His facility at word play, logic, and fantasy has delighted audiences ranging from the most naïve to the most sophisticated. His works have remained popular since they were published and have influenced not only children's literature, but also a number of major 20th century writers such as James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.
Dodgson's family was predominantly northern English, with some Irish connections. Conservative and High Church Anglican, most of Dodgson's ancestors belonged to the two traditional English upper-middle class professions: the army and the Church. His great-grandfather, also Charles Dodgson, had risen through the ranks of the church to become a bishop; his grandfather, another Charles, had been an army captain, killed in action in 1803 while his two sons were hardly more than babies.
The elder of these—yet another Charles—reverted to the other family business and took holy orders. He went to Westminster School, and thence to Christ Church, Oxford. He was mathematically gifted and won a double first degree which could have been the prelude to a brilliant academic career. Instead he married his first cousin in 1827 and retired into obscurity as a country parson.
Young Charles was born in the little parsonage of Daresbury in Cheshire, the oldest boy but already the third child of the four-and-a-half year old marriage. Eight more were to follow and, incredibly for the time, all of them—seven girls and four boys— survived into adulthood. When Charles was 11 his father was given the living of Croft-on-Tees in north Yorkshire, and the whole family moved to the spacious Rectory. This remained their home for the next 25 years.
Dodgson senior made some progress through the ranks of the church: he published some sermons, translated Tertullian, became an Archdeacon of Ripon Cathedral, and involved himself, sometimes influentially, in the intense religious disputes that were dividing the Anglican church. He was High Church, inclining to Anglo-Catholicism, an admirer of Newman and the Tractarian movement, and he did his best to instil such views in his children.
In the early years young Charles was educated at home. His "reading lists" preserved in the family testify to a precocious intellect: at the age of seven the child was reading The Pilgrim's Progress. It is often said that he was naturally left-handed and suffered severe psychological trauma by being forced to counteract this tendency, but there is no documentary evidence to support this. Charles also suffered from another disability, a stutter that often influenced his social life throughout his years. At twelve he was sent away to a small private school at nearby Richmond, where he appears to have been happy and settled. But in 1845, young Dodgson moved on to Rugby School, where he was evidently less happy, for as he wrote some years after leaving the place:
I cannot say ... that any earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again ... I can honestly say that if I could have been ... secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.
The nature of this nocturnal 'annoyance' will probably never now be fully understood, but it may be that he is delicately referring to some form of sexual molestation. Scholastically, though, he excelled with apparent ease. "I have not had a more promising boy his age since I came to Rugby" observed R.B. Mayor, the Maths master.
He left Rugby at the end of 1850 and, after an interval which remains unexplained, went on in January 1851 to Oxford, attending his father's old college, Christ Church. He had only been at Oxford two days when he received a summons home. His mother had died of "inflammation of the brain"—perhaps meningitis or a stroke—at the age of forty-seven.
Whatever Dodgson's feelings may have been about this death, he did not allow them to distract him too much from his purpose at Oxford. He may not always have worked hard, but he was exceptionally gifted and achievement came easily to him. The following year he received a first in Honour Moderations, and shortly after he was nominated to a Studentship (the Christ Church equivalent of a fellowship), by his father's old friend Canon Edward Pusey.
His early academic career veered between high-octane promise and irresistible distraction. Through his own laziness, he failed an important scholarship, but still his clear brilliance as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he continued to hold for the next 26 years. The income was good, but the work bored him and his stammer hampered him. Many of his pupils were older and richer than he was, and almost all of them were uninterested. They didn't want to be taught; he didn't want to teach them. Mutual apathy ruled.
At Oxford he was also diagnosed as an epileptic, then a considerable social stigma to bear. However, recently John R. Hughes, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago's epilepsy clinic, has argued that Carroll may have been misdiagnosed.
In 1856, Dodgson took up the new art form of photography; first under the influence of his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge, and later his Oxford friend Reginald Southey and art photography pioneer Oscar Rejlander.
Dodgson soon excelled at the art, and it became an expression of his very personal inner philosophy; a belief in the divinity of what he called beauty, by which he seemed to mean a state of moral or aesthetic or physical perfection. He found this divine beauty not simply in the magic of theatre, but in the poetry of words, in a mathematical formula and perhaps supremely, in the human form; in the body-images that moved him.
When he took up photography he sought with his own representations to combine the ideals of freedom and beauty into the innocence of Eden, where the human body and human contact could be enjoyed without shame. In his middle age, he was to re-form this philosophy into the pursuit of beauty as a state of Grace, a means of retrieving lost innocence. This, along with his lifelong passion for the theatre, was to bring him into confrontation with Victorian morality and his own family's High Church beliefs. As his main biographer Morton Cohen noted... "He rejected outright the Calvinist principle of original sin and replaced it with the notion of inborn divinity."
The definitive work on his photography (Roger Taylor's Lewis Carroll, Photographer (2002) exhaustively lists every surviving print, and Taylor calculates that just over fifty percent of his surviving work depicts young girls. However it should be noted that less than a third of his original portfolio has survived (see below). His favourite girl model was Alexandra Kitchin ("Xie"), whom he photographed around fifty times from the age of four until the age of about 16. In 1880 he was striving to be allowed to photograph the 16 year old Xie in 'bathing dress', but was not allowed this liberty. Most of his girl subjects would write their name on the corner of the print in coloured ink. It's assumed that Dodgson either destroyed or returned the nude photographs to the families of the girls he had photographed. They were long presumed lost, but six nudes have since surfaced, four of which have been published and another two of which little is known. Dodgson's practice of photographing or sketching nude girls has added to speculation that he was a paedophile (see below). There is a clear difference between Dodgson's girls and depictions by other Victorian artists; in almost all of his solo portraits of girls they are depicted unburdened by the heavy weight of Victorian symbolism, and are simply and strongly themselves.
He also found photography to be a useful entré into higher social circles. Once he had a studio of his own, he made portraits of notable sitters such as John Everett Millais, Ellen Terry, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He also made some landscapes and anatomy studies.
Dodgson abruptly ceased to photograph in 1880. Over 24 years he had completely mastered the medium, set up his own studio at the top of Tom Quad, and created around 3,000 images. Less than 1000 have survived time and deliberate destruction. He spent several hours each day creating a diary detailing the circumstances surrounding the making of each photograph, but this register was later destroyed.
With the advent of Modernism tastes changed, and his photography became forgotten from around 1920 until the 1960s. He is now considered one of the very best Victorian photographers, and is certainly the one who has had the most influence on modern art photographers.
The young adult Charles Dodgson was about six foot tall, slender and handsome in a soft-focused dreamy sort of way, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. At the unusually late age of seventeen, he suffered a severe attack of whooping cough which left him with poor hearing in his right ear and was probably responsible for his chronically weak chest in later life. The only overt defect he carried into adulthood was what he referred to as his "hesitation"—a stammer he had acquired in early childhood and which was to plague him throughout his entire life.
The stammer has always been a potent part of the myth. It is part of the mythology that Carroll only stammered in adult company, and was free and fluent with children, but there is no evidence to support this idea. Many children of his acquaintance remembered the stammer while many adults failed to notice it. It came and went for its own reasons, but not as a clichéd manifestation of fear of the adult world. Dodgson himself was far more acutely aware of it than most people he met. Although his stammer troubled him — even obsessed him sometimes — it was never bad enough to stop him using his other qualities to do well in society.
He was naturally gregarious and egoistic enough to relish attention and admiration. At a time when people devised their own amusements and singing and recitation were required social skills, the young Dodgson was well-equipped as an engaging entertainer. He could sing tolerably well and was not afraid to do so in front of an audience. He was adept at mimicry and story-telling. He was reputedly quite good at charades.
There are brief hints at a soaring sense of the spiritual and the divine; small moments that reveal a rich and intensely lived inner life. 'That is a wild and beautiful bit of poetry, the song of "call the cattle home",' he suddenly observed, in the midst of an analysis of Charles Kingsley's novel Alton Locke:
I remember hearing it sung at Albrighton: I wonder if any one there could have entered into the spirit of Alton Locke. I think not. I think the character of most that I meet is merely refined animal... How few seem to care for the only subjects of real interest in life.
He was also quite socially ambitious, anxious to make his mark on the world in some way, as a writer, or as an artist. It was perhaps the realisation that his talent as an artist was not sufficient that he eventually turned to photography. His scholastic career was seen as something of a stop-gap to other more exciting attainments that he desired.
In the interim between his early published writing and the success of Alice, he began to move in the Pre-Raphaelite social circle. He first met John Ruskin in 1857 and became friendly with him. Dodgson developed a close relationship with the Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his family, and also knew William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Arthur Hughes among other artists. He also knew the fairy-tale author George MacDonald well - it was the enthusiastic reception of "Alice" by the young MacDonald daughters that convinced him to submit the work for publication.
During his writing career, Carroll wrote poetry and short stories, sending them to various magazines and enjoying moderate success. Between 1854 and 1856, his work appeared in the national publications, The Comic Times and The Train, as well as smaller magazines like the Whitby Gazette and the Oxford Critic.
Most of his output was funny, sometimes satirical. But his standards and his ambitions were exacting. "I do not think I have yet written anything worthy of real publication (in which I do not include the Whitby Gazette or the Oxonian Advertiser), but I do not despair of doing so some day," he wrote in July 1855. Years before Alice, he was thinking up ideas for children's books that would make money: 'Christmas book [that would] sell well... Practical hints for constructing Marionettes and a theatre'. The ideas got better as he got older, but his canny mind, with an eye to income, was always there.
In 1856 he published his first piece of work under the name that would make him famous. A very predictable little romantic poem called "Solitude" appeared in The Train under the authorship of 'Lewis Carroll'. This pseudonym was a play on his real name, Lewis being the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll being an anglicised version of Carolus, the Latin for Charles.
In the same year, a new Dean, Henry Liddell, arrived at Christ Church, bringing with him a young wife and children, all of whom would figure largely in Dodgson's life over the following years. He became close friends with the mother and the children, particularly the three sisters Ina, Alice and Edith. It seems there became something of a tradition of his taking the girls out on the river for picnics at Godstow or Nuneham.
It was on one such expedition, in 1862, that Dodgson invented the outline of the story that eventually became his first and largest commercial success — the first Alice book. Having told the story and been begged by Alice Liddell to write it down, Dodgson eventually presented Alice with a hand-written, illustrated manuscript entitled Alice's Adventures Under Ground (now in the British Library, Add. MS 46700). Later he took the little book to Macmillan the publisher, who liked it immediately. After the possible alternative titles Alice Among the Fairies and Alice's Golden Hour were rejected, the work was finally published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 under the Lewis Carroll pen-name Dodgson had first used some nine years earlier. The illustrations this time were by Sir John Tenniel; Dodgson evidently realised that a published book would need the skills of a professional artist.
With the immediate, phenomenal success of Alice, the story of the author's life becomes effectively divided in two: the continuing story of Dodgson's real life and the evolving myth surrounding "Lewis Carroll." Carroll quickly became a rich and detailed alter ego, a persona as famous and deeply embedded in the popular psyche as the story he told. To him belongs a large part of the image of little girls and strange otherworldliness that we know from the author of Alice.
It is undisputed that throughout his growing wealth and fame, he continued to teach at Christ Church until 1881, and that he remained in residence there until his death. He published Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice Found There in 1872; his great Joycean mock-epic The Hunting of the Snark, in 1876 (inspired by and dedicated to his other great child-friend after Alice Liddell, Gertrude Chataway), and his last novel, the two-volume Sylvie and Bruno, in 1889 and 1893 respectively.
He also published many mathematical papers and books under his own name.
Other selected works
- An Elementary Treatise on Determinants
- Symbolic Logic
- Euclid and his Modern Rivals
- The Alphabet Cipher
- What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.
- Hiawatha's Photographing (a parody of The Song of Hiawatha)
Allegations of paedophilia
Dodgson’s undeniable fondness for little girls (especially Alice Liddell, from whom it is often said he may have derived his own "Alice", although he himself seems to have denied this origin), the sheer number of his child-friends, his collection of the early child photographs by Oscar Rejlander, his love of the London theatres before the child-actress reforms, and psychological readings of his work — especially his photographs of nude or semi-nude girls and his sketchbooks featuring his own drawings of nude or semi-nude girls — have all led to speculation that he was a paedophile, albeit probably a celibate one.
The issue has been contentious, with some arguing that child nudes were not uncommon during the era. (Other notable Victorian-era photographers who took images of nude children include Julia Margaret Cameron, Francis Meadow Sutcliffe, and others.)
According to the 'controversial' investigation by Karoline Leach into what she calls the 'Carroll Myth' (see below), the first hints of allegations that Dodgson was a pedophile seem to have appeared in 1932, in The Life of Lewis Carroll by Langford Reed. Reed apparently was the first to claim that all of Carroll's female friendships ended when the girls reached puberty (around 16 in 1870s England), though Reed apparently only intended to suggest that Dodgson was thereby a pure man untainted by touch of lust for adult flesh. This claim that Dodgson lost interest in girls once they reached puberty was later caught up by other biographers, who remained unaware of the evidence to the contrary since Dodgson's family refused to publish his diaries and letters.
The view of Dodgson as having no adult life and being preoccupied with children persisted among his biographers, including Florence Becker Lennon (Victoria Through the Looking-Glass - UK title "Lewis Carroll"), 1945) and the highly influential Alexander Taylor (The White Knight, 1952). The debate tended to veer between those who believed Dodgson to have been innocently obsessed with children and those who believed this obsession to have been pedophilic.
"We cannot know to what extent sexual urges lay behind Charles's preference for drawing and photographing children in the nude. He contended the preference was entirely aesthetic. But given his emotional attachment to children as well as his aesthetic appreciation of their forms, his assertion that his interest was strictly artistic is naïve. He probably felt more than he dared acknowledge, even to himself. Certainly he always sought to have another adult present when nude prepubescents modelled for him."
Cohen further notes that the children's mothers were encouraged to be present, and asks if these precautions were the result of Dodgson "insuring himself against slip-ups." (p 228–229) Cohen concedes that Dodgson "apparently convinced many of his friends that his attachment to the nude female child form was free of any eroticism," but adds that "later generations look beneath the surface" (p 229).
The only recorded instance of trouble associated with the nudes of children was Dodgson's experience with the Mayhew family. In 1879, Dodgson wrote what have been called by Cohen "several curious letters ... to the family of Andrew Mayhew, an Oxford colleague ... He asked permission to take nude photographs of the three Mayhew daughters, ages 6, 11, and 13, with no other adults present." The Mayhew parents, who had previously allowed Dodgson to photograph their children, refused, and Cohen notes this same period saw a "sudden break in the friendship" between Dodgson and the Mayhew family (p. 170). Leach suggests that the problem lay with his desire to study the older daughters in frontal positions and not with the younger children.
Karoline Leach's work and the 'Carroll Myth'
A new analysis of Dodgson's sexual proclivities (and indeed the evolution of the entire process of his biography) appears in Karoline Leach's 1999 book, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild. She claims that the image of Dodgson's alleged pedophilia was built out of a failure to understand Victorian morals, as well as the mistaken idea that Dodgson had no interest in adult women which evolved out of the minds of various biographers. She termed this simplified, often frankly fictional image 'the Carroll Myth'.
According to Leach, who cites much prima facie evidence, Dodgson's real life was very different from the accepted biographical image. He in fact was keenly interested in adult women and apparently enjoyed several relationships with women, married and single; some of these were his child-friends with whom (in complete refutation of the mythic idea that he 'lost interest' in any girl over the age of 14) he retained good relations into adulthood, but others — like Catherine Lloyd, Constance Burch, Edith Shute, Gertrude Thomson (to name but a few) — were women he met as adults and with whom he shared very close and meaningful friendships. Suggestions of paedophilia only evolved many years after his death, when his well-meaning family had suppressed all evidence of these adult friendships in order to try to preserve his reputation, thus giving a false impression of a man only interested in little girls. While not all paedophiles are attracted solely to children, this does repudiate some of the classical evidence for the claim.
Dodgson's problems with societal disapproval, Leach says, stemmed not from his usage of nude child models but his attempts to get slightly older models to pose in 'bathing dress' and other immodest clothing. These studies of scantily-dressed older models have all disappeared, leaving commentators only the photos of young girls to comment on.
In a review of the title in Victorian Studies (Vol.43, No.4) reviewer Donald Rackin wrote, "As a piece of biographical scholarship, Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild is difficult to take seriously", however, for all the emotional intensity of his attack, he visibly failed to detail any actual errors in her work. Nor have any errors been pointed out so far by any other authorities, and many now regard her work as an important step towards a better understanding of Carroll. Her work has been paralleled by that of Hugues Lebailly whose studies of Dodgson's artistic and social interests also support the idea that the image of his 'obsession' with little girls was largely simplistic or mythic in origin.
Jack the Ripper theories
Many wild theories have been woven around the life of Lewis Carroll. Perhaps the most extreme emerged in 1996 when author Richard Wallace published a book titled Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend accusing Lewis Carroll and his colleague Thomas Vere Bayne of being Jack the Ripper. It was largely based upon anagrams Wallace constructed from Carroll's writing. Carroll and Bayne have strong alibis for most of the nights of the Ripper murders, and Wallace's theory has not found support from other scholars.
Carroll did show some interest in the Jack the Ripper case, but this is hardly unusual, given the profound publicity surrounding the crimes. A passage in his diary dated August 26, 1891, reports that he spoke that day with an acquaintance of his about his "very ingenious theory about 'Jack the Ripper'". No other information about this theory has been found.
Lewis Carroll seems to have thought a lot about how to solve some common technical problems of the day. The fact that he was able to understand and use new technologies is amply demonstrated by his use of the camera, which was not as user-friendly as it is today.
One such invention, as cited in his journal on September 24, 1891 and as published in, was a system of writing called Nyctography and a tool called the Nyctograph. He invented this because he would be unable to sleep at night and would want to write down his ideas to clear his head. But, wanting to go quickly back to bed, he did not want to go through all the mechanical steps involved in lighting a lamp. He designed a card with square holes in a regular grid. One would always make a dot in the upper-left corner and then make other dots and/or strokes. These symbols were designed to look somewhat like the letters or numbers they represented. This did not seem to be used for any longer writings, since no writings with these symbols survive. But it is probable that Lewis Carroll himself would use this to make short notes to jog his memory, and then he would probably write the idea out in his journal. He also invented the pencil and paper game Word Ladder.
- Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Morten Cohen, Vintage, 1996.
- In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach.
- Victorian Web's detailed biography section on Carroll.
- "Did all those famous people really have epilepsy?" by John R. Hughes. Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago. Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 6, Issue 2, p.115–139. March 2005.
- The Raven and the Writing Desk by Francis Huxley, 1976. (ISBN 0060121130).
- Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger, (ISBN 0743228928) — also looks at Edward Lear (of the "nonsense" verses), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), and A. A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh).
- Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll. Yale University Press & SFMOMA, 2004. (Places Carroll firmly in the art photography tradition).
- Roger Taylor & Edward Wakeling. Lewis Carroll, Photographer. 2002. (Has a definitive list of every Carroll photograph that is still in existence.)
- Official websites
- Additional information
- Online books
- In the Arno Schmidt Reference Library
- Freely downloadable e-texts from Project Gutenberg:
- Other online texts
- Audio files
- Wired for Books: A dramatic audio production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (RealAudio)
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