Lewis Carroll: master of imagination
"He may not have always worked hard, but he was exceptionally gifted and achievement came easily to him."
Until her death in 1934 at the age of 82, Alice Liddell Hargreaves had to bear the burden of being known to the world as 'Alice in Wonderland', the heroine of the stories written for and about her by Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a brilliant mathematics tutor at Christ Church, the college of which her father was Dean in the second half of the 19th century.
Alice was born in 1852, the third of the ten children of Henry Liddell and his wife Lorina. At that time he was Headmaster of Westminster School, but in 1855 he was appointed Dean of Christ Church, where he had been an undergraduate, and the family moved to Oxford, where work immediately began on refurbishing the Dean's Lodgings in Tom Quad. The Dean and Mrs Liddell were to become the stars of Oxford society, and many parties, receptions and musical soirees were held in the spacious Deanery over the following years.
However, Alice and her older and younger sisters, Lorina and Edith, were only little girls and had plenty of time to play and to escape from the watchful eye of their strict governess, Miss Prickett. It was while they were playing in the Deanery garden on 25th April 1856 that the twenty four year old Charles Dodgson first met Alice, and marked the date in his diary as being of "special significance".
Dodgson was a keen photographer, and had been photographing the Cathedral. The children were attracted by what he was doing, so he also tried to take pictures of them, but they were far too impatient to sit still, particularly the young Alice who promptly left the Deanery garden and made her way to the little sweet shop in St. Aldate's, just across the road from the college.
Henry Liddell shared Dodgson's interest in this new art, so it was not long before he was invited to take the first of the many photographs of the growing family, and of Alice in particular. He was at one time almost as famous for his photographic portraits of children and notable contemporaries such as John Everett Millais, Ellen Terry, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as he was a writer. Dodgson had a set of rooms near Tom Tower and fitted them out with a studio and dark room. He kept a box of dressing-up clothes for his subjects to wear and plenty of ingenious games, toys and puzzles to keep them amused while he set up his camera. A famous early picture shows the six year old Alice as a beggar girl, barefoot and in a short ragged dress, and another is of Alice and Lorina in oriental costume.
Not only did the girls enjoy the photographic sessions with Dodgson, they also went on outings and boating parties with him – usually accompanied, of course, by their governess, Miss Prickett. Alice particularly liked going to the newly opened Oxford University Museum of Natural History in Parks Road to look at the dinosaur skeletons, stuffed animals and insects there, especially the mouldering remains of the Dodo and the large painting of this very odd looking extinct bird attributed to the Flemish artist, Jan Savery. Dodgson had a profound stammer, and sometimes had trouble saying his own name, thus in her mind he became linked with the Dodo, and indeed in 'Alice in Wonderland' the Dodo is Dodgson himself.
Lewis Carroll, as he was to become known, was born on 27th January 1832. His family was predominantly northern English, with Irish connections. Conservative and High Church Anglican, most of Dodgson's ancestors were army officers or Church of England clergymen. His great-grandfather, also Charles Dodgson, had risen through the ranks of the church to become Bishop of Elphin in County Roscommon, Ireland. His grandfather, another Charles, had been an army captain, killed in action in Ireland in 1803, while his two sons were hardly more than babies. His mother's name was Frances Jane Lutwidge.
The elder of these sons – yet another Charles – was Carroll's father. He reverted to the other family business and took holy orders. He went to Westminster School, one of England's famous public schools, and thence to Christ Church, Oxford. He was mathematically gifted and won a double first which could have been, but turned out not to be, the prelude to a brilliant academic career. Instead, he married his first cousin in 1827 and retired into obscurity as a country parson.
Dodgson was born in the little parsonage of Daresbury in Cheshire, very close to the towns of Warrington and Runcorn, the eldest boy but already the third child of the four-and-a-half-year marriage. Eight more children were to follow and, incredibly for the time, all of them – seven girls and four boys – survived into adulthood. When Charles was eleven, 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.
During his early youth, the young Charles was educated at home. His "reading lists" preserved in the family archives testify to a precocious intellect: at the age of seven the child was already reading 'The Pilgrim's Progress'. It is often said that he was naturally left-handed and suffered severe psychological trauma as a consequence of being forced to counteract this tendency, but there is no documentary evidence to support this. He also suffered from a stammer – a condition shared by his siblings – that often influenced his social life throughout the years. At the age of twelve he was sent away to Richmond Grammar School (now part of Richmond 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 school:
"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 abuse. 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 Mathematics master.
Dodgson left Rugby at the end of 1849 and matriculated at Oxford in May 1850 as a member of his father's old college, Christ Church. After waiting for rooms in college to become available, he went into residence in January 1851. He had only been at Oxford for 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 have always worked hard, but he was exceptionally gifted and achievement came easily to him. The following year he achieved a first in Mathematics Moderations, and was shortly thereafter 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 promise and irresistible distraction. Through his self- confessed inability to apply himself to study, he failed an important scholarship, but his clear and obvious brilliance as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855, which he continued to hold for the next 26 years. The income was good, but the worked bored him. Many of his pupils were stupid, older than him, richer than him, and almost all of them were uninterested. They didn't want to be taught, he didn't want to teach them. Mutual apathy ruled.
In 1856 Dodgson took up the new art form of photography. He literally excelled at it for photography 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, 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 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 the 'Moral Majority' of his day and his own family's High Church beliefs.
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 piercing 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, but the only defect he carried into adulthood was what he referred to as his "hesitation" – the stammer he had acquired in early childhood and which was to plague him throughout his 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 nothing to support this idea. Many children of his acquaintance, including Alice Liddell, remembered the stammer, while many adults failed to notice it.
He was naturally gregarious, egoistic enough to relish attention and admiration. At a time when young people devised their own amusements, when singing and recitation were required social skills, this youth was well-equipped as an engaging entertainer. He could sing tolerably well and was certainly not afraid to do so in front of an audience. He was adept at mimicry and story-telling. He was something of a star at charades. He could be charming, pushy, manipulative, with the kind of ready sensitivity vulnerable women are apt to find irresistible. There are brief hints at a soaring sense of the spiritual and the divine; small amounts 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 anyone 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".
Dodgson was also quite openly socially ambitious, anxious to make his mark on the world in some way, as a writer, as an artist. His scholastic career was only a stop-gap to other more exciting attainments that he wanted hungrily. He was writing – poetry, short stories, sending them to various magazines, and already 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 such as 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 he met Alice, he was thinking up ideas for children's books that would make money.
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'. The pseudonym was a play on his real name; 'Lewis' was the anglicised form of 'Ludovicus', which was Latin for 'Lutwidge', and 'Carroll' an Irish surname similar to the Latin name 'Carolus', from which the name 'Charles' comes.
In the same year, a new Dean arrived at Christ Church, Henry Liddell, 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 children, particularly the three sisters – Lorina, Alice and Edith. It seems there became something of a tradition of his taking the girls out on the river for picnics at Godstow, Moulsford 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 was evidently struck by its potential to sell well. He took the manuscript to Macmillan the publisher who liked it immediately.
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' was published in 1865, under the pen-name Dodgson had first used some nine years earlier – Lewis Carroll.
With the launch and immediately 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'. 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 as the author of 'Alice'. Dodgson's reality remained and remains largely obscure. It has been ignored, even by the most recent and reputed of modern biographers, in all, but its briefest outline.
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, and his last novel the two volume 'Sylvie and Bruno' in 1889 and 1893 respectively. He also published many mathematical papers under his own name, courted scandal through his associations with the opposite sex, and toured Russia and Europe on an extended visit in 1867.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died of pneumonia on 14th January 1898 at his family home, 'The Chestnuts' in Guildford, Surrey, following a bout of influenza. He was 2 weeks away from turning 66 years old, leaving the mystery and enigma of Lewis Carroll behind him.
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