of Alice contain numerous songs and poems, many of them parodies of popular Victorian originals, which have passed into folklore, like Alice herself: You Are Old, Father William; The Lobster Quadrille; Beautiful Soup; and (from Through the Looking-Glass) Jabberwocky; The Walrus and the Carpenter; and The White Knight's Song.
Finally, for 21st-century readers, it is now almost obligatory to point out that these books are pre-Freudian, with a strange, bruised innocence whose self-interrogations also evoke the tormented banality of psychoanalysis.
A note on the text
On 26 November 1865, the Reverend Charles Dodgson's tale was published by the house of Macmillan as Alice's Adventures in Wonderlandby Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel, with whom Dodgson had a most uneasy relationship. Indeed, the first printing, some 2,000 copies, was withdrawn after Tenniel objected to the print quality of his drawings. A new edition, released in December of the same year, but carrying a new date, 1866, was rushed out for the Christmas market.
Later, the discarded first edition was sold with Dodgson's approval to the New York publisher, Appleton. The title page of the American Alicebecame an insert cancelling the original Macmillan title page of 1865, and bearing the New York publisher's imprint with the date 1866. Here, too, the first print run sold quickly. First editions are now rare and highly prized. Both Alice books have never been out of print. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into about 100 languages, including classical Latin.
Other essential Carroll Titles
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871); The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits (1876).
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