Wednesday, September 7, 2011

November 26, 1864 – "Alice's Adventures Under Ground" Manuscript Burned

In one of the more dramatic moments of logician Charles Dodgson's fairly private life, he attempted to deliver a handwritten manuscript to his young neighbor Alice Liddell as an early Christmas present. He was caught in a sudden rain shower and approached the Liddell family's home drenched but received graciously. As he was changing into dry clothes offered by Henry Liddell, an argument began. The source of the argument is unknown, though the two had disagreed on a number of occasions on college politics, and Dodgson left the Liddells' in his own clothes. Mr. Liddell proceeded to throw Dodgson's manuscript into the fire and comment, "Children need lessons from moral men."

Dodgson had met the Liddell family when Henry came as dean to Christ Church, Oxford, where Dodgson studied and would serve as a lecturer in mathematics. He suffered a stammer, which is believed to have been what kept him from entering the priesthood. Dodgson and the Liddell family became close, with Dodgson befriending the Liddells' boy Henry and their daughters Lorina, Edith, and Alice. As a family friend, Dodgson would become close to the children in the family, whom he would tell stories, have picnics, and use as models in his photography hobby. The friendship came to Dodgson's advantage in 1862 when he attempted an appeal to halt his taking of priestly orders, interrupting a lifelong plan of his mother's that he would enter the priesthood. As dean, Liddell noted that he should take the appeal to the college ruling body, which might only grant the appeal on grounds of expelling Dodgson. Instead, however, Liddell made the decision himself, allowing Dodgson to end his path to priesthood and remain at Christ Church as a mathematician.

On July 4, 1862, while boating with Mr. Liddell and the girls, Dodgson would tell a series of stories about a girl named "Alice" (in honor of, but not based upon, ten-year-old Alice Liddell) who fell down a rabbit hole and experienced many strange adventures. The Liddells encouraged Dodgson to write out his story, and he obliged, working on it for two years before delivering the manuscript to Alice. In the meantime, Dodgson and Liddells had a falling out. His diary through this time had numerous pages torn out, but it is known that, on June 27, 1863, Mrs. Liddell approached Dodgson on a topic that had been the source of much gossip. Notes suggest it was a questionable relationship, either with the governess or “Ina”, referring to either the oldest girl Lorina or her mother, also Lorina. Whatever the subject, the problem was enough to spur a falling out between Dodgson and the family, which lasted perhaps a year. The problem seemed to have faded enough for Dodgson to present his manuscript to Alice for the upcoming Christmas.

However, a renewed argument with the head of the house (and dean of his college) would cause Dodgson to storm out of the Liddells’ forever. While sometimes threatening to quit his position, Dodgson remained at Christ Church, lecturing and writing in the fields of mathematics and logic. He wrote stories, but none were published more widely than a few relations and acquaintances. Dodgson was encouraged to publish his Alice tales by friend and fantasy novelist George MacDonald, who had read a partial manuscript to his children, but Dodgson was through with it. Instead, he focused on his logic puzzles and completed several important theses on argument up to his death in 1898.

Meanwhile, Victorian children’s literature would remain “moral”, as Mr. Liddell had mentioned. Some scandalous material was produced, but censors were quick to keep publishers respectable. The moral constraints even continued across the Atlantic as L. Frank Baum rewrote his American fairytales to include necessary words of wisdom for children not appreciating home, such as his hero Dylan Gale. J. M. Barrie would be refused on his first draft of Peter and Wendy from his play Peter Pan, the editor saying that children needed deeper moral lessons and explanations that the ambivalence of the ethics of Wonderland would only lead to loneliness and destruction. Even into the 1960s, animated cartoons for children would carry lessons such as the moral responsibility of standing up to predators in Tom and Jerry, although cartoonist Walt Disney defied any sort of logic in his early “Silly Symphonies” of the 1930s, art simply for the sake of enjoyment.


In reality, the manuscript was embraced, and in 1865 Charles Dodgson (as “Lewis Carroll”) published Alice in Wonderland to wide enjoyment, though it was critically snubbed. The silliness of his stories would inspire writers such as L. Frank Baum (whose Dorothy came as a recognition of Dodgson’s female protagonist), J. M. Barrie, and many more with the notion that stories can be simply fun.

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