A new exhibition reminds us of Alice In Wonderland’s enduring influence on visual art. But its impact extends much further. Why do Lewis Carroll’s books still have such a hold on us?

Richard Jenkyns

Nyima 438 (2009) by the Swiss artist Annelies Štrba. This Alice in Wonderland-inspired painting will be on show at Tate Liverpool

Charles Dodgson was significant in two quite different ways. By profession he was a mathematician (a don at Christ Church, Oxford), especially interested in the philosophical end of his subject. His playful textbook on symbolic logic is still read, and his contribution to the theory of voting is admired by those who study the topic such as the eminent philosopher Michael Dummett. He was also a pioneer in the art of photography, especially notable for his pictures of children. He would be remembered (just) as one of those curiously versatile minor Victorians but for an odd chance. In July 1862 he went on a boating trip with the daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. As often, he made up a story to entertain them. A few days later, Alice Liddell began to pester him to write it down. To please her, he agreed, and the rest is history—or rather, fiction. Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, and Wonderland was given to the world.

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