The Mystery of Lewis Carroll
The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which sees its 150th anniversary this year, remains to this day an enigmatic figure. Jenny Woolf explores the joys and struggles of this brilliant, secretive, and complex man, creator of one of the world's best-loved stories.
July 1, 2015
When Charles L. Dodgson was born in January 1832, his paternal aunt wrote a letter to his parents, welcoming the “dear little stranger” and begging them to kiss him on her behalf. His clergyman father, already “overdone with delight” whenever he looked at his family, put a notice in The Times to announce the arrival of his much-wanted first son.
For his first eleven years, the Dodgsons lived in a small parsonage in the midst of fields, in the scattered village of Daresbury, Cheshire. The parsonage burned down over a hundred years ago, but its site still remains, marked out in bricks and enclosed in a decorative iron fence, with countryside all around.
Its rooms are tiny, for Charles’ father was only a poor curate, and he had to take in pupils and grow some of his own food. But Charles remembered Daresbury Parsonage as a happy spot, an “island farm, ‘midst seas of corn.” He and an ever-growing number of brothers and sisters roamed in the surrounding countryside, and his sisters remembered him as a typical boy, climbing trees and playing in local ponds. After his father was promoted, the family moved to a large rectory in the village of Croft-on-Tees, in Yorkshire, and soon grew to eleven children.
Charles was very young when he seems to have decided to become the family’s main entertainer. He amused his brothers and sisters tirelessly, creating elaborate games for them to play in the garden, telling them stories and creating magazines for them. His own youthful contributions to these magazines occasionally show hints of what was to come. Alice’s Duchess, who saw a “moral” in everything, echoes his poem “My Fairy”, written at the age of thirteen, in which he gently criticises the explicit moralizing of contemporary children’s books.
From all accounts, Charles relished the role of older brother, and his siblings are reported to having thought a lot of him; they certainly stayed in close touch all his life. It seems that he was markedly protective, for as a schoolboy he was known for getting into fights in defence of smaller boys. Later in life, friends sometimes commented on how well he looked after them - one niece even affectionately compared him to a “mother hen”.
Schooling was not compulsory at the time, but it was better for a boy to attend school if he wanted to have a professional career. Charles was mostly educated at home, but when he was twelve he was sent to a little school in nearby Richmond, where he boarded with the headmaster, his wife and family, and was very happy.
By contrast, he loathed the three years he spent at boarding-school in Rugby. He did well, and won prizes, but he hated the school’s lack of privacy, uninspired teaching, and savage bullying. Years later, he admitted it had not been totally bad, for he had made some friends, but he added that “no earthly considerations” would ever induce him to repeat the years he had endured there.
At nineteen, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, his father’s old college. He did very well, and before long was appointed a Fellow, known as a “Student”, and was engaged in teaching mathematics. As he moved further into his twenties and got more involved in the job, he remained close to his family, making the long trip back North during vacations, and socialising with his brothers and sisters at other times.
It is hard to know what he really thought about Christ Church. It did offer opportunities to read, reflect, and use his mind, and, in making a success of his life there, he was doing what both he and his family expected. It also offered him the chance to meet many of the well known figures of the time, and his circle of friends does include large numbers of famous people. And he needed a decent salary, for his father had little money, and, as the eldest son, he knew he would assume responsibility for everyone after his father died.
Teaching the undergraduates did not suit him, for with his quiet voice, gentle manner and troublesome stammer, he found it hard to keep order. Some of his rougher contemporaries made fun of his speech difficulty, and many of the undergraduates were rich young men who did not want to learn and considered themselves better than him. He seems to have coped with the emotional discomforts of his life by presenting a cold, remote face to those he did not know well.
He wrote his brothers and sisters long, entertaining letters, got involved in college politics and spent as much time as possible with the Liddell children, Harry, Ina, Edith and Alice, who lived in the college Deanery. With them, he could be more like his real self, the person he showed to his family. He took the children out, helped them with all kinds of projects, and made up stories for them.
So this was the outward appearance of the man who created the story of "Alice in Wonderland" in 1862, when he was thirty years old. The famous story is said to have been told during a boating trip on July 4, when Charles, his friend Duckworth and the three Liddell girls rowed to the village of Godstow. Actually, the story may have taken shape over two or three trips that summer – but in any case, the children loved it.
Alice Liddell was ten at the time, three years older than the “Alice” of the story. She was a clever, artistic little girl, with short, dark hair, and a bold confident gaze, and Charles was very fond of her. When she pestered him to write the story out for her, he did, although it was over two years before he arrived at the Deanery with his pretty handwritten volume of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
It has sometimes been suggested that Charles was in love with Alice, or wanted to marry her as she grew older, but there is no evidence for this at all. In fact, he may only have named the character “Alice” to please his little friend, for he later took pains to point out that Alice the child was not the “Alice” he’d imagined in the story. His own contemporary illustrations, too, show Alice with long, fairish hair, quite unlike Alice Liddell’s dark bob.
He stayed friends with Alice’s older sister Lorina for the rest of his life, and in fact gossip did circulate that he might have had his eye on her. It was unusual for a man in his position to seek out children's company so publicly, and many people thought that he must have had hopes of either the oldest girl or the governess. No evidence exists to back this up, but it is known that the friendship with Alice withered as she left childhood behind. He was not an important part of her family’s social circle, and there are hints that she did not particularly like being world-famous because of someone else’s book.
Charles did not record Alice’s reaction to his gift, but many other people who saw the story loved it; so many, indeed, that he had already decided that he would publish it by the time he’d presented it to Alice. The publisher Alexander Macmillan agreed to work on it, although the agreement was that Charles would have to pay most of the cost of production.
Charles boldly committed over a year’s salary to the project. Then, he scrapped the whole first edition of 2000, because Tenniel disliked the quality of the printing. Fussiness was one of his personal characteristics, as were a certain impetuousness, boldness, and a determination to do what he felt was right, however inconvenient and difficult it might be.
Famous last words! Eventually, Alice enabled him to retire early, although it did not make a fraction of the money that such a bestseller would generate today. Within a decade, Charles’ pseudonym of “Lewis Carroll” was a household name, and when he died in 1898, the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass were world-famous. They are now available all over the world, both in the original unaltered mid-Victorian texts and in numerous rewritings and adaptations, movies, artworks, musicals, and animations.
As the books' fame grew, people naturally wondered about the man who had written them, but Charles had no intention of revealing himself to the public. Writing a children’s book did not particularly enhance his professional career, and he flatly refused to acknowledge in public that he was “Lewis Carroll”.
It has sometimes been wondered why he went to these lengths. Part of the reason seems to have been a need for privacy. After all, he lived in a semi-communal setting, and often spent time with his large extended family, as well. He dreaded being accosted by strangers, and he treasured periods of solitude in order to work on the mathematics which fascinated him.
He also wanted freedom from outside scrutiny. Within the circle of family, children and his many bohemian and artistic friends, he was teasing, humorous, sometimes emotional, occasionally reckless and iconoclastic. These were not qualities expected of staid, clerical academics in the restrictive world of the Victorian middle class. In this way, perhaps the sentiments of “My Fairy” applied to him, even in adult life.
In particular, his love of the theatre and his passion for theatrical people created a problem so far as his public image was concerned. Theatres were not respectable in the mid-nineteenth century, and the plays they presented were often trivial and frivolous. Even though their reputation improved during his lifetime, his parents and most of his sisters never attended one in their lives.
But for him, the theatre was a whole fantasy world, and the actors were its inhabitants. He was a perceptive, knowledgeable critic of their work, and he was also a most gifted and dramatic storyteller himself. In different circumstances, he might have become professionally involved with the stage, but this was impossible in the life which he actually had.
The few adults to whom he told stories remembered him as a remarkable raconteur with a funny story for every occasion and the ability to reduce a listener to helpless laughter. He could also gather an audience with great ease, when he chose, as Ruth, daughter-in-law of the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse, described in a memoir.
As a little girl, she once arrived at a children’s party and saw a pale old clergyman in black clothes. She glumly assumed that he would spoil everything. Yet, “the party soon became Mr. Dodgson’s party,” she said, and he talked so fascinatingly, that “I remember how exasperating it was to be asked whether I would like another piece of cake, when I was trying so hard to hear what he was saying”.
He relaxed in the presence of females across all ages, and his bachelor rooms at Christ Church contained hundreds of books of poetry, myth, magic, and legend, and toys and fancy dresses. At a time when the line between the sexes was firmly drawn, he had no interest in sport and war, but enjoyed fairies, animals, dressing up, art, and beauty, as well as puppets, dolls, and stuffed toys. Even when he was an old man, his niece Irene remembered what fun it was crawling with him on the floor, playing with a toy bear. And it is perhaps significant that the only toy from his childhood that he bothered to photograph was a boy doll or puppet called “Tim”.
As well as his passion for the theatre, he was also a keen photographer, mostly of people and particularly of children. Some of his young models remember how successfully he kept them interested and occupied during what was then a long and boring process, and parents sometimes commissioned him professionally to photograph their children. His nude images of children seem controversial today, but nudes of both sexes and all ages were acceptable as valid artistic subjects then, and in fact, some of the child images of his respectable contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron, seem far more startling to the modern eye.
However, his love of children and his admiration for child nudity are sometimes taken to be evidence that he was a paedophile. It is impossible for anyone to know the definite truth about the sexual life of another, particularly someone long dead and from a different culture. But again and again, children who knew him, including those photographed nude by him, remember him with real love and affection, in recollections that indicate he did not in any way behave like a paedophile. As Evelyn Hatch, who he photographed nude as “Odalisque” recalls, “What I remember most about Mr. Dodgson was his kindness.... his aim was to give happiness and to make life richer... he was an ever-welcome guest.” Dozens of other recollections of little girls echo views like this.
In general, he seems to have had a positive, constructive attitude, and he made the best of his life. But in some essential ways, he could not be himself, and his family said that he suffered periodically from black depression. At these times, they felt that the sincere love of his child friends kept him going.
His affection, in turn, meant a great deal to many of them. Time and again they report that he took them seriously when nobody else did, and understood their points of view. Among many touching memories are those of Ethel, niece of Matthew Arnold, who recalls how “the hours spent in his dear and much-loved company, [were] oases of brightness in a somewhat grey and melancholy childhood”.
He never married, and apparently never wanted to. Victorian marriage (with the prospect of many more dependants) would certainly have been a heavy addition to the constraints under which he already lived. It would have lost him what independence he had, and the mere fact of being married at all would have presented him with serious practical problems for many years. His closeness to his siblings might also have been a contributing factor to the decision. Only three of the eleven ever wed, and the remaining seven remained under his care for the rest of his life.
During his youth he had been unable to spend time alone with respectable women, but after he passed what Victorians considered to be the age of “romance,” he openly went on holiday with woman friends, and gathered a sizeable circle of admiring ladies around him. As author Laurence Hutton recalled in 1903, shortly after his death, “he liked young women, who all liked him, and Oxford is now full of women, mature and immature, who adore the gentle memory of the creator of 'Alice'".
In later life, although he was kind, generous and involved to those close to him, he became increasingly difficult, eccentric and annoying to outsiders. He also began spending considerable time fretting about tiny moral points and examining finer points of his own conscience. As he saw his own death approaching, he became very anxious not to offend God in any way. Much of his later fiction - self-conscious, badly structured, and over-moralistic - reveals this anxiety.
It was a relief to him to escape into the intellectual study of logic, which increasingly gripped him. But he still relaxed and seems to have gained strength from the company of the children he loved, and he continued to tell them original, funny, startling, and brilliant tales to make them happy. Adults rarely heard them, but his close friend Gertrude Thomson described them as being “like rainbows” - unique, beautiful, and evanescent.
He never wrote any of these tales down, and in a rare burst of confidence not long before he died, he told Gertrude Thomson that he didn’t know what people saw in the “Alice” books. Yet although he apparently chose to regard them as unimportant fairy tales, we know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion Through the Looking Glass were both created at times of great personal stress for him. It is reasonable to assume that they were in some way therapeutic, and perhaps he did not want to think too deeply about what they represented.
Although he never wanted to discuss them with adults, he always wanted them to reach the widest possible child audience. And over the last 150 years, millions of children have grown up on “Alice”. Many of these have gone on to produce their own works of art inspired by the curious little girl. To many of us, the wonderful variety of these cultural works makes a fascinating study – one that is nearly, though not quite, as interesting as the study of Charles Dodgson himself.
Jenny Woolf is the author of Charles L. Dodgson’s biography, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll
Imagery from this post is featured in
our special book of images created to celebrate 10 years of The Public Domain Review.
500+ images – 368 pages
Large format – Hardcover with inset image