When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832, few could have predicted that he would be world-famous, albeit under a pseudonym, at his death. Charles was born into a highly conservative, religious family of northern England. His father had been named Charles, as had his grandfather and great-grandfather. The family tradition was for the men to take holy orders and enter the church, as his great-grandfather and father had both done. His grandfather had served in the army and been killed in action. As would be expected, the youngest Charles came up in a stable, conservative home that stressed the value of a good education.
He showed promise at a young age, demonstrating a proclivity for reading and for quick thinking. As he matured Charles remained in school and continued to excel, especially at maths. His youth was also a time of struggle where he endured several illnesses and injuries. Early in life he developed up a stammer, a hardship of which he was quite self-conscious. By 1851 he had entered Oxford at his father’s old college, Christ Church, where he continued to study math. Though his mother died not long after he began at Oxford and in spite of his health problems, Charles continued on. By 1855 his talent as a mathematician had won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship.
Throughout his childhood Charles had tried his hand at writing short stories and poetry, many of which were published in local magazines. During this period where he had obtained the lectureship position, several of his stories began to be featured in national publications. His personal standard was high, and even with the national reach of his stories, Dodgson did not feel that he had written anything of ‘publishable’ quality (he did not consider magazines to be true ‘publications.’)
He reached a turning point in 1856, the same year in which he first used the now-famous pseudonym ‘Lewis Carroll.’ (This pseudonym was a play on his real name; Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which comes the name Charles.) In 1856 a new dean, Henry Liddell, arrived at Christ’s Church and brought along his wife and family. Lewis Carroll, as we shall now refer to him, became close friends with the Lidell family, in particular the three daughters, Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell. A tradition soon began where Carroll would take the children for picnics. It was during one of these outings in 1862 that Carroll first had the idea for a story that would become his first success.
It began as a story which he told to entertain the Lidell children, but apparently Alice Lidell enjoyed the story so immensely that she begged Carroll to put it in writing. In spite of Carroll’s initial hesitation, Alice’s enthusiasm and the encouragement of a friend who had read Carroll’s incomplete manuscript pushed him to finish it and present it to a publisher in 1863. Before settling on the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll presented a handwritten and illustrated manuscript to young Alice Lidell. By 1865 the publisher had completed its first run of printing and distributed the book for sale. It was an immediate success and quickly established Lewis Carroll as a famous author.
Writing was only one of Carroll’s pursuits. Earlier, in 1856, Carroll had taken up what was at that time the new art form of photography. Apparently Carroll was quite adept as a photographer and he established himself as a successful gentleman-photographer. He made good use of his photography credentials by taking portraits of some socially ‘elite’ figures. Some of his famous photograph sitters include Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Michael Faraday, Lord Salisbury. Over his photography career Carroll is thought to have taken over 3,000 pictures of which only about 1,000 survive today. The progression of camera technology began to make Carroll’s wet collodion process obsolete, and in 1880 Carroll abruptly quit taking photographs.
The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 led Carroll to write and publish a second story – Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There – in 1871. Carroll’s father had died three years previously, and it is thought that the resulting depression into which Carroll fell was a cause of Through the Looking-Glass‘s more somber tone. Carroll published a few other works during the rest of his life; the poem The Hunting of the Snark is probably the most well-known of his later works. He had continued working as a lecturer at Christ Church where he wrote over a dozen works of mathematics. His last published work of fiction was a two-volume set entitled Sylvie and Bruno. Though it was probably his most intricate and under appreciated work of literature, it has remained in print since 1893.
Carroll died abruptly after a bout of pneumonia on 14 January 1898, just shy of his 66th birthday. Much of his life is shrouded in mystery to this day, a fact which has led to a myriad of interpretations about the man himself. Some have claimed that the excessive amount of time that he spent with young girls is evidence of Carroll’s paedophilia. Others have opposed such claims, stating that they stem from the incorrect imposition of a modern mindset onto the social mores of the 19th century. In any event, it is clear that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was a gifted author, mathematician, and photographer whose work has survived and remained popular to this day.