As Tim Burton’s take on the story consumes moviegoers across the world, it seems a good opportunity to read a letter or two from the original creator of Alice in Wonderland: Charles Dodgson. Both letters were written by Dodgson – better-known by most under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll – to a young friend called Isabel Seymour in May of 1869, just four years after the release of the first Alice novel, and concern a railway ticket he had forgotten to pass on to the child. The second letter in particular is a fantastic demonstration of his ability to transform the most ordinary of situations into an entertaining story.
The letters were kindly supplied by The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia; home to one of the finest Lewis Carroll collections in the world where hundreds of related letters, photographs, books – even original drawings by Sir John Tenniel – can be enjoyed. A visit to their website will reveal more.
May 15, 1869
My dear Isabel,
Words cannot tell how horrified, terrified, petrified (everything ending with “fied,” including all my sisters here saying “fie!” when they heard of it) I was when I found that I had carried off your ticket to Guildford. I enquired directly I got there whether anything could be done, but found you must have arrived in London some time before I got here. So there was nothing to be done but tear my hair (there is almost none left now), weep, and surrender myself to the police.
I do hope you didn’t suffer any inconvenience on account of my forgetfulness, but you see you would talk so all the way (though I begged you not) that you drove everything out of my head, including the very small portion of brain that is usually to be found there.
Miss Lloyd will never forgive me for it—of that I feel certain. But I have some hope that after many years, when you see me, an aged man on crutches, hobbling to your door, the sternness of your features may relax for a moment, and, holding out the forefinger of your left hand, you may bring yourself to say, “All is forgotten and forgiven.”
I hardly dare ask what really happened at Paddington, whether the gentleman and lady, who were in the carriage, helped you out of the difficulty, or whether your maid had money enough, or whether you had to go to prison. If so, never mind: I’ll do my best to get you out, and at any rate you shant be executed.
Seriously, I am so sorry for it, and with all sorts of apologies, I am sincerely yours,
C. L. Dodgson
Ch. Ch. Oxford
May 29, 1869
My dear Isabel,
I was so sorry to hear from Miss Lloyd of your not being well, and I hope you will not think of writing to me about ‘Alice’ till you are well enough to do so. I only write this on the chance of your being in the humour to read it, or to have it read to you. When you are in that state, I should like you to know the real reason of my having carried off your railway-ticket. You will guess by this, of course, that my last letter was a hoax. Well, you told me, you know, that it was your first railway-journey alone: naturally that set me thinking, “Now what can I do to give her a really exciting adventure?”
Now three plans occurred to me. The first was to wait till the train had started from Reading, and then fire a pistol through your carriage-window, so that the bullet might go near your head and startle you a little. But there were two objections to this plan—one, that I hadn’t got a loaded pistol with me, the other, that the bullet might have gone in at a wrong window, and some people are so stupid, they might not have taken it as a joke.
The second plan was to give you, just as the train left Reading, what should look like a Banbury-cake, but should afterwards turn out to be a rattlesnake. The only objection to this plan was, that they didn’t keep that kind at Reading. They had only common Banbury-cakes, which wouldn’t have done at all.
The third plan was to keep the ticket, so that you might be alarmed when you got to London. Of course I arranged thoroughly with the Guard that the thing was not to be overdone. He was to look a little stern at first, and then gradually to let his expressive features kindle into a smile of benevolence. I was very particular on this point and almost my last words to him were, “Are you sure you can manage the benevolence?” and I made him practice it several times on the platform before I would let him go.
Now you know my whole plan for making your journey a real Adventure. I only hope it succeeded. So, hoping much to hear you are better again, I remain very truly yours,
C. L. Dodgson
P.S. I must tell you candidly that the whole of this letter is a hoax, and that my real reason was—to be able to make you a nice little portable present. Friends suggested a corkscrew, a work-box, or a harmonium: but, as I cleverly remarked, “These are all very well in their way, but you can only use them sometimes—whereas a railway ticket is always handy!” Have I chosen well?