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Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland

Lewis CarrollCharles Lutwidge Dodgson, more widely known in his lifetime and remembered ever after by his pen name “Lewis Carroll,” was born on January 27, 1832, in the small parish of Daresbury outside of Liverpool in northwest England, the first son and third of eleven children. Charles’s father, the elder Charles Dodgson, was the local parson, and young Charles’s mother was Frances Jane Lutwidge, the parson’s first cousin. Like many upper middle-class families of their day, they were conservative, devoutly Christian, and sought improvement through the avenue by which most advantages could be gained: education.

Raised on the parsonage farm a mile and a half from the village, Dodgson grew up amid the bucolic surroundings of the barnyard, fields, and gardens. His nephew and biographer, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, would later write that, as a child, Dodgson “invented the strangest diversions for himself...made pets of the most odd and unlikely animals, and numbered certain snails and toads among his intimate friends.” He “seemed at this time to have...lived in that charming ‘Wonderland’ which he afterwards described so vividly.”

A precocious child who, like his father, excelled in mathematics, Dodgson learned to read and write early in his youth and was soon tackling fairly advanced material, reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress at the age of seven. Schooled at home by his parents and doted on by a mother who recognized his unique gifts and was described by one observer as “one of the sweetest and gentlest women that ever lived,” Dodgson’s childhood—surrounded by a large, loving family in the comfortable English countryside—must have seemed idyllic.

When Dodgson was eleven years old, his father was promoted (by appointment of the prime minister, Robert Peel) to rector of Croft-on-Tees in North Yorkshire, and the brood moved into its spacious rectory, the family home for the next twenty-five years. A year later, Dodgson began his formal education at Richmond, a boarding school ten miles from Croft. Richmond Grammar School was a small, distinguished institution begun in the 1300s, where Dodgson would spend two years and earn his headmaster’s praise as possessing “a very uncommon share of genius.”

By this time, Dodgson had displayed an ingenuity and sophistication uncommon in one so young. He not only made drawings and wrote verses and short stories, he was mechanically inclined enough to build (with a carpenter’s help) a marionette theater, where he put on his own plays for his brothers and sisters with marionettes he controlled. His writings from this time show his humor and irreverence, tinged with impatience at social conventions and full of satiric wit, as with his first poem, written at age thirteen, “My Fairy”:

I have a fairy by my side

Which says I must not sleep,

When once in pain I loudly cried

It said “You must not weep.”

If, full of mirth, I smile and grin

It says “You must not laugh”;

When once I wished to drink some gin

It said “You must not quaff.”

When once a meal I wished to taste

It said “You must not bite”;

When to the wars I went in haste

It said “You must not fight.”

“What may I do?” at length I cried,

Tired of the painful task.

The fairy quietly replied,

And said “You must not ask.”

Moral: “You mustn’t.”

Dodgson’s upbringing and education up to this time were filled with love and encouragement, nurturing his various creative outlets for expression.

But in January 1846, Dodgson moved from Richmond School to Rugby, a public school (what in the U.S. would be called a private school) where Dodgson received a rude introduction to the meaner aspects of upper middle-class Victorian adolescence. The casually cruel, sometimes sadistic milieu of a public boarding school of the era was an unfortunate rite of passage for many, and the future Lewis Carroll was not excepted. Upon his arrival, the fourteen-year-old Dodgson was pegged as a “muff”—an awkward, unathletic boy—and the epithet was scrawled on his belongings. Dodgson’s slight stammer, which manifested itself in occasional hesitations and at other times in an inability to articulate a word at all, only made him a more appealing target.

Dodgson later wrote that he would never want to go through the three years at Rugby again and hinted at the bullying he may have endured there, remarking that, “if I could have from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.” He never complained, however, of any specific trials during his time there or after and surely didn’t want to burden his parents with his own unhappiness. If there was bullying, Dodgson stood up for his younger schoolmates who were more frequent victims of the older boys. As his nephew Collingwood later wrote, he was a boy “who knew well how to use his fists in defense of a righteous cause.”

Despite his evident struggles at Rugby, he never let them interfere with his education and continued to excel academically. In the fall of 1849 Dodgson left Rugby and in May 1850 enrolled in his father’s former college, Christ Church, at the University of Oxford. Studying mathematics, he graduated with first-class honors, finishing at the top of his class and earning his bachelor’s degree in 1854. He stayed at Christ Church, studying and lecturing in mathematics, earning his master’s, and would remain there, in various capacities, until the end of his life. Although it was normally required as part of admission to Christ Church that he be ordained as a minister, the younger Dodgson never took the Holy Orders that would have made him a parish priest like his father. He was ordained in 1861 as a deacon of the church as a compromise between being in the church and being free to pursue his passions. Whether it was his desire to continue teaching and studying mathematics, not wanting to give up going to the theater, a fear of having to give regular sermons with a stammer, or simply being too enamored of the life he had at Oxford, with his intellectual pursuits and leisure hours spent rowing boats upon the rivers, Dodgson was allowed to be the exception at Christ Church.

In the first few years after earning his bachelor of arts, Dodgson continued his creative writing, contributing humorous and satirical pieces to publications such as The Comic Times, the Whitby Gazette, and the Oxford Critic. In 1856 he published his first work under the name that would become synonymous with Victorian children’s literature. His poem “Solitude” ran in The Train as written by “Lewis Carroll.” The pseudonym was a play on the Latin version of Dodgson’s given names, Charles Lutwidge—Carolus Ludovicus—translated back into English as “Carroll Lewis,” and then transposed. It was actually chosen by Dodgson’s editor, Edmund Yates, from a list of four options Dodgson submitted, beating out “Louis Carroll,” “Edgar Cuthwellis,” and “Edgar U.C. Westhill.”

In 1856 Henry Liddell arrived as the new head of Christ Church, and Dodgson quickly became friends with the dean and his wife, Lorina, and their children. A bachelor, Dodgson was fond of entertaining his friends’ children with stories, puzzles, and games, and frequently accompanied them on outings, especially on Oxford’s rivers, the Thames and its tributary, the Cherwell. On one excursion, rowing up the Thames to Godstow with Trinity College fellow Robinson Duckworth and three of the Liddell daughters—Lorina, Alice, and Edith—Dodgson told the children his invented fairy-tale, “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.” Ten-year-old Alice, in particular, was so enamored by the story that she pestered Dodgson to write it down for her, which he did. The result was a fantastical, playful, and humorous fable fit for young and old, and contained in an exquisite, hand-lettered, beautifully illustrated, ninety-page, bound manuscript. The response from everyone who saw the gift while he was still working on it was overwhelmingly positive, and it was his friend, the author George MacDonald, who encouraged him to seek publication.

The release of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, a revised and expanded version of his original manuscript with John Tenniel’s wonderful engraved illustrations, was a watershed moment not only in Dodgson’s life—he became an instant celebrity and earned substantial wealth from the book and its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass—but in children’s literature. With its satirical allusions, sophisticated wordplay, and dreamlike, hallucinatory imagery, the Alice stories changed the nature of what was considered possible in books tailored for children. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine A.A. Milne or Dr. Suess without their first having been Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

The mathematician, poet, and children’s author spurned the priesthood in order to follow his passions. He not only continued to write for children, but to author books on esoteric mathematical subjects and pursue his other creative outlets, including photography. Introduced to the emerging art form in 1856 by his uncle, Skeffington Lutwidge, Dodgson took to the relatively new technology, taking and developing more than three thousand photographs of children and adults, landscapes, and still-lifes. Up until 1880, he had his own studio on the roof of Tom Quad at Christ Church, where he made portraits of many prominent figures, including Michael Faraday, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Even before his literary renown, Dodgson had befriended a number of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the painters John Everett Millais and Arthur Hughes, the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the influential critic John Ruskin.

Authoring nearly a dozen books on mathematics under his real name, Dodgson specialized in geometry, linear algebra, and probability studies. Some of his work even sparked renewed interest in the late twentieth century, particularly his contributions to symbolic logic. An inveterate tinkerer, thinker, and innovator, whether with numbers or words, Dodgson devised an early version of the game Scrabble, as well as inventing, or at least popularizing, the doublet, or word ladder, by which a word, having one letter changed at at time, transforms into different words until the end result is a related word of distinctly different meaning, the way, for example, the word PUP becomes the word DOG: PUP, PIP, DIP, DIG, DOG.

In addition to the immensely successful Alice books, Dodgson published many other books under the name Lewis Carroll, including: Phantasmagoria and Other Poems (1869), The Hunting of the Snark (1876, a long poem drawn from “Jabberwocky,” and another sterling example of literary nonsense), A Tangled Tale (1885, a collection of ten humorous, mathematical story-problems), and Sylvie and Bruno (1889 and 1893, in two volumes, his last books for children). Dodgson also revisited Alice in 1886, publishing a facsimile edition of the original hand-drawn manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and in 1890, publishing a revised version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for children five and under called The Nursery “Alice,” which retells the shortened story as if the author were reading it aloud to a child.

Although he never married or had children of his own, Charles Dodgson led a socially and intellectually stimulating life from his home at Oxford for nearly fifty years, becoming the most beloved children’s author of his day, and of quite a few generations to follow. After contracting pneumonia following a bout of influenza, he passed away on January 14, 1898, at his sisters’ home in Guildford, at the age of sixty-five. Dodgson is buried in Guildford at Mount Cemetery.