Lewis Carroll Biography
Best known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll,
the author and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodson (1832–1898), was born at Daresbury, near Warrington, in England on the 27th of January 1832. He was the eldest son of Charles Dodgson, incumbent of Daresbury, afterwards archdeacon of Richmond and one of the canons of Ripon Cathedral, and of his wife and first cousin, Frances Jane Lutwidge.
Childhood and Education
As a child he displayed quaint precocity. It is told of him that he supplied earthworms with weapons in order that they might fight with more effect, fostered snails and toads, and inquired persistently the meaning of logarithms (S. D. Collingwood, Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll). He also wrote and performed plays for marionettes.
In 1844, at the age of twelve, he was sent to school at Richmond in Yorkshire. In 1846 he entered Rugby, where he remained three years and won success in mathematics and divinity, but he seems to have had few of the schoolboy’s enthusiasms. His tastes lay in the direction of authorship, and certain home magazines, notably ‘The Rectory Umbrella,’ are still preserved, largely written and illustrated by himself. Even as a boy his verses were sprightly, and he had a flow of comic ideas.
Dodgson matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 23 May 1850, at the age of eighteen, and on 24 Jan. 1851 entered into a residence that practically was uninterrupted until his death. His career as an undergraduate was exemplary. In his first year he won a Boulter scholarship; in his second he took first-class honours in mathematical, and second-class honours in classical, moderations, and was admitted on Pusey’s nomination a student of Christ Church.
In 1854 he was placed in the first class in the final mathematical school and in the third class in literæ humaniores, and on December 18th he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Adult Life and Career
In 1855, he began his career of mathematical lecturer which was to continue until 1881. In 1857 he proceeded M.A., having been a ‘Master of the House’ (i.e. the senior B.A. enjoying the privileges of an M.A.) since 15 Oct. 1855, when Liddell became dean. On 22 Dec. 1861 he was ordained deacon, never, however, proceeding to priest’s orders, partly perhaps from shyness, and partly from a constitutional stammer which prevented reading aloud.
He was able, however, to preach, which he did occasionally, and he gave a number of lectures, principally to children. He chose sometimes a Bible subject, such as the Epiphany, but for the most part the entertainment took the form of narrations of portions of his books, illustrated by lantern slides of his own devising. He also made a mechanical Humpty-Dumpty (a character in ‘Through the Looking Glass’) for this purpose.
To Dodgson’s shyness may partially be attributed the circumstance that his friendships were carried on more by letter than by personal interaction; and it may account to some extent for the fact that his most cherished friends were little girls, in entertaining whom he was tireless. There is also no doubt that the dictates of a conscience which was perhaps over exacting for daily life were obeyed too closely for him to be companionable to ordinary adult persons.
He made, however, acquaintance with eminent men among them Ruskin, Tennyson, Millais, and Rossetti of whom he has left valuable photographs, amateur photography having been successfully practised by him almost from boyhood. Dodgson went to Russia with Dr. Liddon in 1867, and visited London and its theatres periodically.
Activities at Oxford
He remained essentially an Oxford man to the very last. At the same time he took practically no part in college business, and had no wide educational enthusiasms or university ideals. But he was always quick to comment upon any Oxford matters that interested him. His curious ironical gifts are nowhere better exemplified than in the humorous oblique protests which he put forth every now and then in the sixties and early seventies as his contribution to public discussions on questions affecting Oxford.
These writings included pieces such as ‘The Dynamics of a Particle,’ in 1865, when Gladstone and Mr. Gathorne Hardy (afterwards Viscount Cranbrook) were contesting the representation of the university ; and ‘The New Belfry,’ in 1872, a very successful attempt to throw ridicule on the ugly wooden box which was placed on the roof over the hall staircase at Christ Church in order to house the bells that had to be removed from the cathedral tower. The new Wolsey tower was built instead, in answer to the outcry.
Dodgson also occasionally displayed some interest in more general matters, and from time to time addressed letters to the London papers on subjects near to him, such as the employment of children in theatres, a practice in which he saw no harm, and the eight hours question. These public utterances were always shrewd and witty.
End of Life
To a large extent, however, Dodgson was a solitary from first to last, living his own half-cloistral, fastidious, eccentric life, with the odd creations of his nimble fantastic brain for principal company. He died at Guildford, at his sisters’ home, on 14 Jan. 1898, aged 60.
Dodgson’s first literary efforts for anything more public than Oxford periodicals were written for the ‘Comic Times,’ founded in 1853. In 1856 ‘The Train’ was started, under the editorship of Edmund Yates, and to this Dodgson contributed verse. It was Yates who fixed upon the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ from a list of four suggested pseudonyms sent him by Dodgson, Lewis being derived via Ludovicus from Lutwidge, and Carroll via Carolus from Charles. By this name he is known to thousands who have never heard of his patronymic.
In 1865 appeared ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’ the work by which, with its pendant, ‘Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there’ (1871), his name is best known and will be known. Therein the author’s gift of absurd comic invention and delicate fanciful fun is at its richest ; while the circumstance that the books originated in the wish to amuse one of his little friends animated them with a charm and humanity that are not to be found in the same degree in anything else he wrote.
The little friend who inspired this work was Alice Liddell (afterwards Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves), Dean Liddell’s second daughter, to whom the original story of Alice was told on a river excursion. It was then written out as ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground,’ a facsimile reprint of which was issued in 1886.
The first edition of ‘ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’ issued in July 1865, was withdrawn by the author on account of the defective printing of Tenniel’s illustrations. The book was reissued in November of the same year, although dated 1866 (Athenæum, 11 Aug. 1900). On its true appearance, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ as it is abbreviated by most persons was immediately popular, and it has been popular ever since, with a popularity only equalled by its companion, ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ which, under the full title, ‘Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there,’ when published in 1871, received a welcome the more warm for having had such a predecessor.
The success of both books was greatly fortified by the drawings of Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Tenniel. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Dutch ; quotations from it and from its companion volume have passed into the language, and their dramatis personæ constitute a new nursery mythology. The author accomplished what was practically a new thing in writing—a persuasive yet rollicking madness that by its drollery fascinates children, and by its cleverness their elders.
The two ‘Alice’ books were dramatized in 1886 by Mr. Savile Clarke, and the play was successfully produced in London for the Christmas holidays of that year. It has since been revived more than once, and has been performed on provincial tours. Dodgson took great interest in the adaptation, and wrote for it a song to be sung by the ghosts of the oysters which the walrus and carpenter had eaten, and also additional lines to the verses beginning ‘”Tis the voice of the lobster.’
Dodgson’s next notable experiment in his nonsense vein was ‘The Hunting of the Snark,’ 1876, a bewildering story in verse, technically as brilliant as anything its author wrote, the meaning of which, however, still defies students. The theory that it is an allegory of the pursuit of fame has perhaps most favour.
Not until 1889 did ‘Sylvie and Bruno,’ Dodgson’s next book for children, appear, to be followed in 1893 by ‘Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.’ This story cannot be called successful. The author attempted to do two things at once : he tried to write a drolly fanciful story for children, after his known manner, and also to provide their elders with theological dogma. Though the book exhibits his deeply religious mind in a beautiful light, and shows now and again that his powers of comic invention had not weakened, it remains divided against itself.
Writings in Mathematics
Besides the fanciful works which Dodgson issued under his familiar pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, he made many serious contributions in his own name to mathematical literature; but, despite the true greatness of his mathematical talent, the limited character of his reading in mathematics deprived most of his published mathematical work of genuine value. The native acuteness and ingenuity of his intellect led him to devote much attention to formal logic, in whose intricate puzzles he delighted, and he almost seemed to have convinced himself that it was an engine for the discovery of new truth, instead of a means of detecting error that more could be got out of the premises than was put into them.
But this failing did not hamper him in dealing with a subject in which he was especially interested: elementary geometry. Perhaps it even added to the enthusiasm with which he pursued its study. His one valuable contribution to mathematics is ‘Euclid and his Modern Rivals’ (London, 1879). Many, excusably, refused to accept the book seriously; it was dedicated to the memory of Euclid, and thrown into dramatic form, while scattered up and down it were many jokes, which would have been more numerous but for the criticism of friends to whom the proof-sheets were shown. But when stripped of its external eccentricities it was a really serious contribution to Euclidian geometry, and went far to vindicate the unique position of Euclid’s elements as a first text-book of geometry, by a careful and systematic examination of the various treatises which had been produced by way of substitutes for it.
More Published Books
Besides the books already mentioned, Dodgson wrote:
1. ‘Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry,’ Oxford, 1860.
2. ‘Formulæ of Plane Trigonometry,’ Oxford, 1861.
3. ‘An Elementary Treatise on Determinants,’ London, 1867.
4. ‘Phantasmagoria and other Poems,’ London, 1876.
5. ‘Euclid, Books I and II,’ London, 1882.
6. ‘Rhyme? or Reason?’ (a reprint, with additions, of ‘Phantasmagoria’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’), London, 1883.
7. ‘The Principles of Parliamentary Representation,’ London, 1884.
8. ‘A Tangled Tale,’ London, 1885.
9. ‘The Game of Logic,’ London, 1887.
10. ‘Curiosa Mathematica,’ 3 parts, London, 1888-93.
11. ‘The Nursery Alice,’ London, 1890.
12. ‘Symbolic Logic,’ London, 1896.
Dodgson issued from time to time pamphlets on various subjects, such as descriptions of games of intellectual activity that he had invented; hints to mathematical examiners; and advice concerning letter-writing.
[The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, by Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1898; The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, edited by Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1899; The Story of Lewis Carroll, by Isa Bowman, 1899; Reminiscences of Oxford, by Rev. W. Tuckwell, 1900, pp. 161-3; Times obituary notice, 15 Jan. 1898; information from the Rev. E. F. Sampson.]
from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 2. Adapted by EIL editor.