Illustration by John Tenniel, 1865.
For all his fantastical and wild stories, Lewis Carroll’s own life was much more modest and ordinary. Despite this, many elements of his stories and poems are based on his surroundings and people he knew. He built himself a incredible world full of surreal and sometimes terrifying characters. So how did someone with such a quiet and reserved life come up with such a rich imaginary world?
His own life gives us very few hints of where his genius might have come from, and modern day myth-making has taken over to fill in the gaps where there is a frustrating lack of evidence. We’ll look briefly here at a few of the myths and truths of Caroll’s life and try to separate rumour from reality.
Lewis Carroll was his pen name. His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and his pseudonym was a Latin translation of this (Carolus Ludovicus).
He excelled in school, although along with most of his siblings he struggled with a stammer. His early education was at home, and he later attended Rugby School. He was a prodigious reader and exceedingly good at mathematics. His struggled with his stammer throughout his adult life, and this may have contributed to his shy and retiring personality.
He obtained a first class honours in Mathematics from Christ Church College in Oxford. He was often distracted and did not apply himself. Despite this is achieved his degree easily and his remarkable ability landed him a Mathematical lectureship, and he continued to teach and study at Christ Church for the rest of his life.
He was close friends with many in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They along with others encouraged him to submit Alice’s Adventures for publication, and he spent much time taking photographs at Rossetti’s house in London.
He later denied that Alice Liddell was the real-life inspiration for the character “Alice”, and that she was based on no particular child. There are small references to the "real" Alice throughout the books, including an acrostic poem that spells out her name. He also dedicated books to other children in his acquaintance, with similar acrostic poems. He was, however, a close friend of the Liddell family for several years. He also gave the “real” Alice a hand-written manuscript before it was published.
The book was a huge commercial success. Carroll quickly became famous around the world. He went on to publish the second book, Through the Looking Glass, in 1876. Despite his considerable fame and growing fortune, his continued at his position in Christ Church.
He was also a prolific photographer. About half of his out-put still survives today. He particularly excelled at portraits taken outside in natural lighting. He photographed his friends and their children and many of the Pre-Raphaelite set. He had his own studio for many years before the work became too time-consuming and he decided to quit.
A large portion of his diaries are missing, and no one knows why. The strange gap in his writing from 1853-63 has lead to speculation that his contained damning information on his personal life, which his family decided to destroy after his death. However, there is little to prove this was the case. It is known that he struggled immensely during this time with his mental health and wrestled with his spirituality as well. A resurfaced summary of some of the missing pages was discovered in 1996, which suggests that Carroll’s may have been courting the Liddell’s governess, of which rumours also circulated at the time. It is still not definitively known.
He may have suffered from epilepsy. He records that he suffered periodically from migraines and lost consciousness on two occasions, of which doctors believed were epileptic seizures. Biographers and researchers have drawn links between his own supposed aura migraines, which can produce visual hallucinations, and some the strange imagery in the Alice books. There is even “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome”, a type of migraine aura that causes object to appear smaller or larger than they really are.
Since Carroll spent his entire adult life in Oxford, it is possible to visit and see the places he worked and spent time. You can visit the sweet-shop opposite Christ Church college where a young Alice Liddell used to frequent (it is now an Alice in Wonderland themed gift shop). You can also take a punt down the river on the route where Carroll would take the Liddell children and told them the early Alice stories, from Oxford to Nuneham Courtney or Godstow. You can also tour Christ Church College and the grounds, where Carroll taught nearly twenty-five years.
Some of my favourite Lewis Carroll quotes...