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.
The baby would grow up to become “Lewis Carroll,” author of two of the most famous children’s books in the world. Mystery and even some controversy would surround him in later life, but one thing that never changed was his deep attachment to the members of his family, and theirs to him.
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 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 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. The family grew to eleven children, referred to by their parents as “treasures” and “darlings,” and their gentle mother told a relative that whenever she looked at them all, she felt that everything she’d wanted in life had come true.
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 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:
I have a fairy by my side
From all accounts, Charles relished the role of older brother. He liked being in charge, and was also markedly protective. Even as a schoolboy he was known for getting into fights in defence of smaller boys; friends sometimes commented on how well he looked after them—one niece even affectionately compared him to a “mother hen.”
Although nursing the sick was generally considered a female task, he was always ready to nurse his family and others when necessary, and he had a keen interest in the human body in general. This interest continued into adult life, when he gathered together a substantial medical library, and become a homeopathic practitioner.
He had much in common with some of his sisters, and was less keen on the countryside sports that his brothers liked. An early anti-vivisectionist, he shared a concern for animal welfare with his youngest sister, Henrietta.
Schooling was not compulsory at the time, though 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.” 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 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. 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.
On the other hand, the college was almost all male and child-free, and may have seemed emotionally rather bleak. In order to comply with the college’s archaic rules, he most reluctantly took Holy Orders, knowing he would be obliged to remain unmarried and celibate as long as he stayed in the job.
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 considered themselves his better, and had no interest in learning. He seems to have coped with the emotional discomforts of his life by presenting a cold, remote face to anyone 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, Lorina, 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.
This, then, was the man who created the story of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 1862, when he was thirty years old. It is said to have been first told during a boating trip on July 4, when Charles and the three Liddell girls rowed to the village of Godstow, together with Dodgson’s college friend, Canon Duckworth. Another adult always came along on these trips to share in the rowing. The story may actually 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 not until two years later that he arrived at the Deanery with his pretty handwritten volume of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
It has 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 had imagined in the story. His own illustrations, too, show Alice with long, fair hair, quite unlike Alice Liddell’s dark bob.
He stayed friends with Alice’s older sister Ina for the rest of his life, but 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 read the story loved it; so many, indeed, that he decided to publish it. The publisher Alexander Macmillan agreed, although the arrangement was that Charles would have to pay most of the cost of production.
So he boldly committed over a year’s salary to the project. Then he scrapped the whole first edition of 2,000, because John Tenniel, the illustrator, disapproved of the quality of the printing. Fussiness was one of Dodgson’s personal characteristics, along with a certain boldness and a determination to do what he felt was right, however inconvenient and difficult it might be.
When the book first appeared, Charles was not optimistic about its prospects. He thought he would lose about £200, which was a huge sum then. He might recoup the loss if sales were exceptionally good, “but that,” he concluded grimly, “I can hardly hope for.”
These are 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 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. It is fair to say that the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat are as well known now as Sleeping Beauty and the Little Mermaid.
As the fame of his books 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.” Letters directed to this pseudonym were returned unanswered, and he would walk away if anyone dared to mention “Alice” in his presence. As the years went on, interest in him did not lessen, and he presented an ever more off-putting, moralistic image to the outside world, and to many of his colleagues, as well.
Part of the reason for this seems to have been a need for privacy. After all, he lived in a semi-communal setting and spent the rest of his time with his large extended family. 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—qualities that staid, clerical academics were not supposed to show 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: "You mustn't."
In particular, his love of the theatre and his passion for theatrical people created a problem with his public image. 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 went to the theater in their lives.
But for Dodgson, the theatre was a fantasy world, and the actors were its inhabitants. He was a perceptive, knowledgable 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 who heard his stories remembered him as a remarkable raconteur with a funny tale for every occasion and the ability to reduce a listener to helpless laughter. He could also gather an audience with great ease, as Ruth, daughter-in-law of the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse, described in her 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 “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.”
Although he had several child friends who were boys, he made no secret of the fact that he preferred girls. He relaxed in female company of all ages. 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 little 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 called Tim.
As well as his passion for the theatre, he was also a keen photographer, 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.
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, 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 cost him his position as a mathematics lecturer, as well as what independence he had. His closeness to his siblings might also have been a contributing factor to the decision. Only three of the eleven ever wed, and the other seven remained under his care for the rest of his life.
But he always liked female company, and as he grew older he acquired many lady friends. This sometimes led to mild controversy. Victorian social life was highly formal, and it was thought improper for eligible men to have unchaperoned adult female friends.
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 went openly on holiday with woman friends, and gathered a sizeable circle of admiring ladies around him. As author Laurence Hutton recalled shortly after Dodgson’s death, “he liked young women, who all liked him, and Oxford is now (1903) full of women, mature and immature, who adore the gentle memory of the creator of “Alice.”
In later life, although he was kind and generous to those close to him, he became increasingly difficult, eccentric and annoying to outsiders. He spent considerable time fretting about tiny moral issues 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 reveals this anxiety, for it was self-conscious, badly structured and overly moralistic.
It was a relief to him to escape into the intellectual study of logic, which increasingly gripped him. But he still relaxed in the company of the children he loved, and 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 “like rainbows”—unique, beautiful and evanescent.
He never wrote any more of them 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. 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. His father had just died, and like Alice who suddenly became Queen, Dodgson was now responsible for ten adult brothers and sisters, all unemployed. It is reasonable to assume that the stories were in some way therapeutic, though perhaps he did not want to think too deeply about what they represented.
He made it clear that they returned him in imagination to happy times, and his authentic voice speaks in both books. Although he never wanted to discuss his writing with adults, he always wanted to reach the widest possible child audience.
Over the last 150 years, millions of children have grown up on “Alice.” Many have gone on to produce their own works of art inspired by that curious little girl. To many of us, the wonderful variety of these works makes a fascinating study—one that is nearly as interesting as the study of Charles Dodgson himself.
Jenny Woolf, 2011