The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Lewis Carroll
[Charles Lutwidge Dodgson]
1832 - 1898



English author, mathematician, and Anglican clergyman wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next….then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’, but to her great disappointment it was empty: (Ch. 1)

And thus begins Alice’s fantastical adventures that have endured in their popularity for over a century, influencing contemporary authors, artists, musicians and inspiring adaptations to the stage and screen. Carroll’s particular mix of creativity, fantasy, word play, satire, nonsense, and dry wit have gained him iconic status in popular culture with such memorable characters as Alice herself, the March Hare, the wise Dodo, a mad Hatter, the hookah smoking Blue Caterpillar, and the Cheshire Cat. He is the source of such oft-quoted witticisms, puns and nonsense phrases like “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it”, “We called him Tortoise because he taught us”, “No good fish goes anywhere without a porpoise”, “She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it)”, “I can't explain myself, I’m afraid, because I’m not myself, you see”, “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today”, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards”, and “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Lewis Carroll guarded his privacy while alive and after his death much of his personal papers were destroyed; nine of his thirteen personal journals survive although some pages are cut out. Thus suspicions have been raised and many myths and misunderstandings about the man, as well as critiques and speculative psychoanalyses into what kind of man he was including drug abuser, socially inept and an unhealthy interest in children. His stories for children remain the most popular, but not only was Carroll a prolific author of highly original fiction he also wrote essays, political pamphlets, short stories, poetry, and mathematical textbooks. He was a gifted mathematician and a natural teacher and created many cipher and word and logic games. An avid photographer, he captured hundreds of images of still life, landscapes, and his favourite subject, people. Regardless of the controversy surrounding his life, his works have been translated to dozens of languages, many still in print in the twenty-first century, and Lewis Carroll remains one of the most popular writers read by young and old alike, for, as he says in his Preface to The Nursery Alice (1890);

I have reason to believe that Alice....has been read by some hundreds of English Children, aged from Five to Fifteen: also by Children, aged from Fifteen to Twenty-give: yet again by Children, aged from Twenty-five to Thirty-give: and even by Children—for there are such—Children in whom no waning of health and strength, no weariness of the solemn mockery, and the gaudy glitter, and the hopeless misery, of Life has availed to parch the pure fountain of joy that wells up in all child-like hearts

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832 at the parsonage in Daresbury, Cheshire County, England, the third child and eldest son born to Frances Jane Lutwidge (1804-1851) and Anglican Archdeacon Charles Dodgson (1800-1868). Charles had two older sisters, Frances Jane (1828-1903) and Elizabeth Lucy (1830-1916) and eight other siblings: Caroline Hume (1833-1904), Mary Charlotte (1835-1911), Skeffington Hume (1836-1919), Wilfred Longley (1838-1914), Louisa Fletcher (1840-1930), Margaret Anne Ashley (1841-1915), Henrietta Harington (1843-1922), and Edwin Heron (1846-1918). They were a large family and very close, strictly adhering to High Church values and morals.

At the time Charles was born his father was curate at All Saints’ Church in Daresbury but in 1843 the family moved to the Croft Rectory in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire. The children’s education started at home and young Charles, who wanted to be like his father, was enrolled at the Richmond public school as a boarder. Starting at the age of fourteen he attended Rugby School in Warwickshire until 1849. They were mostly unmemorable years for Dodgson—he caught whooping cough and a case of the mumps. But he was exceptionally gifted and, like his father, excelled in mathematics and won many prizes. He also loved literature and studied such authors as John Bunyan, William Shakespeare and John Ruskin and went on to appreciate many others like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, who also became a friend. He expressed his creativity in writing poetry and short stories for his own magazines including The Rectory Umbrella which his siblings read to great amusement. The year after he matriculated to Christ Church College (the same as his father’s) and moved to Oxford University (1851) his mother Frances died—her sister Lucy Lutwidge (1805-1880) then moved in to the Rectory to help care for Charles’ younger siblings.

Dodgson was determined to succeed and approached his education avidly: he earned his B.A. in 1854 with First Class Honours in mathematics, Second in Classics, and in 1857 graduated with an M.A. Again, following in his father’s footsteps, Dodgson was appointed Mathematical Lecturer at Oxford, a position he held from 1856 to 1881. Around the time of his appointment a new Dean came to Christ Church, Henry Liddell and his wife Lorina and their children Harry, Lorina, Edith and Alice. They all became great friends to Dodgson and were often subjects for his photography as well as his own family and Tennyson’s, Scottish author George MacDonald’s, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his family. They went on outings together, including rowing on the rivers Thames and Isis near Oxford. Dodgson, who loved to tease and joke, entertained the children by drawing pictures and telling them stories including the beginnings of his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Dodgson clearly had a love and respect for the young sharp minds who laughed at his stories and shared his sense of humour.

Dodgson also loved the theatre and often made the short trip to London with friends to visit art galleries and museums. Teaching provided a stable income for him and as a respected teacher he also published under his name Dodgson numerous textbooks on math including Two Books of Euclid (1860), Elementary Treatise on Determinants (1867), Examples in Arithmetic (1874), and Curiosa Mathematica, Part I: A New Theory of Parallels (1888).

Dodgson was curator of the Common Room at Christ Church for many years, and while much of his time was taken up with campus life and attending lectures, teaching was often mundane and hardly gave outlet to his creativity. Soon he was submitting humorous short stories and poems to various magazines for publication including the Oxford Critic, The Comic Times and the Whitby Gazette. In 1856 he started using his pseudonym ‘Lewis Carroll’ an anglicised form of his given name: ‘Lewis’ being an anglicised form of ‘Ludovicus’ and Latin for Lutwidge; and ‘Carroll’ anglicised from ‘Carolus’, Latin for Charles.

After taking holy orders, including the commitment not to marry, Dodgson became deacon in 1861 in Christ Church Cathedral. He assisted in services for many years but at times had difficulty reading aloud certain combinations of letters that caused hesitations in his speech. However he was never fully ordained a priest for he was not interested in the full-time ministration of a parish; it would take time away from his busy social life, hobbies and cultural pursuits. He liked to take holidays and practice his photography in various parts of the country with family and friends like fellow Oxford Alumnus Doctor Reginald Southey (1835-1899). He was also beginning to write. Encouraged by his friends he put pen to paper and composed his Alice stories. They were published in 1865 to much success, with illustrations by John Tenniel.

In 1867 Carroll travelled through Europe and Russia with preacher and friend from Oxford, Henry Parry Liddon (1829-1890). The same year his father died, 1868, his siblings moved to ‘The Chestnuts’ in Guildford, Surrey. With over ten years’ worth of poems Carroll published his first major collection as Phantasmagoria in 1869. His epic nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” was published in 1876. In 1871 Carroll’s sequel to Alice, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There appeared, including another famous poem “Jabberwocky”. Carroll’s humorous play Euclid and his modern rivals was published in 1879.

In 1881 Carroll resigned his lectureship at Oxford in order to focus on his writing. His first of many works on voting theory The Principles of Parliamentary Representation (1884) was followed by A Tangled Tale (1885) which combines mathematical puzzles ‘knots’, poems, and a narrative story. Other works to follow include Alice’s Adventures Underground (1886), The Game of Logic (1887), The Nursery Alice (1889), Sylvie and Bruno (1889), Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter Writing (1890), and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893).

Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died on 14 January 1898 at his sisters’ home The Chestnuts and he now lies buried with many of his siblings at The Mount cemetery in Guildford, Surrey, England. His epitaph reads Where I am there shall also my servant be. An obituary was published in The Times of London on 15 January 1898. Posthumous publications include Isa’s visit to Oxford (1899), Rectory Umbrella (1932), and Mischmasch (1932). Dodgson’s nephew, son of his sister Mary, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood’s The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll was published in 1898. Lewis Carroll Societies have formed in many countries including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, North America, and Japan.

“and the moral of that is—Be what you would seem to be—or, if you’d like it put more simply—never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.” (Ch. 9, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)


The English church official Lewis Carroll was the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, famous adventure stories for children that adults also enjoy. He was also a noted mathematician and photographer.
Early life and education

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832, the eldest son and third of eleven children born to Frances Jane Lutwidge and the Reverend Charles Dodgson. Carroll had a happy childhood. His mother was patient and gentle, and his father, despite his religious duties, tutored all of his children and raised them to be good people. Carroll frequently made up games and wrote stories and poems, some of which were similar to his later published works, for his seven sisters and three brothers.

Although his years at Rugby School (1846–49) were unhappy, he was recognized as a good student, and in 1850 he was admitted to further study at Christ Church, Oxford, England. He graduated in 1854, and in 1855 he became mathematical lecturer (more like a tutor) at the college. This permanent appointment, which not only recognized his academic skills but also paid him a decent sum, required Carroll to take holy orders in the Anglican Church and to remain unmarried. He agreed to these requirements and was made a deacon in 1861.
Photography and early publication

Among adults Carroll was reserved, but he did not avoid their company as some reports have stated. He attended the theater frequently and was absorbed by photography and writing. After taking up photography in 1856, he soon found that his favorite subjects were children and famous people, including English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), Italian painter and poet D. G. Rossetti (1828–1882), and English painter John Millais (1829–1896). Helmut Gernsheim wrote of Carroll's photographs of children, "He achieves an excellence which in its way can find no peer." Though photography was mostly a hobby, Carroll spent a great deal of time on it until 1880.

In the mid-1850s Carroll also began writing both humorous and mathematical works. In 1856 he created the pseudonym (assumed writing name) "Lewis Carroll" by translating his first and middle names into Latin, reversing their order, then translating them back into English. His mathematical writing, however, appeared under his real name.
Alice books

In 1856 Carroll met Alice Liddell, the four-year-old daughter of the head of Christ Church. During the next few years Carroll often made up stories for Alice and her sisters. In July 1862, while on a picnic with the Liddell girls, Carroll recounted the adventures of a little girl who fell into a rabbit hole. Alice asked him to write the story out for her. He did so, calling it Alice's Adventures underGround. After some changes, this work was published in 1865 as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with illustrations by John Tenniel.

Encouraged by the book's success, Carroll wrote a second volume, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). Based on the chess games Carroll played with the Liddell children, it included material he had written before he knew them. The first section of "Jabberwocky," for example, was written in 1855. More of Carroll's famous Wonderland characters—such as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee—appear in this work than in Alice in Wonderland.

Unlike most of the children's books of the day, Alice and Through the Looking Glass did not attempt to convey obvious moral lessons. Nor did they contain what critics have tried to insist are there—hidden meanings relating to religion or politics. They are delightful adventure stories in which a normal, healthy, clearheaded little girl reacts to the "reality" of the adult world. Their appeal to adults as well as to children lies in Alice's intelligent response to ridiculous language and action.

Later publications

Carroll published several other nonsense works, including The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Sylvie and Bruno (1889), and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). He also wrote a number of pamphlets poking fun at university affairs, which appeared under a fake name or without any name at all, and he composed several works on mathematics under his true name. In 1881 Carroll gave up his lecturing to devote all of his time to writing. From 1882 to 1892, however, he was curator of the common room (manager of the staff club) at Christ Church. After a short illness, he died on January 14, 1898.

Assessment of the man

The Reverend C. L. Dodgson was a reserved, fussy bachelor who refused to get wrapped up in the political and religious storms that troubled England during his lifetime. Lewis Carroll, however, was a delightful, lovable companion to the children for whom he created his nonsense stories and poems. Biographers and historians have long been confused that one man could have two completely different sides.

One solution is that he had two personalities: "Lewis Carroll" and "the Reverend Mr. Dodgson," with the problems that go along with having a split personality. There were peculiar things about him—he stammered ever since he was a child, he was extremely fussy about his possessions, and he walked as much as twenty miles a day. But another solution seems more nearly correct: "Dodgson" and "Carroll" were parts of one personality. This personality, because of happiness in childhood and unhappiness in the years thereafter, could blossom only in a world that resembled the happy one he knew while growing up.










This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008