The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England. Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood. Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.
Dodgson never married nor had children of his own. However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls. One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous. Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years). Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith. They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories. He was always happy to comply. On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.
As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories. This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down. Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell. Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication. The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since. In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno. Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work. The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.
Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked on the video before reading, I’m not invoking, nor am I exemplifying, Godwin’s Law. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
I began writing about Philip Pullman’s series of novels His Dark Materials with a discussion of what I believe to be the wrong reasons for dismissing, criticizing, or derogating it. Many, especially in Christian circles, have dismissed it as a piece of atheist propaganda meant to destroy children’s belief in God. Pullman, in essays about C. S. Lewis, has made the counter claim that Lewis, in his Narnia books, was propagandizing to bring children into the Christian fold. My contention was that whether or not either one of them was right was beside the point in terms of the literary merit of either series of books. What I want to do briefly here is to explore that blurry boundary between writing with a passionate aim and propagandizing, and how these relate to art.
To some extent art is about technique and skill. The very word “technique” comes from the Greek technēs, very inadequately translated as “art”. It is better translated as “skill” or “craft” or “art” in the sense of the “art” of doing something. The word for builder or carpenter, tektōn (the word, by the way, which in the New Testament describes the professions of Joseph, husband of Mary, and of Jesus of Nazareth, and which doesn’t necessarily imply what we call carpentry), is related to technēs. Without skill or craftsmanship, without having mastery of one’s craft and doing a good job at it, one cannot create art, be it painting a picture, carving a statue, building a good house, building a stone wall, writing a novel, singing a song, or making a movie. Read the rest of this entry