by Richelle Sutton, dramaturg
What makes a person great? It’s hard to quantify that question into a specific definition. Some people are known for their many incredible life accomplishments. And sometimes people achieve historical fame through one grand act. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an example of the latter. He is known worldwide under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, author of the prolific Alice in Wonderland books, however not many people know about the actual man behind the name. Over the years, many popular theories and suppositions have been circulated into common belief. Here, we would like to explore what we know about who Charles Dodgson was.
Who was Lewis Carroll? – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was the first son (third child) of Charles Dodgson and Frances Jane Lutwidge. He was born at Daresbury in Cheshire, England and lived there until he was 11. (It’s a popular theory that the Cheshire Cat was based off of a well-used English phrase, “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” and may have denoted that cats grinned in Cheshire because of the abundance of milk and cream in the dairy farms, among other theories.) Dodgson was tutored at home until he was about 14, when he entered Rugby School and then matriculated into the University of Oxford in 1850. Achievement was easy for him in school, but he did not always work hard or study. He graduated a Bachelor of Arts with first-class honors in mathematics.
He obtained the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855 and taught at Christ Church for the rest of his life. However, despite it being a prerequisite to teach at Christ Church, Dodgson wasn’t ordained a deacon until 1861, and he never became a priest. There is no conclusive evidence as to why Dodgson rejected the priesthood or why the Dean permitted Dodgson to continue teaching in defiance of the established rule.
On the whole, Dodgson was quite an average-looking man. He was about 6 feet tall, slender, with curly-brown hair and blue-grey eyes. One notable trait that he carried throughout his life was a small stammer that most of his family shared. Although many people hardly noticed, Dodgson himself was quite self-conscious about it. This was not debilitating for him, though, as he still took part in societal amusements like singing and recitation. But he could never overcome his stammer and it plagued him throughout his life.
Where did “Lewis Carroll” come from? – Dodgson wrote many literary works during his lifetime, including many mathematical texts under his real name, as well as poetry and fiction. His first published worked under the pen name Lewis Carroll was a poem entitled Solitude. The name “Lewis Carroll” was picked by his editor Edmund Yates from a list of four names that Dodgson had sent him. The name was a pseudonym of his real name, taking the latin form of Lutwidge, Ludovicus, and changing it to the anglicized form, Lewis. Likewise, he took the latin form of Charles, Carolus, which was similar to the Irish surname Carroll. Thus, “Lewis Carroll” was penned onto paper and later would become famous.
Was Lewis Carroll on drugs when he wrote the books? – The whole story of Alice in Wonderland came out of a rowing trip Dodgson took with the three young Liddell sisters. During his early residency at Christ Church, he befriended the dean, Henry Liddell, and his family. Dodgson often took the Liddell children out on rowing trips accompanied by an adult friend. On the sunny afternoon of July 4th, 1862, Dodgson created an outline to the story that he told the three girls. Alice then begged Dodgson to write down the whole story for her. After much delay, he presented her with the handwritten manuscript in 1864.
It wasn’t until the early 1960’s, during the counterculture movements, that people began circulating theories of Dodgson taking drugs while writing the books. (Most likely opium or laudanum, which were common during the Victorian era.) People cited events in the book, like drinking potions, eating mushrooms, and the hookah-smoking caterpillar to be direct references to drug use. However, most scholars would disagree with these popular beliefs. In all of the journals he wrote throughout his life, Dodgson never mentioned the use of drugs and there has never been any other evidence that has come to light connecting Alice in Wonderland and drugs.
There are records in Dodgson’s journal, however, that he might have suffered from aura-inducing migraines and possible epilepsy. In fact, one specific form of migraine aura was named “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” because it resembles the same size-changing manifestations that are widely used within the book. This could be objects appearing smaller, larger, further away, or closer than they actually are. There is no conclusive evidence that Dodgson did have this condition, but it’s possible that he might have been influenced in his writings by it if he did.
What is the “Carroll Myth” and is it true? – It was about the late 1900s when some biographers started suggesting that Dodgson was erotically interested in the children he visited. It started circulating that Dodgson might have actually been a pedophile, whether he acted on, or was even aware of those feelings or not. There were a few sources to these theories.
Dodgson was an avid photographer and became a popular “gentleman photographer” (someone who did photography just for pleasure). More than half of his surviving portfolio consists of young girls, many of them nude or semi-nude. This also was combined with the fact that he spent much of his time with young children and preferred their company over adults. There was also debate about certain missing pages within his journals. These pages were cut out of his journals after his death and destroyed, presumably by the family. This missing material incidentally covers the time that Dodgson was close to the Liddell family and the sudden break that they had as well. Some people believe that these pages may have contained a proposal of marriage to Alice Liddell and that is why the family broke off relations to Dodgson.
There are many other researchers and biographers that dispute these theories. They appeal to the different cultural views between then and now. Specifically, those who claim Dodgson was a pedophile view his child-photography with 21st-century eyes. Child nudes were in fact very popular for that time period, even appearing on Christmas cards. Dodgson was not the only photographer who took child nudes. Child nudity was seen as an expression of innocence and was a matter of course among most photographers. Dodgson’s journals also reference many older women that he was interested in and fostered close relationships with. On the matter of the missing journal pages, there was never any conclusive evidence as to what was contained on those pages until recently. In 1996, a page was found in the Dodgson family archive called “cut pages in diary document” which outlined two of the diary pages that are missing. One of them was supposedly the date that Dodgson and the Liddell family broke off relations. It summarizes that Mrs. Liddell informed Dodgson of gossip circulating about him and the family’s governess as well as his relationship with “Ina”. (This could have referred to possibly Alice’s sister Lorina, or Mrs. Liddell, who was also named Lorina.) While there’s no specific evidence that this was the reason they broke off relations, this is the explanation many accept at present.
It’s funny how the small things in our lives may result in our biggest successes. If Alice Liddell had not begged Dodgson for those stories, or if his friends had not persuaded him to publish his manuscript, we may never have been treated to these wonderful books. For all intents and purposes, Charles Dodgson was an average man with a seemingly quaint life. Yet he created something that has only grown larger and larger in our popular culture over time. The little things that we do or act upon in our lives could have the biggest impacts on our future. Charles Dodgson is a fantastic example of that, as we have seen. His legacy will live on for many more years to come. Pause and think about that the next time you see a personal action or idea as useless.
If you would like to look into additional information about Lewis Carroll and his life, I would suggest starting with these sites. Many of them also have references to other research materials: