Lewis Carroll and ballet

Posted on 10 January 2019 By Rose Mulready

Lewis Carroll, the shy creator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, loved the theatre – and, despite its scandalous reputation, the ballet. Dr Caitlyn Lehmann traces Carroll’s life in tandem with some 19th-century ballet milestones.  

1832: Carroll is born

It was the year that sylphs first flitted across the stage and Marie Taglioni became a household name. There was a wave of sylph-fever among the grand and the great after La Sylphide premiered in Paris and London. Dashing ladies coiffed their hair à la sylphide; Princess Victoria christened her doll - and her pony - Taglioni. Meanwhile, in the village of Daresbury, Charles Dodgson, better known to us by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was born.

For both literature and dance, 1832 was auspicious. As well as being the year of Carroll’s birth, it marked the rise of Romantic ballet, with its forlorn love stories, folk motifs and uncanny, supernatural women. Carroll would grow up to be a romantic at heart, a theatre-lover, and a quixotic individual with a flair for the fantastical. But for much of his adult life, ballet-going was a risky business. He was the eldest son of a family with intergenerational ties to the Anglican church, and the public stage was considered deeply suspect. Happily, Carroll fell under theatre’s spell anyway. When did he first see ballet? It remains a mystery.

Marie Taglioni as La Sylphide

1845: Carroll’s school days

In Carroll’s youth, London’s foremost venue for ballet was still the city’s opera house, known then as Her Majesty’s Theatre. There, the finest dancers from across Europe enthralled the fashionable, who were protected by their rank and riches from association with ballet’s bad reputation. In 1845, Carroll was in his second year at Richmond School in Yorkshire. In London, Her Majesty’s was hosting the theatrical coup of the decade. For three nights only, the venue had secured the four greatest ballerinas of the age – Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi and Lucile Grahn – who performed together in a piece d’occasion dubbed the Pas de quatre.

Yet even as the fashionable world buzzed its enthusiasm, ballet’s appeal was coming under pressure. Moralists attacked dancers and patrons alike for encouraging depravity and vice. One religious pamphlet of 1842 condemned ballet as an “odious exhibition” and “a stain upon the character of a christian [sic] public”. The crusade has its effect: Her Majesty’s abandoned ballet in 1858. Carroll had just a few short years between finishing school and his ordination as a deacon when he could justly attend ballet at the opera house. After that, he was compelled to avoid any ‘harmful’ spectacles of theatrical dancing.

Marie Taglioni and (L to R) Lucille Grahn, Fanny Cerrito and Carlotta Grisi in Pas de quatre. Thomas Herbert Maguire (1821-1895) from a drawing by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860)

1857: Carroll at the ballet

In 1857, Carroll briefly visited London, where he spent his evening at the opera house seeing a performance of the ballet La Esmeralda. Starring in the ballet was Mlle Carolina Pocchini from Vienna. Local critics called her “one of the most charming dancers we have ever seen” and effusively dubbed her “a fairy-like thing, more like a being of air, than of earth”. Carroll solemnly agreed. “We saw some beautiful dancing,” he recorded in his diary, “Mademoiselle Pocchini being the chief and best performer.”

Carolina Pocchini in 1855

1864: Carroll writes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In November 1864, Carroll gifted a small book to Alice Liddell called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. It was neatly handwritten and illustrated by Carroll himself. The titlepage was exquisitely decorated like a medieval book of hours, with large gothic letters entwined with ivy and foxgloves, delicately bordered by blue meadow flowers. The manuscript was revised and published the following year as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Charles Dodgson was transformed into the celebrated Lewis Carroll.

While Carroll put the finishing touches to his precious original manuscript, another man of enterprise was preparing to make his mark. When Frederick Strange, a former waiter, took over the ailing Alhambra Theatre, he determined to make it the home of the best-priced entertainment in London. He hired “a big band, a big chorus, and a big ballet”. The Alhambra music hall blossomed as a rakish, comfortable resort for lounging, drinking and promenading - and seeing lavish ballet productions filled with jaunty girls and clever stage effects. Relying on overseas stars backed by huge corps de ballets of local dancers, the Alhambra, with justification, was to be called “The Greatest Spectacular Ballet Theatre in Europe”.

1885: Carroll contributes to the ‘ballet debate’

Despite seeing ballet in various forms, including as the fairy stuff of children’s pantomimes, Carroll never saw ballet at the Alhambra Theatre. Its ballet company was notorious for the svelte legs and scanty costumes of its dancers, not to mention its reliance on dancers dressed en travesti (in male drag). In reality, there was, in fact, a regular exchange of productions and star dancers between the music hall and Europe’s respectable opera houses. But clerical modesty certainly forbade Carroll such sights as the Alhambra’s sexy 1889 blockbuster, Our Army and Navy.    

During the 1880s, however, a handful of Anglicans, including the Reverend Hugh Haweis and his wife Mary, spoke out against the Church’s strictures against ballet. In 1888, Reverend Haweis declared, “it is cruel and censorious to condemn ballet girls ... simply because they display the human form and dance for other people’s entertainment.” Intriguingly, Carroll preceded him by penning his own thoughts on ballet in 1885. In an unpublished article about the dress of ballet girls, Carroll privately concluded, “I greatly fear the motive, of those who designed the dresses & dances, is often evil . . . [but] in the girls themselves I think the evil motive is far more rarer [sic]."

Costume design by Lucien Besche for Our Army and Navy (1889). Image courtesy of Caitlyn Lehmann

1892: Carroll in retirement

When Carroll resigned his role as mathematics lecturer he intended to devote more time to his writing and publishing projects. Instead, he quickly found himself becoming a “selfish recluse”, and opted for the curatorship of the Senior Common Room at Oxford’s Christ Church College. There, his skills as a prudent and efficient organiser were reflected by the excellent quality of the wine cellar and the members’ afternoon teas. Carroll eventually retired in 1892. He lived modestly - the success of his Alice books never made him wealthy - but he still occasionally saw performances in London.

Of course, ever anxious to avoid the music halls, Carroll missed seeing the Alhambra’s bedazzling production of Aladdin for the Christmas of 1892. It had a breathtaking crystal curtain of “at least 10,000 prisms” secured to 24 miles of wire, which weighed roughly one-and-a-half tons. He missed, too, the dancing of Pierina Legnani, the ballerina who would become the original Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and who was responsible for Odile’s famous 32 fouettes. Had Carroll ventured to Aladdin, he would have seen those fouettes long before Legnani’s admirers in Russia. Handing over her pointe shoes to a London reporter, Legnani remarked, “With these I hardly get tired; in fact, in the last tableaux of Aladdin I turn thirty-two pirouettes on tiptoe without dropping my foot. Not many dancers can do that.”

Pierina Legnani in Raymonda

1898: Carroll’s death

Charles Dodgson died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898. His passing coincided with the flickers of ballet’s revival as a serious and respectable art form. A few months before his death, the Empire Theatre hired the classically trained Danish ballerina Adeline Genée. Lauded for her refined technique and “Dresden china” elegance, she became a cherished figure of the Edwardian stage. She preferred the soft tulle skirts of the Romantic ballet, and never posed for saucy photographs like many of her popular peers on the music hall stage. Today's prestigious Genée International Ballet Competition, held each year by the Royal Academy of Dance, is named after her.

As Carroll’s life ended, the life of another pioneering dancer and artistic leader began. A little girl called Edris Stannus was born in Ireland six months after Carroll's death. Her first performances as a child dancer were in the Christmas pantomimes that Carroll had so loved. We know Edris today as Ninette de Valois, the founder of The Royal Ballet - the company for whom Christopher Wheeldon created his production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©.

Adeline Genée in Camargo, 1897