Biography of Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)
Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of the English writer and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, most famous throughout the world for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872), which he wrote to entertain Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland follow Alice down a rabbit hole in search of the white rabbit who is very late for a tea party, where she meets a cast of strange creatures including the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice walks through a looking-glass into a strange looking-glass world, and finds herself as a white pawn in a real-life chess game where all the pieces have come to life. These stories portray an extraordinary dream-inspired world, a memorable cast of anthropomorphised animals and characters drawn with an extreme mixture of wit and weirdness, and brilliant word play and logic pushed beyond the limit. To enter the world of Alice is to enter a surreal world where words take on different meanings and nothing is quite as it seems.
Carroll was also an inventor of puzzles, games, ciphers, mnemonics for remembering names and dates, poetical acrostics, a system for writing in the dark, and he improved the game of backgammon. His writing was original and inventive, and added words to the English language, such as chortle, a portmanteau word that combines “snort” and “chuckle.” He played games with idioms, using such expressions as “beating time” (to music) in a literal sense. He reshaped animals of fable or rhetoric such as the March Hare, or Cheshire Cat, and invented new ones like the Bandersnatch and the Boojum. Carroll invented his pen name by translating his first two names into the Latin “Carolus Lodovicus” and then anglicizing it into “Lewis Carroll.”
Carroll was the eldest son and third child in a family of seven girls and four boys, all of whom stuttered. His mother (Frances Jane Lutwidge) and father (Charles Dodgson) were first cousins, and unusually religious. At the time of Carroll’s birth in the old parsonage at Daresbury, an isolated country village with lots of children, his father was the perpetual curate there until 1843 when he became the rector of Croft in Yorkshire, a post he held most of his life until he became Archdeacon of Richmond and one of the Canons of Ripon Cathedral. Carroll’s father was a distinguished scholar whose favorite study was mathematics.
Carroll began at an early age to entertain himself and his family with magic tricks, marionette shows, and poems, parody, word-play and puzzles written for homemade newspapers and the family magazine. He made a train with railway stations in the Rectory garden; he did conjuring in a brown wig and a long white robe; he made a troupe of marionettes and a stage with the aid of the family and a village carpenter; he wrote all the plays for it himself, and manipulated the strings. He made pets of snails and toads, and tried to promote modern warfare among earthworms by giving them small pieces of clay pipe for weapons.
As a child, he took an early interest in mathematics. When he was told that logarithms was too difficult for a child to understand, he responded “Yes, but please explain.” He was educated by his father until age 12, then attended Mr. Tate’s school at Richmond in Yorkshire where he excelled in his studies, becoming a champion of the weak and small against the schoolyard bullies. He earned the reputation of being “a boy who knew how to use his fists in a righteous cause.” After contributing a story to the school magazine, Dr. Tate wrote to Carroll’s father that Charles “had a very uncommon share of genius, and you may fairly anticipate for him a bright career.” Carroll endured several illnesses as a child, one of which left him deaf in one ear.
From 1846 to 1850 Carroll attended Rugby School, then graduated from his father’s college, University of Oxford, in 1854, coming out at the head of the class in his mathematical finals, second in classics, and was awarded the Butler Scholarship. He was made a “Master of the House” and a senior student (fellow), then obtained his master of arts degree in 1857. Throughout his career, Carroll consistently distinguished
himself with honors and respect from his peers and mentors alike. He wrote, “I am getting tired of being congratulated on various subjects; there seems to be no end of it. If I had shot the Dean I could hardly have had more said about it.” At the time of his studentship, ordination was a necessary prerequisite to lecture at Oxford in mathematics, and according to its terms, Carroll was to remain unmarried and proceed to holy orders.
In 1861 he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England, but never took priest’s orders. Had he gone on to become a priest he could have married and been appointed to a parish by the college. Only heads of houses were free both to marry and to continue in residence. Considering marriage, he decided he was content to remain a bachelor, partly because his stammer made preaching difficult, partly because he felt himself unsuited for parish work, and partly because he had discovered other interests. Though he never wholly overcame his stutter, he did preach from time to time, often to the servants of the college but he enjoyed most preaching to children.
Carroll had a keen interest in photography, and he is remembered as a fine photographer of children, adults, and the great celebrities of his day, such as the actress Ellen Terry, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Roseetti, and many others. His particular penchant for photographing young girls is now viewed with some amount of quite unfounded suspicion. He photographed children in every possible costume and situation, finally making nude studies of them. Various attempts have been made to prove that his friendships with little girls were some sort of subconscious substitute for a married life, that he showed signs of jealousy when his favorites told him they were engaged to be married, and contemplated marriage with Alice Liddell, but there is little or no evidence to back up such theorizing. In fact, Carroll dropped his acquaintance with Alice Liddell when she was 12, as he did with most of his young friends.
Carroll was uncomfortable in the company of adults and is said to have spoken without stuttering only to young girls, many of whom he entertained, corresponded with, and photographed. Carroll’s association with children grew naturally enough out of his position as an eldest son with eight younger brothers and sisters, so it is not surprising that he should begin to entertain the children of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, especially since they were the only children in Christ Church. But Alice Liddell and her sisters Lorina and Edith were not the first of Carroll’s child friends. They had been preceded or were overlapped by the children of the writer George Macdonald, the sons of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and various other acquaintances. It was not uncommon for Carroll to send a sick child in the hospital one of his books in an attempt to cheer them up. He always kept a large assortment of musical boxes and an organette which had to be fed with paper tunes, clockwork bears, mice, frogs, games and puzzles of all sorts for the amusement of his child guests. In 1880, Carroll abandoned his photographic hobby altogether, feeling it was taking up too much time that might be better spent.
Properly chaperoned by their governess, Miss Prickett (nicknamed “pricks” — “one of the thorny kind,” and so the prototype of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass), the three girls paid many visits to the young mathematics lecturer in his college rooms. As a man, Carroll was tall, thin and dark, with delicate features, smooth skin, and thick curly hair. As Alice remembered in 1932, they used to sit on the big sofa on each side of him, while he told them stories, illustrating them by drawings as he went along.
In 1862, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth, fellow of Trinity, rowed the three children up the Thames from Oxford to Godstow, picnicked on the bank, and returned to Christ Church late in the evening, on which occasion Carroll told the girls the fairy-tale of Alice’s Adventures Underground. At the end of the trip, inspired by the story, Alice started to cry, and asked Carroll to write out Alice’s adventures for her, which he did. The novelist Henry Kingsley, while visiting the deanery, chanced to pick up the story from the drawing room table, and urged Carroll to publish it. Carroll consulted his friend George Macdonald, author of some of the best children’s stories of the period, who then took it home to read to his children, and his son Greville, aged six, declared that he “wished there were 60,000 volumes of it.” The book was such a success, that six years later Carroll decided to write a sequel to it, and Through the Looking Glass later became the most popular children’s book in England. Carroll shied away from publicity and wrote, “Mr. C. L. Dodgson …neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym or with any book not published under his own name.”
Carroll remained at the University of Oxford until 1881 as a member of the faculty, lecturing on mathematics and writing articles and books on geometry, determinants, the mathematics of tournaments and elections, and recreational logic. As a mathematician, Carroll was conservative and derivative. As a logician, he was more interested in logic as a game than as an instrument for testing reason. He became a confirmed and exacting bachelor, who labeled and filed all his papers and letters, and asked perfection of the artists who illustrated his books, even requesting one of them, E. Gertrude Thomson, not to do any work for him on Sundays. He rose early every morning, and worked hard all day. He did a great deal of entertaining, and made charts of where his guests sat at table, and kept track of menus in his diary so that people would not have the same dishes too frequently.
He was full of a tremendous reverence for sacred subjects, and would leave a theatre if a joke on such matters was made in the play. He was considered to be somewhat eccentric and fussy. He wrote no less than 48 letters of complaint to the steward at Christ Church while he taught there about everything from odors in the rooms to the choice of meat for dinner. But from around 1865 until his death in 1898, Carroll was known for his child friends, and his hobbies and inventions, rather than his abilities as a mathematician, lecturer and scholar.
Carroll’s comic fantasy and children’s works also include The Hunting of the Snark (1876), a narrative nonsense poem set at sea which is rivaled only by the best of Edward Lear, and which has since been turned into a moderately successful musical; A Tangled Tale (1885), designed to interest children in mathematics; two collections of humorous verse; and the two parts of Sylvie and Bruno (1889, 1893), and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). Sylvie and Bruno never reached the popularity of the Alice books and has been described as “one of the most interesting failures in English literature.” This elaborate combination of fairy-tale, social novel and collection of ethical discussions is unduly neglected and ridiculed. It presents the truest available portrait of Carroll. According to Carroll, Silvie and Bruno is full of the ideals and sentiments “he held most dear.”
Carroll died of bronchitis/influenza in his sisters’ home in Guildford on January 14, 1898. He lies buried in The Mount Cemetery, Guildford. His memory is kept alive by perpetual public endowment of a cot in the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London.