Were a Victorian Englishman of good breeding seeking a book for his children, he would have many choices; the explosion of publishing had trickled down into the children’s market, producing a wealth of offerings. Many were didactic and moralistic; many were repetitive and wooden; many, then as now, were both. But in 1865, there would have been only one choice: the phenomenally best-selling and critically acclaimed book by an obscure Oxford lecturer in mathematics named Charles Dodgson. Dodgson’s had entertained his boss’s daughters on a rowing trip in the summer of 1862, and the story he told the Liddell sisters — Edith, Lorina, and most especially Alice — were going to make him famous beyond his wildest dreams. Child mortality was a constant concern in nineteenth century London, so children needed to learn right from wrong lest they go to Hell. But despite his position as a deacon — at one time in line to become a rector — at Christ Church, Dodgson wasn’t concerned with children’s spiritual salvation; he had embraced heterodox ideas, rejecting the idea of eternal damnation. Boys of Dodgson’s class were expected to learn the manly virtues of honesty, fair play, and hard-charging competition at sports. But Dodgson, unlike Tom Brown, had loathed his time at Rugby School. He was terminally shy, uncomfortable around other boys, unathletic, a stammerer. What Dodgson liked was little girls, logic, the theater, nonsense, and the light verse he tirelessly penned under the name "Lewis Carroll". Despite the persistant public image of Dodgson as a pedophile, there’s no evidence that he ever behaved improperly towards any children, nor even that he had a desire to; he photographed children in the nude, but he was an accomplished portrait photographer for whom Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rosetti had sat as subjects; the famous "cut pages" of Dodgson’s diary have always been supposed to explain the end of Dodgson’s relationship with the Liddell family, but new evidence suggests that Dodgson’s attentions were not focussed on twelve-year-old Alice but on her fourteen-year-old sister Lorina. In Victorian England, the age of consent was twelves, and the Liddells’ chief objection to the idea that Dodgson might be courting Lorina seems likely to have been not Dodgson’s age (fourteen being not too young to marry nor thirty-one too old) but his social position. The Liddell girls were famous beauties — Alice would later become good friends and perhaps romantically involved with Prince Leopold — and their mother is assumed to have thought that better matches could be found than a tounge-tied mathematician without great income and with no particular prospects for advancement.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might have changed her mind; the book was a smash hit, turning Dodgson from an amateur scribbler into a hugely successful writer; by 1886, he had written and published a sequel, seen his book produced as a play, and sold over two hundred thousand copies. But after Through the Looking Glass, Dodgson never quite trapped lightning in a bottle again. His books of logic puzzles did not reform educational principles. Sylvie and Bruno, though fascinating, was neither a commercial nor a critical success (for that matter, it is not truly an artistic one). He did interesting work on the problem of voting, but was largely undistinguished as a mathematician. His fame today rests entirely on two books and one lengthy poem, but it was enough. Charles Dodgson is widely held to be, after Shakespeare and J and friends, the most quoted author in the English language.
Dozens of imitators sprung up, a whole raft of alternative Alices — plucky, wise little children under water, in the sky, at the North Pole — but the original outstripped them all. Nabokov translated Alice into Russian. Punch is gone, but John Tenniel remains. (And the others who illustrated Alice — Mabel Lucie Atwell, Gwynedd Hudson, the great Arthur Rackham — often rose to the occasion themselves.) The poems and stories Dodgson burlesqued have been almost completely forgotten by everyone but Martin Gardner, but through Dodgson, they survive. Dodgson’s work is everything to all people, a fountain of pop culture inspiration, inspiring everyone from the creators of Thief 2 to Grace Slick to the writer of The Looking Glass Wars. The last is described as critically acclaimed as "one of the worst books I’ve ever read, although the basic concept was promising" (via Bookninja). Alice offers no uplifting endings; it teaches no lessons; it offers no exciting tale of derring-do or athletic prowess; it is a rather nightmarish story in which nothing much tends to happen. But children still read it. Why? It is one of the wittiest books ever written; it offers children a chance to get the joke, to be let in on adult humor as an equal, perhaps for the first time. And, as one writer who I assume is a fan, once put it, "It is a Dada story. It has no moral." What bright young thing could ask for more?