Authors > 150 Years of Alice In Wonderland – In The Shadow of the Dreamchild


4th July 1862 is traditionally the date of the Golden Afternoon on which Charles Dodgson and his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed Alice Liddell and her two sisters along the Isis, from Folly Bridge to Godstow village, Oxford. During the trip, Dodgson told the girls a story which was the genesis of what became one of the most famous and celebrated stories the world has ever known.

On 26 November 1864 Dodgson presented to Alice an immaculately handwritten copy of an early version of the book with his own illustrations then called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and eventually published in facsimile in 1886. At the same time, he was working on expanding the story for professional publication and had already, in 1863, allowed it to be shown unfinished to the publisher Alexander Macmillan. The book, now entitled Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, was finally published in 1865 with the famous illustrations by Sir John Tenniel.

“Leach’s achievement is considerable, and it cannot be ignored.” Geoffrey Heptonstall, Contemporary Review

tenniel_alice-pig_the_nursery_alice_1890150 years after its first publication is as good a time as any to re-examine the origin of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and the mythology and deliberate obfuscation that veils its mysterious author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and his literary alter ego Lewis Carroll. With his two Alice books Dodgson achieved a phenomenal literary success, but with it came an unwelcome celebrity. He deliberately self-mythologized and encouraged the public and critics to participate in this act of imagination. He destroyed crucial parts of his diaries and personal writings, and his heirs continued to suppress some aspects of what remained, whilst destroying further papers and collaborating in the creation of what author Karoline Leach has dubbed the Carroll Myth.

“At last a book with something new and surprising to say about Lewis Carroll.” Peter Lewis, Daily Mail

Critical study of Carroll/Dodgson and his work is a crowded and hugely competitive field. Hundreds of books have been published on the subject; careers have been built, and with them unassailable “truths” established by a hierarchy of literary critics whose pronouncements no one dared or even thought to question. Karoline Leach’s book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild first published in 1999 by Peter Owen offered a robust challenge to some of these “established truths” by critically re-examining Dodgson’s life and writings. Whilst the book inaugurated a critical reappraisal of Carroll and garnered enthusiastic support from some quarters, it has tended to polarize critics, particularly those whose cherished myths were being demolished and whose works did not stand up to Leach’s forensic scrutiny.

“After Karoline Leach’s book Carroll studies can never be quite the same again . . . it should certainly be read by anyone concerned with Dodgson’s life and work.” Lewis Carroll Review

tenniel-alice_drink_mePart of Dodgson’s purpose in self-mythologizing behind his Lewis Carroll pen name was to deflect scrutiny of the rather heterodox aspects of his life. He was a theatre-loving bachelor interested in science and spirtuality who, despite it being a condition of his residency at Christ Church College that he should be ordained as a Christian priest, refused and, for reasons as yet unknown, was given exemption by Alice’s father Dean Liddell. Far from being exclusively interested in little girls, his main interest seems to have been his many adult women friends, both married and single. It was to avoid prurient scandal about these adult consensual relationships that Dodgson himself promoted the idea that he liked “all children, except little boys” (he actually photographed and befriended both genders). To be friendly with children was seen as above reproach, innocent, saintly and angelic, and Dodgson’s admirers and heirs colluded with his deception a deception that, for a later era understandably anxious about and attuned to hints pædophilia, was later to backfire spectacularly.

“It’s clear that he was neither saint nor pervert. I welcome this work of reassessment, though it is by no means a whitewash, and I believe that many lovers of Carroll will be similarly relieved.” Patrick Skene, The Spectator

One of Lewis Carroll's own drawings of Alice from the manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground

One of Lewis Carroll’s own drawings of Alice from the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground

When Karoline Leach wrote her book in the late 1990s, it had, through conventional Carroll studies and biographies, become axiomatic that Dodgson was, at best, a repressed pædophile. Leach marshals the evidence to show that this assertion is unproven and based on multiple misunderstandings and a perverse form of wishful thinking. Whilst many of Dodgson’s child photographs are challenging and suspicious to modern eyes, Leach and other modern critics argue that they fit well within the contemporary genre of Victorian child photography. We simply cannot know whether Dodgson was or was not either a repressed or an active pædophile, and to conclude that he was either of these is to fly in the face of logic and the available evidence. Mysteries remain about the life and personality of Dodgson, and we should be cautious about filling in these lacunae with unsubstantiated speculation from our uniquely 21st century vantage point and concerns.

Dodgson/Carroll himself put his case in an 1896 letter to Mrs R.L. Poole, the mother of a girl he had recently entertained: “I wonder whether you, encouraged by the circumstance that your daughter has returned alive, will brave the ogre’s den, and come and dine with me? Child-society is very delightful to me: but I confess that grown-up society is much more interesting! In fact, most of my ‘child’-friends (specially those who come to say with me at Eastbourne) are now about 25.” (The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll, edited by Morton N. Cohen. Cohen is, ironically, the Carroll scholar of whom Leach is most critical for accepting unproven speculation as ‘facts’.) Carroll was 64 at the time, and died less than two years later.

“We are nearer now than before, I think, to the man who wrote Alice.” David McKie, The Guardian

tenniel_cheshire-cat_the_nursery_aliceKaroline Leach’s pioneering book remains an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to see behind a century-and-half of mythology surrounding the creator of Alice. It’s a compelling, startling read, challenging the reader to examine ideas and ‘facts’ long taken for granted. It’s a somewhat frustrating measure of the book’s success that many of its ideas and discoveries have now entered the mainstream, often talked of in documentaries and articles, but without crediting author Karoline Leach and her astonishing, iconoclastic book. But perhaps she can at least take comfort in the critical Cheshire Cat she threw amongst the pigeons and in the fact that a Hollywood film inspired by her book is currently in production.

James Nye

© Text James Nye 2015

First published in 1999 as In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll, in 2009 Karoline Leach revised the book for a new edition with a new subtitle: The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll. It is this edition that we reprint now in this commemorative edition to celebrate of 150 years of Alice. To order a copy from AmazonUK, click here: In the Shadow of the Dreamchild.

For more information on Karoline Leach and the Carroll Myth, visit the book’s website:

Here is Carroll’s prefatory poem to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. And here’s to many more Golden Afternoons:

A tall tale

A tall tale

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict “to begin it”—
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”—
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast—
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

Lewis Carroll, 1865


This entry was posted in Authors, Latest News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.