Lewis Carroll

The English cleric Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll, was the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He was also a noted mathematician and photographer.

Born on Jan. 27, 1832, Lewis Carroll passed a happy childhood in the rectories of his father, the Reverend Charles Dodgson. For his nine sisters and two brothers he frequently made up games and wrote stories and poems, some of which foreshadow the delights of Alice. Although his school years at Rugby (1846-1849) were unhappy, he was recognized as a good scholar, and in 1850 he was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford. He graduated in 1854, and in 1855 he became mathematical lecturer at the college. This permanent appointment, which not only recognized his academic superiority but also made him financially secure, carried the stipulations that Carroll take orders in the Anglican Church and remain unmarried. He complied with these requirements and was ordained a deacon in 1861.

Photography and Early Publication

Among adults Carroll was reserved, but he was not a recluse. He attended the theater frequently and was absorbed by photography and writing. Beginning photography in 1856, he soon found that his favorite subjects were children and famous people; among the latter he photographed Alfred Lord Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, and John Millais. Of Carroll's photographs of children Helmut Gernsheim wrote, "He achievers an excellence which in its way can find no peer." Though photography was a recreation, Carroll practiced it almost obsessively until 1880.

In the mid-1850s Carroll also began to write both humorous and mathematical works. In 1856 he created the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll" by translating his first and middle names into Latin, reversing their order, and translating them back into English. His mathematical writing, however, appeared under his real name.

Alice Books

In 1856 Carroll met Alice Liddell, the 4-year-old daughter of the dean of Christ Church. During the next few years Carroll frequently made up stories for Alice and her sisters. On July 4, 1862, while picnicking with the Liddell girls, Carroll recounted the adventures of a little girl who fell into a rabbit hole. Alice asked that he write the tale for her. He did so, calling it Alice's Adventures under Ground. After revisions, this work was published in 1865 as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with illustrations by John Tenniel.

Encouraged by its success, Carroll wrote a sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). Based on the chess games Carroll played with the Liddell children, it included material he had written before he knew them. The first stanza of "Jabberwocky," for example, was written in 1855. More of Carroll's famous Wonderland characters, such as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, appear in this work than in Alice in Wonderland.

Unlike most of the children's books of the day, Alice and its sequel do not contain obvious moralizing. Nor are they what critics have tried to make them—allegories of religion or politics. They are delightful adventure stories in which a normal, healthy, clearheaded little girl reacts to the "reality" of the adult world. Their appeal to adults as well as to children lies in Alice's intelligent response to absurdities of language and action.

Later Publications

Carroll published several other nonsense works, including The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Sylvie and Bruno (1889), and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). He also wrote a number of pamphlets satirizing university affairs, which appeared anonymously or under other pseudonyms, and several works on mathematics under his true name.

In 1881 Carroll gave up his lectureship to devote all his time to writing. However, from 1882 to 1892 he was curator of the common room (manager of the faculty club) at Christ Church. After a short illness, he died on Jan. 14, 1898.

Assessment of the Man

The Reverend C. L. Dodgson was a reserved, fussy, conservative bachelor who remained aloof from the economic, political, and religious storms that troubled Victorian England. Lewis Carroll, however, was a delightful, lovable companion to the children for whom he created his engrossing nonsense stories and poems. That both men were one has long puzzled biographers and psychologists.

One solution is that he was two personalities, "Lewis Carroll" and "the Reverend Mr. Dodgson," with the psychological difficulties that accompany a split personality. He did have peculiarities—he stammered from childhood, was extremely fussy about his possessions, and walked as much as 20 miles a day. But another solution seems more nearly correct: "Dodgson" and "Carroll" were facets of one personality. This personality, because of happiness in childhood and unhappiness in the formative years thereafter, could act in the adult world only within the limits of formality and could blossom only in a world that resembled the one he knew as a child.

Further Reading on Lewis Carroll

Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (1898), and The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green (2 vols., 1954), are dull but necessary. The sanest and most informative book on Carroll is James P. Wood, The Snark Was a Boojum: A Life of Lewis Carroll (1966), written for young people. Florence Becker Lennon, The Life of Lewis Carroll (1945; new ed. 1962), is contentious. Phyllis Greenacre, Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives (1955), is too psychologically oriented. Alexander Taylor, The White Knight (1952), goes into too many explanations. Roger Lancelyn Green, The Story of Lewis Carroll (1950) and Lewis Carroll (1960), concentrates too heavily on Carroll's revisions and other bibliographical matters. Besides Wood, only Derek Hudson in Lewis Carroll (1954) maintains the steadiness and clarity of vision necessary when writing of Carroll. Helmut Gernsheim, Lewis Carroll, Photographer (1949), is an exciting demonstration of Carroll's ability with a camera.