Lewis Carroll, Victorian Culture, and the Minuscule
He [Uncle Skeffington Dodgson] has as usual got a great number of new oddities, including a lathe, telescope stand, crest stamp, a beautiful little pocket instrument for measuring distances on a map, refrigerator, etc., etc. We had an observation of the Moon and Jupiter last night, and afterwards live animalcules in his large microscope: this is a most interesting sight, as the creatures are most conveniently transparent, and you see all the organs jumping about like a complicated piece of machinery, and even circulation of the blood. Everything goes at railway speed, so I suppose they must be some of those insects who only live a day or two, and try to make the most of it.
Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 1852[i]
Victorian culture was obsessed with the minuscule. It was the era in which the microscope was perfected and popularised, associating the scientific study of nature with enchantment and wonder. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland experimented with the idea of changing sizes, from growing gigantic to becoming very small. Alice’s changes in size can be linked with the technology of the time (e.g. microscopy and photography) as well as with the child’s perspective (feeling very small in an adult world).
Lewis Carroll and Microscopic Endeavours
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll, was very much a gadget-enthusiast. As the quotation above shows, he was rather impressed with the gadgets amassed by his Uncle Skeffington Dodgson, and he owned a good array of gadgets himself. A mathematician and logician, don of Christ Church, Oxford, with a gift of creating delightful tales for young children, Carroll was fascinated by the Victorian democratization of science which was facilitated by the popularization (and relative affordability) of new technological devices. The science-cum-art he is best known for is photography, or “light-drawing”, as it was originally termed. His Ottewill and Co. camera (purchased on 18 March 1856 for £15) was one of his most prized possession and excited his passion for capturing the world “through the looking-glass” of its lenses.[ii]
But tinier things that photographs were equally thrilling for Carroll and his cotemporaries. Recording that famous “golden afternoon” of July 1864 when he first made up the story of Alice (originally called Alice’s Adventures Underground) for Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, Carroll wrote in his diary:
Duckworth and I made an expedition up the river to Godstow with the three Liddells: we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Christ Church again till quarter past eight, when we took them to my rooms to see my collection of micro photographs, and restored them to the Deanery just before nine.[iii]
Microphotographs, invented by John Benjamin Dancer, were the natural offspring of marrying the two leading Victorian technologies: microscopy and photography. For one shilling, one could purchase a 3×1 glass slide with what looked like a tiny dot on it, but which when looked through a microscope would be revealed to be portrait of a famous scientist or writer, a landscape, or the entire Lord’s Prayer.[iv]
What the Liddell sisters would have seen in Carroll’s microphotographs that July afternoon is anyone’s guess. But what we can be sure of is that Carroll would have used a microscope in his rooms. Carroll’s own microscope, made by Smith & Beck, accompanied by various accessories, is now in the Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., Collection at Pierpont Morgan Library.[v] Among Carroll’s photographs, we can find one of his aunt, Lucy Lutwidge, taken in 1859, in which she is looking through a microscope.[vi]
Carroll’s own library also betrays his interest in using the microscope, as it includes some of the best-known books of the time about microscopy, which aimed to popularize the subject and interest the general public. He owned the first edition of Philip Henry Gosse’s Evenings at the Microscope: or, Researches among the Minuter Organs and Forms of Animal Life (1859) and Edwin Lankester’s Half-Hours with the Microscope; Being a Popular Guide to the Use of the Microscope (1859).[vii]
Carroll’s interest in the minuscule in a rather playful (but also scientific) way can be also exemplified by another gadget he owned: a geographer’s pen. He used this instrument to write “miniature” or “fairy” letters, usually addressed to children. These letters had to be written by hand, using a magnifying glass, some as small as postage stamps, others a little larger. The tiniest examples could not be read with the naked eye: the young recipient would have needed a magnifying glass (Cohen, 1982, pp. 92-4).
Alice’s changes in size demonstrate Lewis Carroll’s delight in playing with scale. After she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bottle, Alice shrinks to 10 inches (25.4 cm) and after eating the “EAT ME” cake she reaches 9 feet (2.74 m). She goes down to 2 feet (nearly 61 cm) after holding the white rabbit’s fan, but then shrinks further to 3 inches (7.62 cm) by the time she meets the Caterpillar. After realizing that the mushroom on which the Caterpillar is sitting can help her regulate her own height, she grows taller to match the Duchess’s house (she is now 9 inches, or 22.86 cm) and she makes sure she is tall enough for the March Hare’s house (she is 2 feet tall again now, or 60.96 cm). When she finds the door to the wonderful garden for the second time, she shrinks herself to 1 foot tall (30.48 cm).
Here is a graph representing Alice’s changes in size:
[i] Lewis Carroll, Lewis Carroll’s Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll): The First Complete Version of the Nine Surviving Volumes with Notes and Annotations, ed. by Edward Wakeling, 10 vols (Luton: Lewis Carroll Society, 1993-2007), Vol. I, p. 47.
[ii] Edward Wakeling, Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle (London: I.B. Tauris), p. 56.
[iii] Lewis Carroll, Lewis Carroll’s Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll): The First Complete Version of the Nine Surviving Volumes with Notes and Annotations, ed. by Edward Wakeling, 10 vols (Luton: Lewis Carroll Society, 1993-2007), Vol. IV, p. 94-5.
[iv] Marina Benjamin, ‘Sliding Scales: Microphotography and the Victorian Obsession with the Minuscule’, Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, ed. by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London: Faber, 1996), pp. 99-102.
[v] Morton Norton Cohen, Lewis Carroll and Alice, 1832-1982 (New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1982), p. 52.
[vi] Edward Wakeling, The Photographs of Lewis Carroll: A Catalogue Raisonné (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), pp. 84-5.
[vii] Charlie Lovett, Lewis Carroll among his Books: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Private Library of Charles L. Dodgson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), pp. 133, 187-8.