For all his academic success and inborn love of teaching, Dodgson's early experience as 'Mathematical Lecturer' at Christ Church—he began his duties in 1855—showed that he lacked a natural gift of communicating to an assembled class.
His lectures, it seems, were dull and uninspiringly delivered. A part-time engagement to teach the boys at St Aldate's School proved no more successful. 'School class again noisy and troublesome—I have not yet acquired the arts of keeping order', runs a diary entry of 1856. Dodgson's shyness and his stammer told heavily against him.
It soon became clear, therefore, that Dodgson's main contribution to the academic life of Oxford would lie in the sphere of research and publication. He conscientiously delivered himself of some thirty works, large and small, on mathematical and logical subjects, which appeared under his own name. But, with the possible exception of Euclid and his Modern Rivals (1879)— Falconer Madan has described this as 'an outstanding example of serious argument cast in an amusing style' —our interest in him as a writer does not derive from the publications of 'Charles L. Dodgson, M.A., Student and Mathematical Lecturer of Christ Church, Oxford'. It is the boy and the man who entertained children with his fantasy, parody and humour whom we love and honour.
Nothing could be more mistaken than to imagine that the first publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 was solely the fruit of a sudden unexpected inspiration. It is true that its origin must be attributed to one particular event—a trip up-river from Oxford with three little girls in 1862—but Dodgson had been unconsciously preparing himself for Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass for twenty years. We have seen that drawings in his Useful and Instructive Poetry, written in 1845, fore-shadowed Humpty Dumpty and the Mouse's Tail, while a Shakespearean skit in that same little book touched upon dreams and visions and the half-state between sleeping and waking, setting them aside, as it were, for future reference. We see him here, and in his later manuscript scrapbooks, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, absorbed ill parody and fantasy and preoccupied by their pictorial illustration. Dr Thomas Fowler, a fellow-member with Dodgson of a mathematical reading party at Whitby in 1854, remembered that he
'used to sit on a rock on the beach, telling stories to a circle of eager young listeners of both sexes'
and believed that 'it was there that Alice" was incubated'. Certainly the poem 'She's all my fancy painted him', which formed the basis of the White Rabbit's 'evidence' at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, was composed in 1854; but it is unlikely that other ingredients of Alice derive from this early date. The importance of the Whitby visit lies in the knowledge that, while he was there, Dodgson was establishing his character as a raconteur and as a free-lance humorous journalist in the pages of the Whitby Gazette. Gradually he began to give literary shape (though not always in writing) to some of those whimsical intimations and impressions which had haunted him since childhood, fantasies that belonged (as we now know) to the Wonderland country and to the other side of the Looking-Glass. For the Alice books were in some degree an autobiographical miscellany, woven together with uncanny skill.
In 1855, when he was twenty-three, Dodgson wrote a four-line stanza in parody of Anglo-Saxon poetry which has become extremely famous:
Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogroves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.
We know these lines now as the opening stanza of 'Jabber-wocky' (Mr Roger Lancdyn Green has shown that there is a strong probability that the rest of the poem was influenced by 'The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains', a translation by Menella Smedley from the German of Fouque (Times Literary Supplement, 1st March 1957). in Through the Looking-Glass. The spelling was a little altered, and Dodgson's original explanations of the words differ considerably from those provided by Humpty Dumpty:
'That's enough to begin with', Humpty Dumpty interrupted: 'there are plenty of hard words there. "Brillig" means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.'
'That'll do very well', said Alice: 'and "slithy"?'
'Well, "slithy" means "lithe and slimy". "Lithe" is the same as "active". You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.'
'I see it now', Alice remarked thoughtfully: 'and what are "roves"?'
'Well, "totwes" are something like badgers—they're something like lizards—and they're something like cork screws.'
'They must be very curious looking creatures.'
'They are that', said Humpty Dumpty; 'also they make their nests under sun-dials - also they live on cheese.'
'And what's to "go" and to "gimble"?'
'To pyre" is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To "gamble" is to make holes like a gimlet.'
'And "the wabe" is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?' said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.
'Of course it is. It's called "wabe" you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it—'
'And a long way beyond it on each side', Alice added.
'Exactly so. Well then, "mimsy" is "flimsy and miserable" (there's another portmanteau for you). And a "borogrove" is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop.'
'And then "mome raths"?' said Alice. 'I'm afraid I'm giving you a great deal of trouble.'
'Well, a "rath" is a sort of green pig: but Rome" I'm not certain about. I think it's short for "from home"—meaning that they'd lost their way, you know.'
'And what does "outgrak" mean?'
'Well "outgribing" is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle....'
In 1856 Dodgson contributed to The Train a parody of Wordsworth called 'Upon the Lonely Moor', which eventually formed the basis of the White Knight's song. And in his diary of February 1856, we find an entry—
'Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life'—a remark which suggests the Cheshire Cat's 'We're all mad here'.
Enough has been said — more perhaps might be said if the diaries of 1858-62 were not missing — to show that, when he wrote Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Lewis Carroll gathered together loose ends of fancy and experience that stretched back many years. Much of this hoarded material appears in the Alice books in the form of humorous verse, especially parody, for Dodgson had made himself proficient in the genre since his childhood. As he developed, he also began to write serious romantic poems which were less successful, being conventional exercises lacking originality and inspiration. Yet many of the passages and prose situations in the Alice books could not have been realized without the help of an instinctive and insistent vein of poetry, associated perhaps with that 'very rebellious mind' which a graphologist has detected in his adolescent hand writing.
We cannot say with any certainty that Dodgson ever fell in love in the adult sense, although we know that his sister believed he was in love with the famous actress Ellen Terry when she was about seventeen. It is unlikely that he ever declared his love, if it existed, or that he ever seriously contemplated marriage with Ellen Terry, for she was then already married (though unhappily). From his early youth, however, he had sought the society of little girls, thus compensating himself, in part, for his inability to form friendships with women of his own age. Children were an escape from sex rather than any sort of conscious satisfaction of it, but they gave him the affection he needed and helped him to fulfil the Platonic and protective love which was characteristic of his nature. His ordeal as a stammerer may largely explain his development; for he found—as others similarly afflicted have found—that he could talk freely and naturally with children and was happiest in their company.
In 1864, before Alice in Wonderland was published, he was writing to George MacDonald's daughter, Mary, letters full of delightful nonsense in no way inferior to that in Alice. Although his letters, like the Alice books, can only be fully appreciated by adults, they are an additional proof that he wrote his nonsense primarily to give pleasure to children. And as for Alice in Wonderland itself, there is no doubt of his source of inspiration. She was Alice Liddell, one of the daughters of Dr H. G. Liddell, the formidable Dean of Christ Church. Dodgson apparently first met her on 25 April 1856, when she was not quite four years old, and he added to his diary entry a comment he reserved for outstanding occasions: 'I mark this day with a white stone.'