"Why is a Raven like a Writing-Desk?": The Play of Letters in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books
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"Why is a Raven like a Writing-Desk?":
The Play of Letters in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books

"I think, I should understand that better," Alice said very politely, "if I had it written down: but I can'n't quite follow it as you say it."

Although, strictly speaking, neither Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) nor Through the Looking-Glass (1871) is an epistolary novel, letters and references to letter writing appear frequently in both. Like Beatrix Potter's famous illustrated letter to Noel Moore that eventually became The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (1863)—the handwritten and self-illustrated manuscript that he presented to Alice Liddell on November 26, 1864, and later revised to become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)—is nothing more than an elaborately illustrated letter.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was created by a man obsessed with the letters of the alphabet and the process of letter writing. Carroll once wrote in a letter to Marion Terry that "Life seems to go in letter writing, and I'm beginning to think that the proper definition of 'Man' is 'an animal who writes letters'" (Letters II, 663). As a successful writer of children's books, Carroll was ultimately able to resign his mathematical lectureship at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1881 to become, literally, a man of letters. It is worth recalling that "Lewis Carroll" is really just a literary construct, a clever reordering of his proper name, "Charles Lutwidge Dodgson." Carroll created this pseudonym by Latinizing his first and middle names and reversing their order. In 1853, he provided Edmund Yates, the editor of The Train, with two other possible pseudonyms based on anagrams of the letters in "Charles Lutwidge": "Edgar Cuthwellis" and "Edgar U.C. Westhill."

Just as Carroll's letters and "Register of Letters" were the basis for the composition of his Diaries, Carroll's letters and his letter writing, I submit, influenced the composition of the Alice books. I will then argue in the second half of this essay that a possible solution to the famous riddle posed by the Mad Hatter can be found both in Carroll's playful rearrangement of letters and in his profound interest in letters and letter writing.

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A rebus letter to Georgina Watson

Carroll the Letter Writer

Carroll was a systematic record-keeper. As a young man, he devised a "Register of Letters," which included a short summary of each letter along with its date and an entry number. He began his "Register" in 1861 and maintained it for the following thirty-seven years, ultimately recording that he'd written 98,721 letters (Collingwood 266). Although his complete "Register of Letters" has not survived, Carroll's nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood—whose biography of his uncle is appropriately titled The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (1898)—claims that it consisted of several volumes. While the "Register" has vanished, many of Carroll's letters have survived. Early editions of Carroll's letters include Collingwood's Life and Letters (1898), which reproduces 117 letters, and Evelyn M. Hatch's A Selection from the Letters [End Page 15] of Lewis Carroll to His Child-friends (1933) with 170 letters. Morton Cohen's more recent two-volume edition of The Letters of Lewis Carroll (1978), now the standard edition of Carroll's letters, is nearly 1200 pages and contains only a selection of 1350 letters from the 4000 that Cohen located. Cohen argues that Carroll was "one of the world's most prolific letter-writers" and estimates that Carroll wrote at least two thousand letters a year, around six a day (xvi). In a letter to Christina Rossetti, Carroll mentions that it was the thirteenth letter he has written that day and apologizes for its brevity (Letters I, 465). One of his diary entries mentions "having done a huge quantity of letter writing, and worked off some arrears that have been standing over some years" (Diaries II, 395). Elsewhere in his diary, he writes, "Wrote letters all morning. Other writing is falling into the...


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