Extended Biography of Charles Dodgson

The origin of Dodgson's Alice stories

Dodgson's Doublets (Word Ladders) A Mathematical Word Game Online


illustration by Sir John Tenniel

Lewis Carroll: Master of "Nonsense"


Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was a mathematics don who has long been much better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

The story behind his first Alice book is a famous one: On July 4, 1862 he and his friend Robinson Duckworth, a Fellow at Trinity College, accompanied the daughters of the dean of Christ Church on a pleasant boat trip on the river Isis. This particular excursion was to be an especially memorable one, for Reverend Dodgson entertained his fellow travelers with the story that was to be which he wrote down and illustrated by himself in a book that he presented to Alice Liddell, the "protagonist" of his story. Fortunately for us, he was encouraged to have his book commercially published. After revising and renaming the story (and enlisting John Tenniel to illustrate it), he did so in in 1865--at his own expense. His genius was recognized from then on--although he often denied (to strangers) that he was indeed the author of the Alice books, The Hunting of the Snark, and his other immortal works.





On the Fourth of July 1862, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who was a teacher at the University of Oxford, invited three little girls, Alice, Lorrine and Edith Liddell, to spend the afternoon with him. They took sandwiches and something to drink with them. It was hot and sunny so they took a boat and rowed slowly up the river. The three little girls took turns to row the boat until they got tired. Then, they stopped and got out of the boat to eat their sandwiches on the bank. While they were eating, Lewis Carroll told the children a story. The story was about a little girl called Alice, and the adventures she had one hot afternoon. When they got home in the evening, Alice Liddell looked up at Carroll and said ´I liked that story about Alice´s so much. Please will you write it down for me?´.

Lewis Carroll wrote the story, following her advice, and thus began the Alice stories.






Quotations by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson


What I tell you three times is true.

The Hunting of the Snark.


The different branches of Arithmetic -- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

Alice in Wonderland.


"Can you do addition?" the White Queen asked. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?" "I don't know," said Alice. "I lost count."

Through the Looking Glass.


"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Alice in Wonderland.


"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.

"I do, " Alice hastily replied; "at least I mean what I say, that's the same thing, you know."

"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why, you might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see!"

Alice in Wonderland.


"It's very good jam," said the Queen.

"Well, I don't want any to-day, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam to-day."

"It must come sometimes to "jam to-day,""Alice objected.

"No it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day; to-day isn't any other day, you know."

"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing."

Through the Looking Glass.


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

Through the Looking Glass.
















"Lewis Carroll" (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), the author of Alice in Wonderland, of mathematical treatises, and of a quantity of stories and poems, serious and humorous, was the son of a churchman and the eldest of eleven children. His mother and father were first cousins, and unusually religious. At the time of his birth, his father, Dr. Dodgson, was the vicar of Daresbury, Cheshire (he later was presented with the Crown living of Croft, Yorkshire, and subsequently became Archdeacon of Richmond and one of the Canons of Ripon Cathedral), and was a distinguished scholar whose favorite study was mathematics.


Daresbury was isolated, but there was no want of children, so Charles invented games to amuse himself and his brothers and sisters. He made a train with railway stations in the Rectory garden; he did conjuring in a brown wig and a long white robe; he made a troupe of marionettes and a stage with the aid of the family and a village carpenter; he wrote all the plays for it himself, and manipulated the strings. The most popular was The Tragedy of King John. He also made pets of snails and toads, and tried to promote modern warfare among earthworms by giving them small pieces of clay pipe for weapons.


Until he was twelve his father educated him, and then he went to Mr. Tate's school at Richmond. He was the butt of a few jokes as a new boy; later, however, he became the champion of the weak and small, and earned the reputation of "a boy who knew how to use his fists in a righteous cause." He contributed one story to the school magazine, probably a mystery, called "The Unknown One," which is unknown. Dr. Tate wrote to Dr. Dodgson that Charles had "a very uncommon share of genius," and "you may fairly anticipate for him a bright career." From Richmond he went to Rugby under Dr. Tate, and again acquitted himself more than creditably of his work. He always 'went home with one or more prizes." Indeed, the whole of his academic career was an endless series of excellent marks, prizes, and congratulations.


In the holidays between 1845 and 1850 he edited a number of magazines for his own amusement; the most entertaining of these was The Rectory Umbrella, which he illustrated as well as wrote. In this were the first nonsense rhymes and humorous drawings. "Seldom," says Walter De La Mare, 'has any child shown himself so clearly the father-to-be of the man."


On May 23, 1850, he matriculated at Christ Church College, Oxford, his father's college; in January the following year he became a resident of that college, and "from that day to the hour of his deathÑa period of forty-seven yearsÑhe belonged to 'the House,' never leaving it for any length of time. . ." Again he distinguished himself with first class honors in mathematics, second class in classics, and the Butler Scholarship. He wrote, "I am getting tired of being congratulated on various subjects; there seems to be no end of it. If I had shot the Dean I could hardly have had more said about it." After receiving his B.A. degree he was made "Master of the House" and sub-librarian. According to the terms of the scholarship, or studentship, he was to remain unmarried and proceed to holy orders. At this time, 1855, he began contributing poems and stories to The Comic Times, until its editor, Edmund Yates, founded The Train. It was Yates who chose from three names Dodgson submitted the nom de plume Lewis Carroll, and Lewis Carroll was first signed to a poem, "Solitude," which appeared in The Train in 1856.


The year 1855 was eventful; he received the further appointment of lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, a position which he held until 1881. Six years later he was ordained a deacon, but he never proceeded to priest's orders, probably because he stammered. He did, however, preach from time to time, often to the servants of the college but he enjoyed most preaching to children.


From this time until his death in 1898 the story of Lewis Carroll is the story of his literary work, of his child friends, of his hobbies and inventions, and the story of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, mathematician, lecturer, and scholar, is secondary. (A trip to Russia with Dr. Liddon in 1867 was the only real interruption in the quiet routine of his life. The Russian Journal is his diary of this trip.)


On July 4, 1862, Lewis Carroll wrote in his diary, "I made an expedition up the river to Godstowe with the three Liddells, we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Christ Church till half-past eight." Somewhat later he added, "on which occasion I told them the fairy tale of Alice's Adventures Underground, which I undertook; to write out for Alice." The Liddells were the daughters of the dean of Christ Church College. Alice, the second daughter, lived to celebrate the centenary of Carroll's birth. Subsequently the book was called Alice's Hours in Elfland, but when it appeared in 1865 it was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The first edition both Tenniel, the illustrator, and Carroll condemned because the pictures were printed poorly. Some of these 2000 copies were given by Carroll to hospitals and institutions where he thought the book might be enjoyed and some were sold in America. It was six years later that Through the Looking Glass was published.


In the meantime Carroll had settled down in a spacious apartment on the northwest corner of Tom Quad, where he remained the rest of his life, and where he had a photographic studio. Here he made portraits of a great many of the celebrities of his day, as well as of his child friends. The pictures are clear and sharp and altogether remarkable for their time. It was here that Carroll did a great deal of entertaining. He made charts of where his guests sat at table, and kept track of menus in his diary, so that "people would not have the same dishes too frequently." He was by now a confirmed and exacting bachelor, who labeled and filed all his papers and letters; who asked perfection of the artists who illustrated his books, and even requested one of them, E. Gertrude Thomson, not to do any work for him on Sundays; who rose early every morning, and worked hard all day. But he was also the child-lover who kept " for the amusement of his child guests a large assortment of musical boxes and an organette which had to be fed with paper tunes," clockwork bears, mice, frogs, games and puzzles of all sorts.


While the fame of Lewis Carroll increased daily, Dodgson was turning out and publishing a quantity of mathematical works, but, as Harvey Darton puts it, "no one who ever wrote for children is more completely assured of unacademic immortality." Dodgson shied away from publicity, and "declined to welcome any tribute to Lewis Carroll." In fact he wrote, "Mr. C. L Dodgson. . . neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym or with any book not published under his own name." But Dodgson has a good deal of fun even under his own name. He ridiculed the new belfry at Christ Church in a pamphlet, he wrote skits on Oxford subjects, and published a book of parodies, mostly of Tennyson and Longfellow. He invented a system of mnemonics for remembering names and dates; poetical acrostics; a system for writing in the dark and he improved the game of backgammon. The later works of Lewis Carroll never reached the popularity of the Alice books. Sylvie and Bruno is full of the ideals and sentiments "he held most dear," though it contains also a good deal of nonsense.

Carroll was tall, thin, and dark, with delicate features, smooth skin, and "thick curly hair." He "was, at sight, a much odder figure than an effervescent country vicar" with his jerky step.


Toward the end of his life he began to have 'a very peculiar, yet not very uncommon, optical delusion, which takes the form of seeing moving fortifications." He needed rest badly, but he kept on working, though he saw fewer people, and went to the theatre (which he liked exceedingly) almost never. He knew everybody of importance: writersÑ Ruskin, Tennyson, the Rossettis; actressesÑ the Terry sisters; scientists, churchmen, and men of affairs. He died at Guilford of influenza, but his memory is appropriately kept alive by perpetual public endowment of a cot in the Children's Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London.


Carroll "was an interesting but erratic genius," as Henry Holiday, the illustrator of Svlvie and Bruno, said. He was full of ingenious ideas even in his youth, when he liked "the look of logarithms"; he wrote on horse-race betting odds; he was constantly inventing puzzles and corresponding with strangers about mathematics. He was full of a tremendous reverence for sacred subjects, and would leave a theatre if a joke on such matters was made in the play. He is almost the only male writer to have written for girls; Sylvie and Bruno was his only concession to boys, of whom he was very wary. Alice in Wonderland has been universally praised because it "changed the whole cast of children's literature, but he founded, not followed, a gracious type. . . " It was "a spiritual volcano of children's books" (Harvey Darton). Perhaps the most penetrating analysis of Alice's position in children's literature is the novelist Sir Walter Besant's remark that "it admits us into a state of being which, until it was written, was not only unexplored but undiscovered."





                                                      © http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/carroll/carroll.bio.html


A Game of Words: the Ambiguities of Language.


Katie Krauskopf '97 (English 73, 1995)



"So here's a question for you. How old did you say you were?" Alice made a short calculation and said, "Seven years and six months." "Wrong!" Humpty Dumpty exclaimed triumphantly. "You never said a word like it!" "I thought you meant 'How old are you?'" Alice explained. "If I'd meant that, I'd have said it," said Humpty Dumpty (Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking-Glass).


"What is he prepared to swear?" "Well, Mas'r Jaggers," said Mike, wiping his nose on his fur cap this time; "in a general way, anythink." Mr. Jaggers suddenly became most irate. "Now, I warned you before," said he, throwing his forefinger at the terrified client, "that if ever you presumed to talk in that way here, I'd make an example of you. You infernal scoundrel, how dare you tell ME that?" The client looked scared, but bewildered too, as if he were unconscious what he had done.... "Now I ask you, you blundering booby," said my guardian very sternly, "once more and for the last time, what the man you have brought here is prepared to swear?" Mike looked hard at my guardian, as if he were trying to learn a lesson from his face, and slowly replied, "Ayther to character, or to having been in his company and never left him all the night in question." "Now, be careful. In what station of life is this man?" Mike looked at his cap, and looked at the floor, and looked at the ceiling, and looked at the clerk, and even looked at me, before beginning to reply in a nervous manner, "we've dressed him up like-" when my guardian blustered out: "What? you WILL, will you?"... After some helpless casting about, Mike brightened and began again: "He is dressed like a 'spectable pieman. A sort of a pastry-cook." "Is he here?" asked my guardian. "I left him," said Mike, "a-setting on some doorsteps round the corner." (Carles Dickens, Great Expectations, pp.155-156)

The games begin immediately for Alice when she encounters Humpty Dumpty during her Looking-Glass wanderings, as they do for Mike as soon as he enters Jaggers's infamous law office. What exactly are these so-called games that both Dickens and Carroll invent? They are the games that can be played with the ambiguities of language.


Humpty Dumpty greatly frustrates Alice by toying with the double meaning of the question "how old did you say you were?", presenting Alice with a question she had not thought she had been asked. A similar circumstance occurs just before Alice first meets Humpty Dumpty. In this situation, it is Alice who uses the ambiguous nature of language to her advantage. "And how exactly like an egg he is!" she said aloud... "It's very provoking," Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence..."to be called an egg-very!" "I said you looked like an egg, Sir" (Through the Looking-Glass, p.159). Dickens also demonstrates the ambiguity in the English language. Jaggers's very success as a lawyer depends upon it. Double meanings and unclear interpretations allow him to be just vague enough to gather information from his witnesses and clients, such as Mike, without obtaining knowledge that would incriminate himself. Jaggers is not the only character in Great Expectations who experiences the dual nature of English as a language. When Pip is a young boy, his literal interpretation (based on experience) of the expression "to be brought up by hand" is amusing and also poignant. In using ambiguous language, authors such as Carroll and Dickens present a broad spectrum of emotions to their readers. It is a device that can serve to frustrate, humor or instill empathy.


"The decade of the 1860s was also the signal decade of the new philology in England. Philological discussion connected, in the popular mind, with a sense of breakthrough in many other historical and comparative disciplines" (Dennis Taylor. Hardy's Literary Language and Victorian Philology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. p.97). This quest to establish the authentic meaning of written texts and documents perhaps sheds some light on why Carroll and Dickens were so fond of playing with language. Whether they were doing so in order to prove a point about the difficulties surrounding that quest, or if it was simply just a device that they both thought effective is a difficult question to answer. 


Copyright©1997  by Katie Krauskopf