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Historical Context

The most interesting historical aspect of the Alice books is, undoubtedly, their remarkable creator.?Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was really the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, England.?Born in 1832, Dodgson spent most of his life in the university; he went to study in Oxford's Christ Church College when he was nineteen, and after receiving his B.A. was quickly made a "lecturer" (a tutor, or professor).? Partly to comply with his job requirements, he became a clergyman, becoming a deacon of the Church of England at twenty-nine.? But he decided not to go on to become a full-fledged priest, and never married, spending the rest of his life as a bachelor mathematician among the towers of Oxford.

So who was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson??He was a strange but internally consistent character.? He had been a brilliant student of mathematics, and became a respected, if not innovative, teacher in that field.?He was obsessed with puzzles and logic games, and published dozens of pamphlets and booklets about them in his lifetime; he was a good-natured but shy person, reported to have been handsome but awkward, deaf in one ear, with a tendency to stammer, and with a habit of talking on and on about his hobbies.? Add to this mix his private life -- his interest in the then-new art of photography, his brilliant gift for nonsense verse, and his enormous love of little girls -- and we begin to see what an interesting figure this Victorian "math geek" was.

Dodgson lived a fairly reclusive, though seemingly happy, life.? He didn't travel much outside the walls of Oxford, and he entertained himself by inventing new ways of solving mathematical puzzles and making friends with little girls.?In the summer of 1862, Dodgson and another Oxford clergyman went on a trip up the river, in a rowboat, with the three young daughters of the dean of their college -- Alice, Lorina, and Edith Liddell.?As usual, Dodgson told the children a story as they went along.? But that afternoon, Alice Liddell requested that he write it down for her, and the rest is history.?In 1865, the revised version of Dodgson's story was published, under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.? By the time Carroll died in 1898, his works were the most popular children's books in England.

There aren't many historical references in Alice in Wonderland (unlike its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, which contains several characters based on English political history).?Still, the very texture of the book -- full of events like tea parties, croquet games, and awkward encounters with royalty -- are so rooted in Victorian English culture that they can seem very foreign to a modern American reader. The book is full of nineteenth-century words (what's a comfit?), and many characters are based on common sayings or ideas of Carroll's day.? (You can find these explained in the section on Characters.)? Moreover, Alice's running conversation with herself tells us about certain aspects of Victorian childhood education: we notice her study of Latin, her (mediocre) knowledge of geography, and the improving moral poems which she had to memorize (and which Carroll enjoyed subverting in his own irreverent versions.)?/span>

But although the flavor of Carroll's culture permeates Alice in Wonderland, the events which framed Lewis Carroll's England in a larger historical context -- the long rule of Queen Victoria, the American Civil War, the prominence of writers such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot -- fail to show up inside Alice's fantasy world, much as Carroll himself preferred to retreat behind the protective walls of Christ Church College in Oxford University.? And probably, to children reading the Alice books with their governesses in their cozy English nurseries, this was just as well.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know?
Plot Summary
Opening Poem
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12



 






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