Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – ‘Lewis Carroll’ as he was to become known – was born into a comfortable middle class family, on January 27 1832, the son of the Rev. Charles Dodgson, of Daresbury, Cheshire, England, and his wife Frances Jane. He was the third child, and first son of a family of eleven children.
At the age of 14 he was sent to Rugby School, where he was evidently unhappy. He made reference years later to the ‘annoyance’ he had suffered there ‘at night’ 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. He left Rugby at the end of 1849 and a little more than 12 months later, went on to Oxford: to his father’s old college, Christ Church. The following year he achieved a first in Honour Moderations, and shortly after he was nominated to a Studentship (the Christ Church equivalent of a fellowship), by his father’s old friend Canon Edward Pusey.
At the age of 23, his clear brilliance as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he continued to hold for the next 26 years. The income was good, but the work 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 appearance Dodgson was about six foot tall, slender and handsome in a soft-focused dreamy sort of way, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. The only overt defect he carried into adulthood was what he referred to as his ‘hesitation’; a stammer he had acquired in early childhood and which was to plague him throughout his entire life. But, although it troubled him – even obsessed him sometimes – it was never bad enough to stop him using his other qualities to do well in society. He was a highly socially competent man; persuasive, manipulative and attractive to women.
Although he spent so much of his life in the academic environment, Dodgson’s real passions were always artistic. He loved the theatre and the company of ‘theatricals’. He loved artists and their work. He courted the bohemian life in a way that sometimes compromised the required dignity of his position as an Oxford don. His scholastic career was only a stop-gap to other more exciting attainments that he wanted hungrily. In 1856 he took up photography and very soon became an acknowledged master of the art, making portraits of some of the greatest celebrities of his day. His passionate admiration of the naked human form, and his desire to celebrate this in his work was one of several aspects of his life that brought him into conflict with the ‘decent’ middle class morality of his day.
In 1861 he became a deacon of the Anglican church, but, despite his religious background, and in direct defiance of the laws of his college, he refused to become a priest. The reason for this is one of the several enigmas that still surround his life.
At the time that he was supposed to take his vows, he was in a turmoil of sexual guilt, resulting, it would appear, from a tormenting love affair, although evidence is fragmentary since his family destroyed the relevant portions of his diaries. Whether this guilt was behind his decision to abandon the priesthood we simply do not know, although the extant evidence suggests a connection.
Dodgson was writing from his earliest youth. First for family magazines, then as he matured, his poetry and short stories began appearing in various magazines like The Comic Times and The Train. Most of his output was funny, sometimes very sharply satirical. He specialised in a kind of anarchic mockery of hypocrisy and authority, which has its most famous example in his ‘Alice’ books.
In the same year that he became a photographer 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 The Train under the authorship of ‘Lewis Carroll’.
Also 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 and sometimes rather mysteriously, in Dodgson’s life over the following years.
He became close friends with the mother and the children, particularly the three sisters – Ina, Alice and Edith. It seems there became something of a tradition of his taking the girls out on the river for picnics at Godstow 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 MS 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’.
Throughout his growing wealth and fame, Dodgson continued to teach at Christ Church until 1881, and he remained in residence there until his death. He published ‘Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’ in 1872, and his last novel, ‘Sylvie and Bruno’, in two volumes in 1889 and 1893. He also published many mathematical papers under his own name and toured Russia and Europe in an extended visit in 1867.
He never married, though there is evidence of at least one traumatic sexual relationship during the 1860s. In later years he enjoyed increasingly open and intimate friendships with numbers of women, married and single. He died suddenly of violent pneumonia on January 14 1898.