Lewis’s Adventures in, Well, Just About Every Field of Human Endeavour You Can Think Of

This was written for the Irish Independent a little while back, to mark the 125th anniversary of the death of Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland…

Alice in Wonderland, for me, is one of those classic works of children’s literature that are better appreciated by adults. You’d presume Lewis Carroll, with that strong sense of playful, nonsensical humour, would enjoy the irony.

The first time I read it – aged 10 or 11, at a guess – I’m fairly sure I found it too wordy, too weird, too Victorian. So unimpressed was this younger self, indeed, that I didn’t even realise until years later that, of course, it’s actually two books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Years later I reread, while aimlessly riding the Tube for hours on a zero-budget trip to London, and loved it. The Alice stories are like being patched into a direct line to the subconscious mind of a child, totally unfiltered: naïve and irrepressible, bursting with life, madcap and maddening – and fascinating.

Carroll, whose 125th anniversary was on January 14th, created something unique and immortal with these books, first published in the 1860s and 1870s, as well as famous nonsense poems such as Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark. They were, and remain, great.

The Alice universe is so strange, surreal, dreamlike; it not only makes no sense, but revels in that fact. Hear Humpty Dumpty declare, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”, and you could be listening to the hilariously tortuous thought-processes of the average child.

The Red Queen screeching “Off with their heads!” is a toddler tantrum writ large. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is helter-skelter youthful insanity turned up loud. The Cheshire Cat coolly fades away as though he’s a kid who’s lost interest in whatever they were doing, leaving behind only that insouciant grin…for which all sins are invariably forgiven by parents.

Through it all Alice stumbles, baffled and annoyed, pleading for calm and rationality, tearing her hair out at these ridiculous, fantastic little people and their babble and bedlam.

They drive you crazy – but at the end of the day, would you really want to be anywhere else? The world of work, bills and commuting seems pale and boring compared to the magical mayhem created by the “enfants terribles” of our familial Wonderlands.

Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, was an interesting man himself, not always in a good way. There’s a bit of an Irish connection: his great-grandfather of the same name was Church of Ireland Bishop of Ferns & Ossory, and later Elphin. (As for that pseudonym: Carroll, of course, is a Gaelic version of Carolus, or Charles.)

He was the quintessential Renaissance man: author and illustrator, photographer, mathematician, academic and teacher, inventor.

Carroll took Holy Orders and became a country parson. He earned a double-first degree in maths at Oxford and worked there for decades. He created the “word ladder” puzzle, and an early form of Scrabble.

He attended Rugby School, bastion of imperial establishment machismo, where – in surprising contrast to our image of a stammering, effete dreamer – Carroll was “remembered as a boy who knew well how to use his fists in defence of a righteous cause”; in this case, protecting younger lads from bullying.

He invented a case for postage-stamps, a stylus for writing in the dark, a tricycle steering-wheel, new forms of money order and new rules for tennis, a double-sided adhesive strip and at least two ciphers.

Carroll was a member of the Society for Psychical Research and apparently believed in mind-reading. He also took lots of portrait photos, of landscapes, dogs, skeletons, Michael Faraday and Lord Tennyson…and, frequently, nude young girls, which posthumously led to claims of serious impropriety, still debated by historians and critics.

There’s even a neuropsychological condition named after his famous heroine. Alice in Wonderland syndrome is “a form of migraine aura” which affects how the brain perceives size.

What a life: that’s just a sample. Unlike most authors, whose workaday existences are in inverse-proportion to the magic or mystery of their work, Carroll’s seems to have been larger-than-fiction.

He could almost be a character from one of his own books: “Lewis’s Adventures in, Well, Just About Every Field of Human Endeavour You Can Think Of.” Until someone writes that one, the Alice stories will more than suffice.


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