Lewis Carroll is ubiquitous when it comes to literature — but beneath his fame as creator of Alice in Wonderland, Carroll is more than a little bit surprising. Let’s have a look at what we know (or what we think we know), and then take a deeper dive.
The man we know as Lewis Carroll was born in Cheshire on 27 January 1832 to Charles Dodgson and Frances Lutwidge, an Anglican family. Carroll was the eldest boy of 11 children and attended Rugby School and then attended Oxford University in 1850. He would remain at Christ Church as student, teacher and in various others roles until his death.
He enjoyed writing throughout his early life and befriended Dean Henry Liddell and his family when Liddell arrived at Oxford in 1856. In 1862, he hit upon the idea that would become Alice in Wonderland, which was published in 1865. Despite growing wealth and fame, he stayed at Christ Church and continued also to write. In 1871, he published the somewhat darker Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The Hunting of the Snark followed in 1876. In the 1890s he published the less successful Sylvie and Bruno. He died of pneumonia in 1898, a few weeks short of turning 66.
A short biography can never tell the whole tale, though — so here are some things you might not know about Alice’s creator.
His Name Isn’t Lewis Carroll
Caroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832. Though he had written for publications before, he published his first poetry as Lewis Carroll in March 1856. To get to his pen name, he translated his real name to Latin as “Carolus Ludovicus.” It was then translated back to English as “Carroll Lewis” and then reversed to make the name we know so well.
He Refused Ordination
It was a condition of his residency at Christ Church in Oxford to be ordained within a few years of completing his Masters. Carroll delayed the process but was eventually ordained a deacon in 1861 — but when time came to be ordained a priest, he didn’t go through with it.
Some of His Diaries Are Missing
There are a number of missing volumes and pages from Carroll’s diaries, which he kept throughout his life. This has been the subject of much debate, with scholarly assumptions that the material was removed by family members, though it’s not known if this is true or why it would have happened. Karoline Leach’s In the Shadow of the Dreamchild posits that much opinion about Carroll is based more on legend than fact — but the diaries are missing, and nobody knows why.
He Had a Stammer
At some point in his early childhood, Carroll developed a stammer which, according to Leach, he called his ‘hesitation’. According to biographer Morton Cohen in Lewis Carroll: A Biography, his siblings shared this stammer and for Carroll, he had it for the rest of his life.
He Also Experienced Migraines
In Volume nine of his diary, Carroll recorded an experience of migraine with aura, describing “moving fortifications.” We can’t know if this was the first time he experienced it. Today, Alice in Wonderland syndrome is named after his famous story, due to its causing distortions of perception, similar to the size changes Alice witnesses in the story.
He Was Extremely Precocious
According to Cohen, Carroll read The Pilgrim’s Progress at 7 years old and was remarkably precocious. He also excelled in school, and it was noted by his mathematics teacher that “I have not had a more promising boy at this age since I came to Rugby.”
He Stood Up for Kids at School
Carroll’s nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood noted that he was well known in the years after he left school as a boy who “well knew how to use his fist” to defend the smaller boys from bullies.
He was an amateur master photographer…
Carroll spent over 20 years taking photographs, mastering the art with (presumably) a huge investment of time and money. He created over 3,000 photos, though less than 1,000 have survived the passage of time and destruction. According to Lewis Carroll: Photographer, more than half of those surviving show young girls.
In more recent years, scholars have suggested that Carroll had a sexual interest in children, and that he was inordinately focused on the girls he photographed and knew. It is impossible to know with certainty whether these academics are correct. Leach’s reappraisal of Carroll suggests that conversation about him is dominated by a ‘Carroll myth’ which brushes over evidence of his relationships and interests in adult women and refuses to consider Victorian morals in context. Presumably we can never know for sure.
…and an avid mathematician.
I won’t pretend to understand any of this, but Carroll produced many books about mathematics under his given name. He worked on algebra and probability and is the subject of many papers and key to several major mathematic progressions, according to my father, who attempted to explain this to me. My father was disappointed that he lost me halfway through the explanation. Perhaps you’ll have more luck.
He Wrote and Received Almost 100,000 Letters
Text messaging probably makes that number seem small dice now, but at the time this was a vast array of correspondence. Carroll devised his own letter register and published Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing. He also invented the postage-stamp case.