A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear [page: front cover]

The influences on Alice in Wonderland

Hannah Gabrielle, Head of Content and Community at the British Library, looks at some of the literary and social influences on Lewis Carroll that led to the much loved children's novel Alice in Wonderland.

Much time has been spent documenting the psychedelic aspects of Alice in Wonderland, from the literal magic mushroom that helps Alice regain her stature. From the distorted scale of Alice following instructions to ‘Eat me’ or ‘drink me’ and subsequently shrinking down to diminutive size or growing to the size of a house. Sanity is questioned and debated by the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat. Self-knowledge appears to be the most important characteristic eschewed by the caterpillar, but can we know what the literary influences were that led to the creation of Alice?

Lewis Carroll owned a copy of The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams, whose year of publication coincided with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In it, author Frank Seafield presents a history of dreams that attempts to explain their causes, effects and meanings. Clearly Carroll’s interest in dream theory was fed and developed through his personal reading that evidences a keen interest in human psychology.

The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams

The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams [page: vol. I p. 56]

Lewis Carroll owned a copy of this book exploring and discussing dream theory and human psychology.  

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Above all the story is playful, being rife with wordplay, riddles and an abundance of healthy nonsense. Despite his success as an author Carroll, real name Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, was first and foremost a mathematician. In fact, he taught at Christ Church College, Oxford, specialising in geometry, algebra and logic. This is revealed by his releasing a book in 1887 entitled The Game of Logic in which he aims to teach the fundamentals of logic by employing a game structure. Though called a ‘game’, it is in the sense of creative mental play that is important, rather than being a contest to win.

Lewis Carroll's The Game of Logic

Lewis Carroll's The Game of Logic [page: back [board in envelope at back]]

Lewis Carroll published several books for children’s about logic and mathematics, such as The Game of Logic, complete with board and counters, 1887.

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Further evidence of Carroll’s love of mental play with mathematics is his book A Tangled Tale, a collection of short humorous puzzles, called ‘knots’. The puzzles originally featured in a monthly magazine published in the early 1880s. Each knot is described in story form, then summarised as a maths problem.

A Tangled Tale by Lewis Carroll

A Tangled Tale by Lewis Carroll [page: frontispiece]

Lewis Carroll produced A Tangled Tale, a collection of ten puzzles that require reading and logical thought to solve.  

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Another characteristic of the text indicative of Carroll’s playfulness is the satire in Alice. The book mocks popular Victorian literature, such as Robert Sothey’s ‘The Old Man’s Comfort’. Carroll rewrites the poem taking an absurdist approach to the exchange between the old man and the younger, renaming his version 'You Are Old, Father William'.

'The Old Man's Comforts' by Robert Southey from The Annual Anthology

The Old Man's Comforts' by Robert Southey from The Annual Anthology [page: 227]

A poem satirised by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.

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In Sothey’s poem the reasons for the 'Old Man’s Comforts' and ‘how he gained them’ are explained thus:

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last.

Carroll depicts a more vigorous old man who has been less mindful of preserving his faculties (and dignity) for old age: 

“You are old, Father William," the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

“In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

But Sothey’s poem is not the only literature to be reinterpreted by Carroll. The children’s rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, still popular today, was written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824) and published as the first stanza of her poem The rhyme is the first stanza of a poem in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806). This is famously parodied in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) when in Chapter seven at the tea-party the Mad Hatter recites:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!  

Created in the Victorian era, Alice may be notable for its outlandishness in the children’s literary landscape. It was outsold by the more solemn Jessica’s First Prayer, by Hesba Stretton, a story about a homeless child of an alcoholic mother. This title had sold over one million copies by 1900 and had a strong moral message based on Christian principles.

Jessica's First Prayer, a popular 19th century children's book

Jessica's First Prayer, a popular 19th century children's book

A popular children's book that significantly outsold Alice in Wonderland

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Edward Lear, a contemporary of Carroll’s, enjoyed a similar appreciation for absurdity. His works are certain to have been an influence on Carroll's literary style. Lear also created literature for children, interestingly for specific children, much like Carroll. He released A Book of Nonsense in 1946, which cannot have failed to escape Carroll’s notice.

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear [page: front cover]

Edward Lear's popular nonsense verse was an influence on the literary style of Alice

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Lear’s treatment of nonsense literature, playfully disrupting meaning, rather than generating gibberish must have appealed to the mathematician in Carroll. As Martin Dubois notes, in his article Anthropomorphism in Alice in Wonderland some of the common techniques of Nonsense literature ‘include the inversion of logic and language, the creation of curious juxtapositions, and experiments with size and scale.

John Tenniel, who drew the famous illustrations of the Alice manuscript and its sequel, was a far more successful individual than Carroll when the manuscript was first published. Carroll had seen his handiwork in Punch magazine, for which he was the political cartoonist.

'Blind-man's buff' from Punch

Blind-man's buff' from Punch [page: 139]

Sir John Tenniel, the illustrator of Alice was an established political cartoonist for Punch magazine.   

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'The Nemesis of Neglect' from Punch

The Nemesis of Neglect' from Punch [page: 151]

Another illustration by Sir John Tenniel, showing his distinctive style, in Punch magazine. 

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Tenniel produced 42 illustrations for Alice, 32 of which featured in the final published edition. Twenty of these appeared in The Nursery Alice, released in 1890, which was aimed at a younger audience.

The Nursery Alice

Illustration of Alice holding a bottle with a label reading 'DRINK ME'

‘Drink me’ Alice illustration by John Tenniel from The Nursery Alice, 1890.

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Letters between Carroll and Tenniel at the time of pre-production of the book suggest that Caroll was willing to accept the artist’s ideas, despite having strong ideas and suggestions about how his characters should be rendered. In fact, Tenniel’s influence is conveyed by Carroll’s recalling the first edition of the book due to Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the quality of the printed pictures. 

There is no doubt Tenniel’s typical style is instantly recognisable, particularly to a Victorian audience, and in large part helps account for the immediate success of the book. They stand in stark contrast to Tenniel’s craftsmanship and honed talent as an illustrator. 

You can explore the whole manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, with Carroll’s initial illustrations, in our Award winning Turning the Pages™ website.

Hannah Gabrielle, head of content and community at British Library
  • Hannah Gabrielle
  • Hannah Gabrielle is the Head of Content and Community for the Digital Marketing Operations team at the British Library. She leads on British Library web content strategy. As a keen student of literature and history she completed an MA in English Literature with the Open University, specialising in postcolonial theory. She also has a particular interest in children's literature.