The Life of Lewis Carroll

(All page numbers refer to Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, London: Papermac, 1995.)

Lewis Carroll—the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a book that has never gone out of print and, along with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, is one of the most quoted books in Western culture. Lewis Carroll—the pen name of Charles Dodgson the Oxford don, mathematics lecturer, ordained deacon in the Anglican church—is the man whose best friends were children. "He...possessed a special gift for understanding children that continually endeared him to them" (xix).

Deaf in one ear and with a terrible stutter, Charles was born in 1832 into a pious home—his father was an Anglican priest—and lived during the height of Victorian England with its inflexible morals. He was a precocious child, creating games and puzzles and counting "snails and toads among his intimate friends" (5). The magic of trains and technology captured his active imagination. He created plays for his younger siblings to act in, had a good ear for mimicking different accents, and often seemed to be far more mature than his years. He loved to play with words, had an independent spirit, and was a champion of the weak and the small. Charles received a good education but appreciated neither athletics nor the incessant rough-housing of the other boys at school.

Oxford University opened Charles's mind to new ways of thinking and other variations of Christianity, but he always enjoyed visiting his family at home. "His sisters and brothers were always delighted when he was home because he was a source of constant invention, entertainment, and amusement" (32). "[H]e was, by nature, orderly, and order helped him survive" (59-60) the challenges of university life. Upon graduation, he stayed at Oxford as a resident scholar, lecturing in geometry and writing textbooks. The new dean at Charles's college, Henry Liddell, was a stern and famous scholar with a high-society wife and three beautiful little girls: Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Charles befriended the family and soon he was taking the girls out for walks, picnics, and rowboat rides. It was during one of those boat rides that the girls begged for a story and he began to weave a tale with his favorite Liddell child, ten-year-old Alice, as the main character. "The story is laced with barely disguised incidents that Charles and the Liddell children shared and caricatures of persons they knew" (94). Alice later recalls: "He seemed to have an endless store of these fantastical tales, which he made up as he told them, drawing busily on a large sheet of paper all the time" (86). Amazingly enough, when he was with children, his stutter completely disappeared.

Charles also created stories as he taught mathematics in order to make the subject more imaginative and enjoyable. But his spare time was spent in what he called "the society of my little favourites" (95), sometimes dazzling them with the new technology of photography. "Conceivably, by now Charles has confronted his inner self, his nature, and his attraction to prepubescent females. He is different from other men and astute enough to realize that the difference will create difficulties, cause him pain, leave his unconventional yearnings unsatisfied. He sees, perhaps, that because he is bent upon a course outside the stream of social acceptability, he will have to live as an outsider" (76).

Charles writes in his diary of numerous "golden afternoons" when, quite often, "three eager faces, hungry for news of fairy-land, and who would not be said 'nay' to: from whose lips 'Tell us a story, please,' had all the stern immutability of Fate!" (90). Alice, late in life, also remembers, "Sometimes to tease us—and perhaps being really tired—Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, 'And that's all till next time.' 'Ah, but it is next time,' would be the exclamation from all three; and after some persuasion the story would start afresh. Another day, perhaps the story would begin in the boat, and Mr. Dodgson, in the middle of telling a thrilling adventure, would pretend to go fast asleep, to our great dismay" (90-91). She recalls how "I started to pester him to write down the story for me, which I had never done before" (91). And that's how the famous book first came to be. Unfortunately, something happened a few years into Charles's relationship with the Liddells to bring it to an end. The pages have been removed from Charles's diary and Alice never spoke about it; she only ever remembered him with great fondness. Whatever happened, it couldn't have been too serious since Charles continued to work with Dean Liddell at the college. Speculation abounds but biographer Morton Cohen suggests that the society-conscious Mrs. Liddell may have drawn a line as the girls entered adolescence and started preparing them for high society courtship and marriage. "The fact that Alice is Charles's 'ideal child friend,' that she sparked his creative energy, that he devoted so much of his time to her and fashioned his two remarkable fantasies with her as heroine is proof enough of a deep attachment, certain affection, even a kind of love" (101).

Charles was, in some ways, a man of his times. In reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, Romanticism had begun to grow through Rousseau's writings about the innocence of childhood and Blake's poetry celebrating the enchantment of youth. Wordsworth wrote about "the child [a]s a mystical creature," "most at home in a natural setting" (116). Dickens wrote novels about innocent children being crushed by the insensitivity and malice of the adult world. Charles's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, written as Lewis Carroll, completely revolutionized children's literature (xxii). Up to that point, a children's book was considered good if it was sober, instructive, and had a clear (Christian) moral. "The Alice books fly in the face of that tradition, destroy it, and give the Victorian child something lighter and brighter. Above all, these books have no moral.... [Charles] was fed up with all the moral baggage that burdened children, that perhaps he himself had struggled with when a boy, and he was not purveying any more. Not only not purveying it—he went further and parodied the entire practice of adult moralizing" (142). Charles honors the imaginative world of the child. "Sound and feeling, in these books, are as important as, perhaps even more important than, sense and meaning.... He is a genius at double meanings, at playing games with words, and he challenges every child who picks up the book to play the game with him" (143). "Charles knew that when harsh reality becomes unbearable, the child seeks escape through fantasy.... Charles champions the child.... He treats children, both in his book and in real life, as equals.... The element of respect and the absence of condescension are crucial, and Charles's acceptance of the child as an equal makes all the difference, for it is these components that render the books timeless.... Charles does not play jokes on children—he shares jokes with them.... [H]e makes them laugh without requiring them to pay for their laughter" (144-145).

"All his life Charles Dodgson conducted an ardent search for beauty" (147). “He had an eye for the beauty around him and a good intuitive sense of composition" (148), and soon he became known for his outstanding photography. "The road led from photographing fellow dons and clerics to photographing their children, and before long, proud mothers were leading their little darlings...up the stairs to Charles's rooms. Charles was ecstatic. Photography provided instant access to his heart's delight, to the acquaintance, converse, and, in many cases, prolonged and affectionate friendships with beautiful, pure, unaffected, natural female children" (152). "His rooms...sometimes resembled a toy shop or a museum, even a laboratory or an engineer's workshop" (393), "but nothing caught their imaginations more than photography, with all its built-in sorcery" (161). "Charles strove to capture his subjects as they appeared in real life, almost as though taken unawares.... He shunned ornate backdrops and used a blanket, a cloth, or a plain curtain, a flight of stairs, a classical pillar, a Gothic arch" (162). "He created story photography" (163), pictures that create an imaginary scene. He had a "delicate concern for the children's nervousness" (169) and turned a typically 19th-century tedium of sitting for a photograph into a game. "The adventures shared in taking photographs, of deciding on the pose, arranging the clothes, or choosing a costume, the artifacts, the props, draping the clothing, adjusting the limbs, seeking the right facial expression—it was all an elaborate game the children and he played together and enjoyed" (164). Several parents allowed him to photograph their children in the nude and a few came to help set up the naturalistic background for that sort of story picture. With a reputation for being the finest children's photographer of his day, he made scores of new little friends. "Child friendships became a necessity early, and he devised a means for both obtaining them and keeping them alive" (174). "When a friendship was in bloom, the child often enjoyed it enormously.... For Charles, his child friends were more than a source of pleasure—they were his mainstay, as essential as the air he breathed. They provided the impetus for his actions, regulated and punctuated his daily rounds, defined the purpose of his labors, fired his energies, and sparked his imagination" (181). He wrote literally thousands of letters and the ones to his young friends were filled with drawings, puzzles, jokes, backwards or upside-down writing, and always fashioned to make the recipient smile. But "[h]umor aside, some essential questions remain. Charles's emotional targets clearly differed from most men's; the difference affected, even shaped, his behavior.... Charles recognized earlier than one might suppose that his inner springs differed from most men's, that his heart beat to a different drum, that in order to be true to himself he would be compelled to lead a life that not only was outside the norm but would come under particular scrutiny and raise suspicions, one not generally condoned and subject to severe reprimand, sneers, lampoons, and ridicule. Be that as it may, he determined to follow his own star in spite of raised eyebrows and possible social censure" (190).

When with children, Charles was considered by them to be one of them; yet in adult company he was far more serious. "Children saw him differently than adults" (289). One child-friend later recalled that in adult society, he was "almost old-maidenishly prim" (289). "With grown-ups he was shy" (295), remembered another young friend, and yet with children he was funny, full of stories, and always sensitive to their needs. "A veritable legion of children benefited from his untiring attentions" (309). "[T]here was something magical about him,...particularly with children" (314). "He was one of us," another child-friend wrote, "and never a grown-up pretending to be a child in order to preach at us, or otherwise instruct us" (316). When the mother of two little twin daughters left them with Charles, she returned to find that "they were listening to him, open-mouthed, and in the greatest state of enjoyment, with his knee covered with minute toys" (317).

For all of his gaiety, Charles struggled mightily with the sin in his life. His diaries are replete with the castigations of a man fighting against his darker side. The diary entries aren't detailed, but the outcries are numerous and they wax and wane throughout his lifetime, mostly lessening as he grows older. Although Charles avoided the entanglements of theology whenever he could, his faith evolved continually toward the more loving, accepting, openminded, and ecumenical. Church-related controversies came and went during his lifetime, but he stayed at the edge, carefully reviewing all sides of the argument, and then moved toward the way of love and unity. "Charles was a moderate. He avoided religious zealots" (362). At age 58, he wrote: "More and more I am becoming content to know that Christians have many ways of looking at their religion, and less confident that my views must be right and all others wrong, and less anxious to bring everybody to think as I do" (363). Charles "was not a man to accept dogma blindly; like many of his contemporaries, he had to ponder religious doctrine before making it his own" (363). "While the Calvinist and Evangelical traditions of the time deplored the light and the frivolous, Charles did not subscribe to their restrictions.... [He] recognized the natural link that exists between mathematics and humor: they are, in fact, both forms of play" (370). "The sum of his beliefs...defies labels...[and is] a mixture of elements that we can call both liberal and conservative" (372).

As Charles aged, his diary reflects fewer chastisements for his sin and his heart was continually broken by unrequited love. Little girls adored him for a season, but eventually they grew up, married, and exited his life. A few notable exceptions stayed in touch with him and even, eventually, introduced their children to him; but Charles was both driven toward and chose to live a life of unfulfilled, and unfulfillable, love. He lived to see his Alice books become an international success, be translated into several languages, and put on stage. He continued to write and publish mathematics texts as well as poetry. His famous nonsense poem, "The Hunting of the Snark," reveals a part of Charles's genius. "The poem's real meaning, like the meaning in the Alice books, is anti-meaning. It is more about being than meaning, listening than seeing, feeling than thinking" (409). For Charles, "mystery was [an] awesome and...sacred force that governs the world and...sets the boundaries between temporal and infinite" (411). "[I]t is through the music of the words that Charles gets to his readers, not through the transmission of thought.... [T]he sounds filter through our minds and go directly to our hearts" (411). Although he remained physically healthy, he complained often about his failing memory and struggled with depression. "Without a succession of child visitors he was lonely.... But despite his own characterization, he was not by nature a recluse or hermit. People, the outer world, and its events were essential to his happiness" (459-460). And yet the old man continued to make young friends and find joy in their beauty and laughter.

Just days before his 66th birthday, Charles Dodgson died quietly at his home in Oxford. He requested that his funeral be "simple and inexpensive" (526). The writings that he left behind "chart the growing awareness of his emotional preferences, his perception that he is different from other men and that the difference bears within it the seeds of tragedy" (524). "He was more than gifted, and he possessed more than a unique imagination—he was magical" (529). "[H]e was himself ever childlike,...a person with a passionate orchestra playing within his breast" (530). "All his successive friendships with his young friends were doomed.... He was, in the end, a man with a broken heart, one who loved but was never really loved in return" (531). "A deep sadness permeates these musings and the occasions when a child friend grew up, deserted him, and went off to lead her own life" (532). "In the end, one wants to say 'Well done!' but also to congratulate him for so successfully transforming a life that might easily have teetered on the brink and fallen into the abyss into one that was useful, dignified, and creative" (533).

Now look at the picture, and you'll soon guess what happened next. It looks just like the sea, doesn't it? But it really is the Pool of Tears—all made of Alice's tears, you know!
And Alice has tumbled into the Pool: and the Mouse has tumbled in: and there they are, swimming about together.
Doesn't Alice look pretty, as she swims across the picture? You can just see her blue stockings, far away under the water.
But why is the Mouse swimming away from Alice in such a hurry? Well, the reason is, that Alice began talking about cats and dogs: and a Mouse always hates talking about cats and dogs!
Suppose you were swimming about, in a Pool of your own Tears: and suppose somebody began talking to you about lesson-books and bottles of medicine, wouldn't you swim as hard as you could go?
From page 11 of The Nursery "Alice", a small child's version of the Alice adventures written late in Charles's life.


© 2005 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written April 2005