Stick to your linear algebra, Charles Dodgson — and calling yourself Lewis Carroll won’t make any difference, you’ll never succeed as a writer!

lewis carroll MS PAGE 20150626ALICE-slide-RJ8U-jumbo

A page of the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland

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Some of us would pay far more for an explanation from neuroscience, some day, of how Lewis Carroll’s brain worked, than to satisfy the more conventional curiosity about Albert Einstein’s noddle. Glance at the manuscript page at the top of this post. Who, writing in a hand so obedient to the laws of tidiness, is ever capable of wildness in storytelling more easily explained by an existence of Bohemian excess – say, getting through a case of good Burgundy every week, then smashing all the bottles — than by this writer’s mousey actual life, including twenty-six years as an Oxford theoretical mathematician of the first rank?

The most imaginative story in the English canon of which there are near-daily reminders, in the madness of reality, had to be rescued from becoming a discarded publishing artefact. As either Charles Dodgson or – his pen name – Lewis Carroll, the author would certainly have trouble publishing himself, today. As noted in a recent review of an exhibition in New York’s Morgan Library, built around the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, he was ‘socially maladroit’. Goodbye, social media! — as a helper or crutch.

Some other points in Randy Kennedy’s witty report worth a special mention:

• An editor had to rule out the first — wondrous — pseudonym the author chose: Edgar Cuthwellis (though admittedly, referring to oneself as ‘post-Gutenberg’ is far worse).

• These were some other titles he mulled before a friend steered him towards the one we know and love: Alice’s Doings in Elf-Land, Alice Among the Goblins, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and Alice’s Hour in Elf-Land.

• John Tenniel, one of the most celebrated and successful illustrators of the day, who accepted the publisher’s commission of a set of pictures for a story by an obscure Oxford don with no track record in literature, rejected all twenty copies of the first edition of the book in 1865 – because it was badly printed. Though Macmillan had accepted the book after an editor’s first inspection of the manuscript, it was Carroll and not his publisher who paid the large sum of money for its reprinting.

• It was Tenniel, not the author, who chose the principal characters in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ poem in Alice. Carroll had been toying with other possibilities – a walrus and a butterfly – or baronet.

• Sadly – or so it seems to us – the too-powerful Tenniel also persuaded Carroll (whose original drawings we actually prefer) to drop a chapter in Alice’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, a segment whose working title was ‘The Wasp in a Wig’. Why? Because he was incapable of drawing a being he considered ‘altogether beyond the appliances of art’. Bah: pure humbug. If only Dali had been hatched, by then: he could have drawn a wigged-out wasp in his sleep.

 

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