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Through the Looking-Glass | Context



Lewis Carroll enjoyed playing chess—a game based on opposing armies led by authoritative royal figures. Chess was developed around the 6th century CE, evolving from an Indian game called chaturanga. The Indian name was taken from a Sanskrit word referring to divisions of the Indian army.

Chess appears several times in Carroll's diaries and as the subject of his photographs. In the early 1860s Carroll taught chess to the Liddell sisters. Throughout her life Alice Liddell remembered "the period when we were excitedly learning chess." However, by the time Carroll began work on Through the Looking Glass, his close friendship with the Liddell family had eroded, and Alice Liddell was no longer a child.

Carroll incorporated some of the structure of chess into his text—a regimented journey across the chess board—to signify Alice's difficulty in learning society's rules as she journeys from childhood innocence to maturity. He bent some chess rules to facilitate the drama of his narrative, and this approach annoyed diehard chess players. The White Queen, for example, runs from an encounter with the Red Knight, when the correct chess move would be to capture him. The writer Martin Gardner, who authors annotated versions of the Alice stories, argues that this is a forgivable error because of the queen's absent-mindedness.

Just as chess influenced Carroll in creating Through the Looking Glass, the narrative inspired a new version of the game. Invented in 1953, Alice chess is played on two boards. After players make a move they must transfer their chess pieces to the corresponding square on the other board. Alice chess is one of the most popular variants of the standard game.

Alice Liddell

Carroll met Alice Liddell and her sisters Lorina and Edith in April 1856 just before Alice's fourth birthday. At the time, he was photographing the cathedral at Christ Church College, where the Liddell girls' father was dean and Carroll was a mathematics tutor. Carroll was 24 years old and a talented photographer. With their father's approval, the Liddell sisters became Carroll's photographic subjects.

Accompanied by their governess, Alice and her sisters also went on outings with Carroll. These included museum and boating excursions. On one such trip, in 1862, Carroll entertained the children with a tale he called "Alice's Adventures Under Ground." Ten-year-old Alice was enchanted with the story and urged Carroll to write it down. When Carroll created the manuscript, his friends encouraged him to publish the story. He expanded the narrative into what he then called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll selected the artist John Tenniel to illustrate the book for publication, and the first edition was issued in 1865.

Notably, Carroll's close association with the Liddell family ended suddenly in June 1863. His diary entries for this period were removed after his death, so the reason for the abrupt change is unclear. Prior to this, he'd been seeing the Liddell girls almost daily.

Some Carroll scholars and researchers have suggested that Carroll had spoken to Dean Liddell about marrying Alice (or possibly her sister, Lorina, who was three years older). Since 12 was then the age of consent in England, Alice and Carroll could have legally married the following year. However, Alice's parents may not have welcomed the idea of their 31-year-old friend marrying one of their children. In the 1940s, American writer Florence Becker Lennon interviewed Alice's sister, Lorina, about Carroll's association with the Liddells. Lorina wrote to Alice that she had told Lennon that Carroll "became too affectionate to you ... Mother spoke to him about it ... [and] he ceased ... visit[ing] us." Notably, Alice herself refused to speak to the biographer.

Following the rupture in their family's relationship with Carroll, the girls no longer went on outings with him and he rarely saw Alice afterward. Yet he did present her with his hand-illustrated manuscript as a Christmas gift in 1864. Mrs. Liddell also sought out Carroll in 1870 to take Alice's portrait. Alice was 18. The photograph is in the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

Another researcher suggests that Carroll was romantically interested in the Liddell children's governess, Mary Prickett. Carroll's attraction to women, rather than to children, is supported by his other relationships. Although Carroll never married, his diary entries reveal that he spent weekends and had outings with numerous women. His letters document involvements with Constance Burch, Beatrice Hatch, Gertrude Chataway, Winifred Stevens, and Theodosia Heaphy—all of whom were adult women. Despite their ages, Carroll referred to them as "children." Theodosia Heaphy, for example, was 25, but in Carroll's letters to friends he referred to her as a "child."

The precise relationship between the Liddells and Carroll is unclear beyond the fact that his fondness for Alice sparked the creation of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Biographers have posited several theories on the nature of the relationship and the rift. Whether Carroll was inappropriately fond of Alice or in a relationship with her governess, Mary Prickett, remains a subject of debate.

Victorian Children's Fiction

Through the Looking-Glass, as well as Alice in Wonderland, is atypical of 19th-century children's literature in that it is not a morality tale. Instead the narrative relates a young girl's adventure in a peculiar, nonsense-laden world where she asserts herself and acts independently. Such novels may not seem revolutionary to modern readers, but they were in the 1800s.

Children's literature prior to the mid-1800s tended to focus on moral, social, and religious lessons. British children's authors Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, George MacDonald, and Christina Rossetti all encouraged self-improvement, religious piety, and appropriate social behavior.

Fairy tales and folktales became accessible to children only in the 1800s. Prior to the 1800s, these sorts of stories were not considered appropriate for children. They were told by adults, and they were often vulgar. Moreover, they were an oral tradition, not written down, and evolved over time for audience and storyteller. This is why there are so many versions of some of the best-known tales. However, by the time Carroll was writing his first two novels, fairy tales had become a part of children's literature thanks to the work of the German Brothers Grimm, whose initial volumes of fairy tales were published in 1812 and 1815, and Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, whose first fairy tale book was issued in 1835.

Carroll's two Alice books represented a new type of children's literature. Another English writer, Edward Lear, produced a volume of "nonsense" literature with his 1846 Book of Nonsense. American author and contemporary Mark Twain was also changing the concept of children's literature with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)—both stories about boys who have to navigate dangerous situations independently. Lear was writing poetry, however, and Twain was writing adventure stories for boys. What Carroll did was unique in that he was creating an adventure story with a young female protagonist—and doing so with nonsense aspects and fairy tale characteristics.


As a metaphor, chess was used in various Victorian era novels to show the transition from pawn to queen is a journey for the female character to gain independence. This is the case in novels such as A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) by English novelist Thomas Hardy, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by English novelist Anne Brontë, as well as Through the Looking-Glass,

Carroll took the same game strategy Hardy and Brontë utilized in adult fiction and applied it to a novel for children. Through the Looking-Glass is a novel in which a girl develops from a powerless pawn, to the most important piece in chess, the queen.

Alice is not the narrative's only significant female: all three female characters in Through the Looking-Glass are powerful. The story is driven by Alice, the White Queen, and the Red Queen. As in an actual chess game, kings are mere figureheads rather than powerful players: the Red King sleeps throughout the story, and the White King merely takes notes and observes events.

When Alice first enters the world behind the mirror, she notices the White King struggle to get up from the bar, and she offers to help him. The White King, in what is stereotypically a female act, faints. After this, Alice is more cautious toward him, but she continues to watch him.

The Red King is even less active. He is asleep for the entirety of the story, and Alice notices "He had a tall red night-cap on, with a tassel, and he was lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap, and snoring loud."

In marked contrast to the fainting White King and the sleeping Red King, the queens are active and independent. In fact, the White King remarks on the White Queen's ability to look after herself. When Alice is alarmed to see the White Queen running, the king doesn't even look up. Instead he notes: "There's some enemy after her, no doubt." Alice is surprised at his calmness and inquires whether he is going to help the queen. His response makes it clear he does not view the queen as less capable because of her gender. "No use, no use!" he declares; "She runs so fearfully quick." The implication is the White Queen does not need to be rescued.

Throughout Looking-Glass Alice moves assertively on her journey to becoming a queen. Perhaps one of the most telling points, however, is in her response to the suggestion that she is merely a character in the Red King's dream. "I don't like belonging to another person's dream," she muses, "I've a great mind to go and wake him, and see what happens!" Taking action in the chess match, Alice seizes the Red Queen and places the Red King in checkmate. She faces obstacles and triumphs over them all.

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