Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Cover of the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Portrait of Charles Dodgson

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pseudonym Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898), was a British author best known for his iconic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There (1871), the latter of which included several celebrated poems such as “Jabberwocky,” “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and “The Hunting of the Snark.” A polymath, he was a leading photographer and portraitist in the nascent field of photography; the creator of several games, including the “doublet word ladder,” still popular today, and a forerunner of Scrabble; and an inventor, whose creations include the nyctograph, a device that facilitated the ability to write in the dark. He was also an accomplished mathematician and logician credited with establishing much of the foundation for modern logic, number theory and cryptography.

 

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Carroll’s books, which he published himself using his own funds, became instantly popular and sold 120,000 copies by 1885. Contemporary booksellers say that the books, which have been translated into 70 languages, are still among their best-selling children’s books. The Alice books have influenced a great variety of artists and writers, including Walt Disney, whose beloved 1951 Alice in Wonderland film is today a cult classic considered one of the greatest animated masterpieces of all time. Many of Carroll’s invented words are now part of the established lexicon; many of his expressions have become common catchphrases – “down the rabbit hole”; “curiouser and curiouser”; “off with their heads” etc. – and references to Alice continue to suffuse the culture. My personal favorite example is a 2008 opinion by a D.C. court against the EPA in which the judge critically wrote that the EPA was employing “the logic of the Queen of Hearts, substituting the EPA’s desires for the plain text.”

Carroll was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, and he remained a faithful Anglican throughout his life. The Anglican Church in his day promulgated the medieval Church’s historical antisemitism and scapegoating of Jews as moneylenders, social outcasts, and murderers. Although the Victorian age was a period of gradual progress and increasing acceptance of Jews (including particularly widespread sympathy for the plight of Jews escaping persecution and destitution), rising unemployment, economic difficulties, and the meteoric growth of communal discontent soon turned public attention to the social impact of immigration. Increasing pressure was brought to bear on the government to limit immigration, particularly Jewish immigration, which much of the British public claimed created a serious threat to national life.

In this drawing in Punch by John Tenniel, the Specter of Cholera stands in front of “the huddled masses” of East European Jews fleeing persecution and pogroms whose entry is blocked by Britannia extending a stiff arm.

It is against this background that Carroll’s unambiguous antisemitism should be considered. He characterized Jews as, among other things, “sarcastic”; “either hunchbacked or misers”; “obsequious unless very young”; “squinting”; “dishonest”; “look like goats”; “have beards a yard long”; and, of course, “have hooked noses.”

In his use of syllogisms and establishing logical premises, he frequently used phrases such as “All Juwes [sic] are greedy.” In his Symbolic Logic, he employed such propositions as “No Gentiles have hooked noses”; “No Jew is ever a bad hand at a bargain”; “There are no Jews in the house”; “No Gentiles have beards a yard long”; and, that all-time antisemitic favorite, “No Jews are honest.” Recent republications of Symbolic Logic, mindful of this loathsome material, retain it intact, but include a prominent disclaimer that the vile language was not deleted in the interests of retaining the historical accuracy of the original work. (Would that the contemporary purveyors of “woke-ism,” who censor anything they believe to be discriminatory or insensitive based upon today’s alleged standards, act accordingly.)

Carroll saw Judaism as a religion of whiners and complainers entirely devoid of spirituality. For example, in Chapter 19 of his Sylvie and Bruno, Dr. Arthur Forester, a character whom Carroll portrays as a highly intelligent and ethical character, depicts the Jews as mentally undeveloped. This lack of development in the Jews’ analytic ability is evidenced by their blind and faithful adherence to their Old Testament, in which “rewards and punishments are constantly appealed to as motives for action. That teaching is best for children, and the Israelites seem to have been, mentally, utter children.” He also mocked at the very idea of strict Shabbat observance as “life-denying piety.”

In Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll tells the story of a tailor – a stereotypical cliché for Jewish vocations (although Carroll does not specifically identify him as Jewish, the implication is clear – who agrees to extend credit to a customer, but only if he agrees to pay double the outstanding debt each year. In his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” economist John Maynard Keynes cites the attempt by Carroll’s tailor to secure specious and illusory future gain as a metaphor for his proposition regarding the irrationality of postponing personal gratification. Keyes – there is ample evidence that he, too, was an antisemite – observes that Carroll almost certainly intended the tailor to be Jewish because the Jews, as the race that uniquely introduced the promise of immortality to religious faith, “have done the most for the principle of compound interest and particularly loves this most purposive of human institutions.”

In an 1885 diary entry commenting on a children’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Carroll writes: “It was a very charming performance, and some of them have lovely voices, specially `Elsie Joel’ who acted Mabel: she looks Jewish.” It is almost as if Carroll was saying “she was surprisingly a good actress, even though she’s Jewish,” and other reviewers were somehow able to admire Elsie’s performance without mentioning her Jewish appearance.

On the other hand, in an August 18, 1884, correspondence, Carroll wrote:

One hospital manager wrote that he knew a place where there were a number of sick children, but he was afraid I wouldn’t like to give them any books – and why, do you think? “Because they are Jews!” I wrote to say [that] of course I would give them some! Why in the world shouldn’t little Israelites read Alice’s Adventures as well as other children?

However, Carroll’s love of children may have trumped his contempt for Jews; note his characterization of Jews as “obsequious unless very young,” suggesting that his animus against Jews in general may not have extended to children.

Furthermore, when a number of prominent Oxford graduates joined in sending a memorial of solidarity to British Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler expressing sorrow and amazement regarding the Russian persecution of Jews, Carroll was one of the 245 signatories. Perhaps his exercise of cognitive dissonance may be harmonized by observing that, although many cultured and refined British citizens like Carroll were antisemitic, as per the prevailing social fashion at the time, many nonetheless considered themselves to be moral and ethical people who cared about discrimination against all minorities, including Jews – so long as the Jewish riffraff remained far away from British shores and did not seek to contaminate Great Britain by seeking to immigrate there.

Carroll was known as a logophile who delighted in puzzles, metaphors, wordplay, and invented words (see, most famously, “Jabberwocky”) and many theories exist seeking to discover the cryptic allegorical meanings of the Alice stories. Various scholars ascribe a wide-ranging variety of symbolic interpretations to the tales, including analytical approaches that are political, metaphysical, philosophical, theological and psychological – and, as we shall see, Talmudic.

One writer sees Alice as a secret history of religious controversies in Victorian England. Some philosophers see the books as a metaphor for the monstrous mindlessness of the universe, as seen through a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician, As Martin Gardner argues in The Annotated Alice, the entirety of Through the Looking Glass is a chess game “in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move under their own will or by invisible fingers.”

Others argue that the two Alice books are expressions of Carroll’s subversive protests and that he used children’s literature as a way to confront the horrors of Victorian respectability, and still others see them as satires of non-Euclidian mathematics featuring imaginary numbers (the very idea of which Carroll rejected as ludicrous). Noting that Alice is the only mature and rational character in Wonderland – “We are all mad here,” says the Cheshire Cat – many logicians argue that Alice is actually a satiric exercise of Carrollian logic wherein he explores the repercussions of suspending common sense in favor of dysfunctional intellectualism and fantasy thinking wholly removed from the world of rationality and logic.

Perhaps the most common theories see Alice in purely psychological terms, including particularly through the Freudian lens of Carroll’s infatuation and ostensible erotic attraction to the ten-year-old Alice Liddell, a daughter of the dean of Christ Church Oxford who, according to almost all scholars, was the inspiration for the Alice stories. It was on one of Carroll’s many boating trips with Alice and her sisters on July 4, 1862, that he originated the framework of the stories and, at Alice’s enthusiastic urging, decided to write the stories which, according to the Freudians, represented an outlet for his repressed desires.

But one of the most intriguing hypotheses was described by Dr. Abraham Ettelson in his pamphlet “Through the Looking-Glass Decoded” (1966), in which he argues that Alice is actually a cryptogram of the Talmud written in code. He notes the frequency and importance of mirrors and inversion in the Alice stories and concludes that Through the Looking Glass and the Talmud are mirror images of each other. He argues that the principal subtext of Alice and Looking Glass is “the Jewish way” and sees the books as Carroll’s use of a Midrashic approach that employs layered interpretations and ethical analysis to expound on the pshat (the primary meaning of the text).

As Ettelson would have it, Jabberwocky is a code name for the Baal Shem Tov. He divides the word “Jabberwocky” into two halves and then reads each part in a mirror; the result is “Rebbaj Yckow,” or Rabbi Jacob. (This gamesmanship evokes Charles L. Dodgson’s construction of his own pseudonym; he formed the name by translating his first and middle names, Charles Lutwidge, into Latin, which became Carolus Ludovicus; reversed their order; and translated the name back into English as “Lewis Carroll.”) Ettelson further observes that the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” – the famous “`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and wimble in the wabe . . .” – contains no less than half of all the Hebrew letters; that one of Carroll’s nonsense words in “Jabberwocky” is frumious – which, of course, is a fusion of the words frum and pious; and that the ferocious jaw-snapping Bandersnatch contains an anagram for “Satan.”

The “ball of worsted wool” that Alice’s kitten plays with symbolizes the woolen tzitzit, a proposition not all that far-fetched when one considers that worsted wool is a twisted woolen thread and that tzizit is a tassel of twisted cord. Moreover, Carroll adds that Alice’s kitten “curled up in a corner” which, according to Ettelson, evokes the “four corners” upon which tzitzit are worn. While most commentators dismiss the “Talmud theory” as, at best, sheer fantasy, most nonetheless agree that Ettelson’s methodology and analytical framework favorably compare with Carroll’s own logomania.

 

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In this very rare original August 2, 1889, handwritten correspondence, Carroll writes:

They have been an enormous time, binding the copy of “Alice Underground” which I hope to present to the Duchess: but they have promised to send it now, & expect to receive it today. What had I better do with it? As I see in the papers that H.R.H. [a reference to Helen] is gone, or just going, abroad. Shall I send it to you to forward to her? Or is she so constantly moving about, that it would be better to keep it until she returns to England?

Alice Liddell’s parents tried to arrange a match between their daughter and Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria. A romance blossomed but, after Queen Victoria – who is broadly considered to be the inspiration for John Tenniel’s rendering of the nasty Queen of Hearts in the Alice stories – blocked the marriage to a “commoner,” Leopold married Helen, the Duchess of Albany. Helen employed Ethel Heron-Maxwell, the recipient of our letter, to care for her young children, Princess Alice (almost certainly named after Alice Liddell, whom Leopold never forgot) and Prince Charles-Edward.

Carroll began writing his Alice manuscript under the working title Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. He presented the original handwritten manuscript to the story’s inspiration, Alice Liddell, in 1864, and a facsimile edition of this original was released at Christmas 1886. Carroll was the darling of the royal household beloved by all – particularly by Princess Alice, who adored him and his stories – and in 1889, he commissioned a finely bound version of this facsimile which, as our letter evidences, he presented to Helen.

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Carroll wasn’t the only antisemite to play an important role in the Alice books. John Tenniel (1820-1914) was an English illustrator, graphic humorist and most prominent and popular political cartoonist of the day who served as the principal political cartoonist for the popular Punch magazine, but he gained immortality for his 92 illustrations for the Alice books. Carroll originally drew the artwork for the books himself but, as a perfectionist who recognized his own limitations, he convinced Tenniel to do the work – quite a coup, given the unlikelihood that a publicly renowned artist and cartoonist would agree to illustrate a children’s book written by an Oxford lecturer who was essentially an unknown of no importance.

Tenniel’s portrayal of Jews included the usual antisemitic features such as a hooked nose and dark, oily hair. In particular, he frequently lampooned Benjamin Disraeli as Fagin, the Jewish leader of a crew of child pickpockets and robbers in Dickens’s Oliver Twist; for example, in one drawing, he has Disraeli instructing his fellow politicians how to effectively pick the pockets of the public.

From the Nile to the Neva, an original Punch drawing by Tenniel.

Exhibited here is From the Nile to the Neva, an original Tenniel cartoon published in the August 9, 1890, issue of Punch. It depicts Tsar Alexander III, a staunch antisemite who accused the Jews of the murder of Alexander II and launched pogroms against them, with his boot on the neck of a feeble and helpless bearded Jew and about to wield his “sword of persecution.” However, the “Ghost of Pharoah” appears behind him and, speaking from bitter experience, warns “Forbear! That weapon [of persecution against the Jews] always wounds the hand that wields it.”

In this classic example of his anti-Jewish drawings, Tenniel’s point is that the Jews wield secret power which they use against those who would abuse them. In later drawings, he makes clear that, though seemingly weak, the Jews of Russia are actually rich and powerful and use their secret cabal against poor Russian citizens.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.