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His most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass as well as the poems "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky", all considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense.
His facility at word play, logic, and fantasy has delighted audiences ranging from children to the literary elite, and beyond this his work has become embedded deeply in modern culture, directly influencing many artists.
There are societies dedicated to the enjoyment and promotion of his works and the investigation of his life in many parts of the world including North America, Japan, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.
His biography has recently come under much question as a result of what some call the "Carroll Myth."
Dodgson's family was predominantly northern English, with some 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 a preacher. His grandfather, another Charles, had been an army captain, killed in action in 1803 when his two sons were hardly more than babies.
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 Rugby 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' father was an active and highly conservative clergyman of the Anglican church who 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 instill such views in his children. Young Charles, however, was to develop an ambiguous relationship with his father's values and with the Anglican church as a whole.
Young Dodgson was born in the little parsonage of Daresbury in Warrington, Cheshire, the oldest boy but already the third child of the four-and-a-half year old marriage. Eight more were to follow and, remarkably for the time, all of them—seven girls and four boys (including Edwin H. Dodgson)— 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 twenty-five years.
In his early years, young Dodgson 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. He also suffered from a stammer — a condition shared by his siblings — 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
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.
He left Rugby at the end of 1849 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.
His early academic career veered between high-octane promise and irresistible distraction. He may not always have worked hard, but he was exceptionally gifted and achievement came easily to him. In 1852 he received a first in Honour Moderations, and shortly after he was nominated to a Studentship, by his father's old friend Canon Edward Pusey. However, a little later he failed an important scholarship through his self-confessed inability to apply himself to study. Even so, his talent as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he continued to hold for the next twenty-six years. The income was good, but the work bored him. Many of his pupils were older and richer than he was, and almost all of them were uninterested. However, despite early unhappiness, Dodgson was to remain at Christ Church, in various capacities, until his death.
Character and appearance
The young adult Charles Dodgson was about six feet tall, slender and handsome, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. He was described in later life as somewhat asymmetrical, or as carrying himself rather stiffly and awkwardly, though this may be on account of a knee injury sustained in middle age. At the 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 acquired in early childhood and which plagued him throughout his life.
The stammer has always been a potent part of the conceptions of Dodgson; it is part of the belief that he stammered only 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 seems to have been far more acutely aware of it than most people he met; it is said he caricatured himself as the Dodo in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, referring to his difficulty in pronouncing his last name, but this is one of the many 'facts' oft-repeated, for which no firsthand evidence remains. He did indeed refer to himself as the dodo, but that this was a reference to his stammer is simply speculation.
Although Dodgson's stammer troubled him, it was never so debilitating that it prevented him from applying his other personal qualities to do well in society. At a time when people commonly devised their own amusements and when singing and recitation were required social skills, the young Dodgson was well-equipped to be an engaging entertainer. He could sing tolerably well and was not afraid to do so before an audience. He was adept at mimicry and storytelling, and was, reputedly, quite good at charades.
He was, nonetheless, by modern lights, a bit of a snob. He once remarked, for example, that the only trouble with Margate (a town in Kent) was the "commercial" type of person one was bound to encounter there. Similarly, he tended toward the priggish and hypocritical; on the pretense of maintaining a high moral standard, he summarily terminated his long friendship with Ellen Terry when she decided to go and live with a man to whom she was not married, yet, Dodgson himself was involved romantically, over a number of years, with more than one married woman.
Dodgson was also quite socially ambitious, anxious to make his mark on the world as a writer or an artist. In the interim between his early published writing and the success of the Alice books, he began to move in the Pre-Raphaelite social circle. His scholastic career may well have been intended as something of a stop-gap on the way to other more exciting achievements. He first met John Ruskin in 1857 and became friendly with him. He developed a close relationship with 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 children that convinced him to submit the work for publication.
The traditional image of his social life as entirely child-centered has recently been challenged (see 'Karoline Leach's work on the "Carroll Myth"' below), and we have been reminded that he did enjoy a very active adult social life.
Dodgson the artist
From a young age, Dodgson 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 this output was humorous, sometimes satirical, but his standards and 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. 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 was 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, 1856, a new Dean, Henry Liddell, arrived at Christ Church, bringing with him his young family, all of whom would figure largely in Dodgson's life, and greatly influence his writing career, over the following years. Dodgson became close friends with Liddell's wife, Lorina, and their children, particularly the three sisters: Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell. Although Dodgson himself later denied his "little heroine" was based on any real child, he is widely assumed to have derived his own "Alice" from Alice Liddell. However, there is an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking Glass which supports this view. Reading downward, taking the first letter of each line, spells out Alice's name in full. The poem has no title in Through the Looking Glass but is usually referred to by its first line, "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky"
Though information is scarce (Dodgson's diaries for the years 1858-1862 are missing), it does seem clear that his friendship with the family was an important part of his life in the late 1850s, and he grew into the habit of taking the children (first the boy, Harry, and later the three girls) on rowing trips to nearby Nuneham or Godstow.
It was on one such expedition, on July 4, 1862, that Dodgson invented the outline of the story that eventually became his first and largest commercial success. Having told the story and been begged by Alice Liddell to write it down, Dodgson eventually (after much delay) presented her with a handwritten, illustrated manuscript entitled Alice's Adventures Under Ground in November 1864.
Before this, the family of friend and mentor George MacDonald read Dodgson's incomplete manuscript, and the enthusiasm of the MacDonald children encouraged Dodgson to seek publication. In 1863, he had taken the unfinished manuscript 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, which Dodgson had first used some nine years earlier. The illustrations this time were by Sir John Tenniel; Dodgson evidently thought that a published book would need the skills of a professional artist. The first edition copy of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, now highly sought after by literary collectors, changed hands to a private collector on January 26, 2006. It was sold at Christie's for GBP4,800 by the Duke of Gloucester, its previous owner, to pay for his father's death duties
The overwhelming commercial success of the first Alice book changed Dodgson's life in many ways. The fame of his alter ego 'Lewis Carroll' soon spread around the world. He was inundated with fan mail and with sometimes unwanted attention. He also began earning quite substantial sums of money. However, he didn't use this income as a means of abandoning his seemingly disliked post at Christ Church.
In 1872, a sequel — Through the Looking-Glass — was published. Its somewhat darker mood possibly reflects the changes in Dodgson's life. His father had recently died (1868), plunging him into a depression that would last some years.
The Hunting of the Snark
In 1876, Dodgson produced his last great work, The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastic 'nonsense' poem, exploring the adventures of a bizarre crew of variously inadequate beings, and one beaver, who set off to find the eponymous creature. The painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti reputedly became convinced the poem was about him.
He soon excelled at the art and became a well-known gentleman-photographer, and he seems even to have toyed with the idea of making a living out of it in his very early years.
A recent study [Roger Taylor and Edward Wakeling'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. Alexandra Kitchin, known as 'Xie' (pronounced 'Ecksy'), was his favorite photographic subject. From 1869 until his giving up photography in 1880, Dodgson took at least fifty exposures of her, the last of which just before her sixteenth birthday. However, before attempting to draw any conclusions about Dodgson's proclivities or obsessions, it should be noted that less than a third of his original portfolio has survived. He also made many studies of men, women, male children and landscapes; his subjects also include skeletons, dolls, dogs, statues and paintings, trees, scholars, scientists, old men, and, indeed, little girls. His notorious (and possibly misunderstood) studies of nude children were long presumed lost, but six have since surfaced, four of which have been published.
He also found photography to be a useful entré into higher social circles. During the most productive part of his career, he made portraits of notable sitters such as John Everett Millais, Ellen Terry, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Margaret Cameron, Michael Faraday and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Dodgson abruptly ceased to photograph in 1880. Over 24 years, he had completely mastered the medium, set up his own studio on the roof of Tom Quad, and created around 3,000 images. Fewer than 1,000 have survived time and deliberate destruction. His reasons for abandoning photography remain uncertain.
With the advent of Modernism tastes changed, and his photography was 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.
To promote letter writing Carroll invented The Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case in 1889. This was a cloth-backed folder with twelve slots, two marked for inserting the then most commonly used 1d. stamp, and one each for the other current denominations to 1s. The folder was then put into a slip case decorated with a picture of Alice on the front and the Cheshire Cat on the back. All could be conveniently carried in a pocket or purse. When issued it also included a copy of Carroll's pamphletted lecture, Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.
He also appears to have invented, and certainly popularised, the Word Ladder (or "doublet" as it was known at first): a form of brain-teaser which is still popular today: the game of changing one word into another by altering one letter at a time, each successive change always resulting in a genuine word. For instance, CAT is transformed into DOG by the following steps: CAT, COT, DOT, DOG.
The later years
Over the remaining twenty years of his life, throughout his growing wealth and fame, his existence remained little changed. He continued to teach at Christ Church until 1881, and remained in residence there until his death. His last novel, the two-volume Sylvie and Bruno, was published in 1889 and 1893 respectively. Its extraordinary convolutions and apparent confusion baffled most readers and it achieved little success. He died at his sister's home in Guildford on January 14, 1898 of pneumonia following influenza. He was a fort-night away from turning sixty-six years old. He is buried in Guildford at the Mount Cemetery.
Controversies and mysteries
The possibility of drug use
There has been much speculation that Dodgson used psychoactive drugs, however there is no direct evidence that he ever did. It is true that the most common painkiller of the time—laudanum—was in fact a tincture of opium and could produce a 'high' if used in a large enough dose. Most historians can infer Dodgson probably used it from time to time to ease the pain of his arthritis, since it was the standard domestic painkiller of its day and was to be found in numerous patent medicines of the time, but there is no evidence he ever abused it or that its effects had any impact on his work. There is no factual evidence to support a suggestion that he smoked cannabis. However, many people regard Alice's hallucinations in the Wonderland, when surrounded by teas, mushrooms and smoking insects, as references to psychedelic substances.
Dodgson had been groomed for the priesthood from a very early age and was expected, as a condition of his residency at Christ Church, to take holy orders within four years of obtaining his master's degree. However, for reasons not presently explained, he became reluctant to do this. He delayed the process for some time but eventually took deacon's orders in December 1861. But when the time came, a year later, to progress to full orders, Dodgson appealed to the dean for permission not to proceed. This was against college rules, and Dean Liddell told him he would very likely have to leave his job if he refused to take orders. He told Dodgson he would have to consult the college ruling body, which would almost undoubtedly have resulted in his being expelled. However, for unknown reasons, Dean Liddell changed his mind and permitted Dodgson to remain at the college, in defiance of the rules. Dodgson never became a priest. Dean Liddell's behavior remains puzzling and unexplained, though some theories have been put forward to explain it.
There is currently no conclusive evidence about why Dodgson rejected the priesthood. Some have suggested his stammer made him reluctant to take the step, because he was afraid of having to preach, but this seems unlikely given his willingness to take on other public performances (story-telling, recitations, magic lantern shows), and the fact that he did indeed preach in later life, even though not in orders. Others have suggested, perhaps more plausibly, that he was having serious doubts about the Anglican church. It is known that he was interested in minority forms of Christianity (he was an admirer of FD Maurice) and 'alternative' religions (Theosophy) so this may well have been a reason. However, it is also true that Dodgson was deeply troubled by an unexplained sense of sin and guilt at this time (the early 1860s), and frequently expressed the view in his diaries that he was a "vile and worthless" sinner, unworthy of the priesthood, so this may well also have been a contributing factor.
Currently it is unknown why Dodgson was consumed with a sense of sin at this time, though again several theories have been put forward.
The missing diaries
At least four complete volumes and around seven pages of text are missing from Dodgson's 13 diaries. The loss of the volumes remains unexplained; the pages have been deliberately removed by an unknown hand. Most scholars assume the diary material was removed by family members in the interests of preserving the family name, but this has not been proven. All of the missing material, except for a single page, is believed to date from the period between 1853 (when Dodgson was 22) and 1863 (when he was 32).
Many theories have been put forward to explain the missing material. A popular explanation for one particular missing page (June 27, 1863) is that it might have been torn out to conceal the fact that Dodgson had proposed marriage on that day to the 11-year old Alice Liddell. However, there has never been any evidence to suggest this was so, and a paper that came to light in the Dodgson family archive in 1996 provides some evidence to the contrary. This paper, known as the 'cut pages in diary document', offers a brief summary of two missing diary pages, including the one for June 27, 1863. It states that there was gossip circulating about Dodgson and the Liddell family's governess, as well as about his relationship with 'Ina', presumably Alice's older sister, Lorina Liddell. The 'break' with the Liddell family that occurred soon after was presumably in response to this gossip. An alternate interpretation has been made regarding Carroll's rumored involvement with 'Ina': Lorina was also the name of Alice Liddell's mother. The reason for the break has never been made clear.
Suggestions of paedophilia
Dodgson's friendships with young girls, together with his perceived lack of interest in romantic attachments to adult women, and psychological readings of his work - especially his photographs of nude or semi-nude girls - have all led to speculation that he was, in modern parlance, a paedophile. This possibility has underpinned numerous modern interpretations of his life and work, particularly Dennis Potter's play Alice and his screenplay for the motion picture, Dreamchild, and a number of recent biographies, including Michael Bakewell's Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1996), Donald Thomas's Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background (1996) and Morton N. Cohen's Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1995). All of these works more or less unequivocally assume that Dodgson was a paedophile, albeit a repressed and celibate one.
Cohen claims Dodgson's "sexual energies sought unconventional outlets", and further writes:
Cohen notes 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).
Cohen and other biographers argue that Dodgson may have wanted to marry the 11-year old Alice Liddell and that this was the cause of the unexplained 'break' with the family in June, 1863 (Cohen pp 100-4). But there has never been much evidence to support such an idea, and the 1996 discovery of the 'cut pages in diary document' (see above) seems to imply that the 1863 'break' had nothing to do with Alice. However, the document's provenance has been disputed, and its final significance is unknown.
Some writers, e.g., Derek Hudson and Roger Lancelyn Green, who have fallen short of accepting Dodgson as a paedophile, have tended to concur that he had a passion for small female children and next to no interest in the adult world. The issue is considered at length in Darien Graham-Smith's 2005 PhD thesis Contextualising Carroll, and in Sadi Ranson's article What About Lewis Carroll?, which discusses claims of Dodgson's "nympholepsy" (as Vladimir Nabokov called it) and the roles children took in Victorian art.
"The Carroll Myth"
The accepted view of Dodgson's biography — and most particularly his image as a potential paedophile — has received a challenge in quite recent times, when a new and controversial analysis of Dodgson's sexual proclivities (and indeed the evolution of the entire process of his biography) appeared in Karoline Leach's 1999 book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild. She states that the image of Dodgson's alleged paedophilia 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 — and often, in her view, fictional — image "the Carroll Myth".
According to Leach, Dodgson's real life was very different from the accepted biographical image. He was not, she says, exclusively interested in female children. She acknowledges he was fond of children, but says this interest has been exaggerated. She says that he was also keenly interested in adult women and apparently enjoyed several relationships with them, married and single; furthermore, she goes on to state that many of those Dodgson described as 'child-friends' were not children at all, but girls in their late teens and even twenties. She cites examples of many such adult friendships, such as Catherine Lloyd, Constance Burch, May Miller, Edith Shute, Ethel Rowell, Beatrice Hatch and Gertrude Thomson, among others. Some of these were girls he met as children but continued to be close to in adulthood. Others were, says Leach, 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, says Leach, when his well-meaning family had suppressed all evidence of his adult friendships in order to try to preserve his reputation, thus giving a false impression of a man interested only in little girls.
According to Leach the image of 'Lewis Carroll' was constructed almost accidentally by generations of biographers. One of these, Langford Reed, writing in 1932, was the first to state that many of Carroll's female friendships ended when the girls reached the age of 14, though Reed apparently only intended to suggest that Dodgson was thereby a "pure man" untainted by sexual desire. This statement, that Dodgson lost interest in girls once they reached puberty, was later caught up by other 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) who remained unaware of the evidence to the contrary since Dodgson's family refused to publish his diaries and letters. By the time more evidence became available, this image was so ingrained that any revision seemed "unnecessary, even impertinent," and thus a supposed biography was preserved. This, in essence, is Leach's case.
Reactions to Leach's book have been generally polarised. She has been joined by a group of supportive scholars and writers (most notably Hugues Lebailly) in the formation of Contrariwise, an 'association for new Lewis Carroll studies'. The group argues collectively that a rumour has grossly distorted our understanding of Dodgson's true nature, and that considered in the context of his real life — as opposed to the misconceptions of it — and the fashions and mores of his time, assertions of paedophilia become nonsensical and amount to a failure to understand the complexity of Dodgson's character, as well as the Victorian "Cult of the Child."
Dodgson biographer Morton N. Cohen repudiates Leach's position as being simply a plea for the defence, and, in a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement labeled Leach and her supporters as 'revisionists' attempting to rewrite history. Similarly, in a review published in Victorian Studies (Vol. 43, No 4), Donald Rackin wrote, "As a piece of biographical scholarship, Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild is difficult to take seriously". Martin Gardner was likewise dismissive in an article published by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
Writing in The Carrollian, Michael Bakewell takes a measured view, saying that Leach's book has irrevocably changed Carroll studies. "[W]e may not agree with it but we cannot ignore it and it should certainly be read by anyone concerned with Dodgson's life and work."
Lewis Carroll's Alice (Wikipedia links)
Alice in Wonderland: Alice · The White Rabbit · The Mouse · The Dodo · The Lory · Eaglet · Bill the Lizard · The Caterpillar · The Duchess · The Cheshire Cat · The Mad Hatter · The March Hare · The Dormouse · The Queen of Hearts · The King of Hearts · The Knave of Hearts · The Gryphon · The Mock Turtle
Through the Looking Glass: Alice · The Red Queen · The White Queen · The Red King · The White King · The White Knight · Tweedledum and Tweedledee · The Sheep · Humpty Dumpty · Hatta · Haigha · The Lion and the Unicorn
Poems: "How Doth the Little Crocodile" · "The Mouse's Tale" · "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat" · "You Are Old, Father William" · "'Tis the Voice of the Lobster" · "Jabberwocky" · "The Walrus and the Carpenter"
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