The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created "Alice in Wonderland"

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9780312612986: The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created

A new biography of Lewis Carroll, just in time for the release of Tim Burton’s all-star Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll was brilliant, secretive and self contradictory. He reveled in double meanings and puzzles, in his fiction and his life. Jenny Woolf’s The Mystery of Lewis Carroll shines a new light on the creator of Alice In Wonderland and brings to life this fascinating, but sometimes exasperating human being whom some have tried to hide. Using rarely-seen and recently discovered sources, such as Carroll’s accounts ledger and unpublished correspondence with the “real” Alice’s family, Woolf sets Lewis Carroll firmly in the context of the English Victorian age and answers many intriguing questions about the man who wrote the Alice books, such as:

· Was it Alice or her older sister that caused him to break with the Liddell family?

· How true is the gossip about pedophilia and certain adult women that followed him?

· How true is the “romantic secret” which many think ruined Carroll’s personal life?

· Who caused Carroll major financial trouble and why did Carroll successfully conceal that person’s identity and actions?

Woolf answers these and other questions to bring readers yet another look at one of the most elusive English writers the world has known.

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About the Author:

JENNY WOOLF has written for The Sunday Times Magazine (UK), Reader’s Digest, and Islands and has reviewed children’s literature for Punch. She is author of Lewis Carroll in His Own Account. She lives in England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
‘My Father and Mother were
honest though poor ...’
Family
...An island-farm – broad seas of corn
Stirred by the wandering breath of morn –
The happy spot where I was born.
‘Faces in the Fire’
It is a curious thing that Lewis Carroll, so closely associated with Victorian childhood, hardly ever spoke about his own childhood. Not only did he refrain from discussing his youth, but almost nobody else left personal memories of it either. His brothers and sisters supplied only a few carefully edited recollections of him as a boy. Those family letters which survive hardly refer to him as an individual.
His arrival in the world, though, received a few lines of public notice. It was the tradition among the middle and upper classes to announce the birth of offspring in The Times of London. So it was that on 31 January 1832 the newspaper carried an announcement of the birth of the baby who became Lewis Carroll.
Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he had been born a few days earlier, on 27 January 1832. He was the oldest son and the third child of the Revd Charles Dodgson and his wife (and first cousin), Frances. His birthplace was a small parsonage in Morphany Lane in the village of Daresbury, Cheshire, where his father was perpetual curate. There had been two Dodgson sisters before him and there would be eight more children after him, following at a rate of one every year or two. Every one of the eleven survived, and throughout Carroll’s whole life he would be a vital and valued member of this huge and self-contained group. Always in his background, always in touch, his siblings remained of great significance to him throughout his life.
Not only the eleven children, but the family’s numerous aunts, uncles and cousins were close-knit. They all knew that upon the Revd Dodgson’s death, Carroll, as the oldest son, would become the head of the family. If any of the brothers and sisters needed help with their problems, it was to him that they would go, no matter how old they might be. Carroll’s whole existence was to be spent in the full knowledge and awareness of this large responsibility.
The England where the Dodgson family grew up is still sometimes portrayed in idealized form on traditional Christmas cards. It seems like a jovial land of Mr. Pickwick, of stagecoaches and poke bonnets and roast beef, of simple country folk and inns and ale. The reality, of course, was less comfortable. Huge technological and social changes were under way, and public attitudes had yet to catch up with them. As the Dodgsons’ first son greeted the world, slavery was legal, cholera was rife in cities, Roman Catholics were barred from Parliament, and tiny children were being worked to death in factories. Married women had no legal right to keep their own earnings, and public executions were still a popular form of entertainment.
Such repressive, sometimes savage attitudes towards women, children, religion and crime would take many years to change. Whether or not Carroll accepted them (and mostly he did not), these attitudes shaped him and his contemporaries and provided the intellectual and social background to their early lives.
Daresbury, where Carroll spent the early years of his life, was then a pleasant small village with a population of around 150 souls, at the centre of a scattered parish in flat, lush countryside. The parsonage was some distance both from the village and the church, and it was so countrified that even the passing of a cart on the road was said to be a matter of great interest for the children.1
The Revd Dodgson, though well bred and well read, was however not well off. He was a brilliant scholar who had obtained a double first at Christ Church, yet as a mere perpetual curate he was ill-paid and doing a job far below his intellectual capacity. Without influential people to lobby for him, there was little he could do but make the best of it, and his situation was a matter of some pain to him and his friends. His poverty and enforced lack of status would not have been lost on his eldest son.
The family’s life in Daresbury was very rural. They kept livestock and grew some of their own food, but of course, living in a Georgian country house and growing one’s own vegetables was not quite the charming existence that it might be today. Both parents made the best of their lives with Christian cheerfulness, and if the Dodgson siblings’ tight-knit, cooperative and upright adulthood is anything to go by, their youth was orderly, austerely religious, affectionate and generally happy. The Revd Dodgson worked hard at ministering to his widely dispersed flock, and took in extra pupils to help bring in a few extra shillings to feed, clothe and educate the family. His wife searched endlessly for inexpensive ways to manage the household and her brood of growing children, as her stream of dashingly underlined letters to her sister eloquently testifies:
... Loui I have only got the llama Wool High Dress she had last Winter & for Carry & Mary I have got nothing for the morning – the few High Dresses they had last Winter are quite done – their Pelisses must also pass down to the younger ones (the two smallest being wanted to make one for darling Edwin ... Can I get wrong in choosing the above for them in Darlington? they would be less expensive there I should think ...2
The Dodgsons stayed in Cheshire until 1843, when Carroll was eleven, after which they moved to Croft-on-Tees, north Yorkshire, where Carroll’s father had gained a well-deserved promotion to rector. In 1852, he was made residentiary canon of the ancient cathedral at Ripon, Yorkshire, and after that, he and his family spent time in Ripon as well as at Croft.
There is but one recorded remark from Carroll about himself as a child, contained in a letter to a lady friend, and it is brief. He wrote, during a diatribe about how he disliked boys, that he had been a ‘simply detestable’ little boy.3 He was probably joking, but, as a boy, detestable or not, he hardly figures individually in preserved family letters and papers. Any family friends who remembered him chose not to come forward with their memories of his youth, and even the neighbours had almost nothing to say.
In fact, since Carroll did not attend school until he was 12 years old, it can fairly be said that he had little significant childhood existence outside his large, extended family. From the very start, he was one of a group, not as much of an individual in his own right as someone from a smaller family would have been. He had to take his place, wait his turn, and join in.
Letters still in the Dodgson family’s possession, telling relatives how glad and happy their children made them, show that both parents delighted in their family life. In the very busy but well-organized household, the offspring were distinguished by their initials and referred to mainly as ‘treasures’ and ‘darlings’. There is a surviving letter from 1837, which Carroll, then about five, ‘wrote’, with his hand guided by an adult. Couched in baby talk, it sends a ‘kitt’ (kiss) from ‘Charlie with the horn of hair’, its existence showing that adults in his life doted upon his babyish quirks of speech and his infant curls.4
The few reminiscences of him which his nephew Stuart Collingwood coaxed from Carroll’s brothers and sisters when writing his biography, present a quaint, charitable and clever child, demanding to know what logarithms were, and making personal pets of snails and toads and worms. Perhaps understandably, the book is not very objective yet, within the limits of presenting a conventional picture of his uncle, Collingwood tried hard to show him as the quirky human being he essentially was. He had been a child, he said, who seemed ‘to have actually lived in that charming “Wonderland” which he afterwards described’.5
As he grew older, Carroll emerged as the family entertainer, involving his brothers and sisters in vast imaginative games in their huge garden. Railways being the latest thing at the time, he made a train from a wheelbarrow, a barrel and a truck. It would carry its young passengers from one ‘station’ in the rectory grounds to another, in accordance with a long and deliberately ridiculous list of railway regulations that he concocted for them. He learned sleight-of-hand and dressed up to amuse his siblings with magic shows. He helped make a toy theatre – he was good with his hands – and wrote puppet plays which he and the older ones performed. They also wrote and illustrated several family magazines under his guidance, and when he was away from home he wrote them long, loving, and entertaining letters.
One of these letters, written in his twenties and addressed to his youngest brother and sister, then aged 12 and 9, has survived. He had just become a tutor at Christ Church, and it gives an account almost worthy of the Marx Brothers of how Oxford lectures were supposedly conducted via a sort of Chinese whispers system through doors and all along corridors:
Tutor. ‘What is twice three?’
Scout. ‘What’s a rice tree?’
Sub-Scout. ‘When is ice free?’
Sub-sub-Scout. ‘What’s a nice fee?’
Pupil (timidly). ‘Half a guinea!’
Sub-sub-Scout. ‘Can’t forge any!’
Sub-Scout. ‘Ho for Jinny!’
Scout. ‘Don’t be a ninny!’
Tutor (looks offended) ...’6
Family life seems to have been very harmonious, with no suggestion that any family members were left out or badly treated by the others, although Skeffington, the second brother, may have had slight learning difficulties and seems to have been a worry at times.
Viewed from a century-and-a-half away, the inter-relationships and personalities of the family members have, of course, mostly faded to obscurity. But because they were such a major influence on Carroll, it is worth taking a quick look at what is known about his sisters, his brothers and other close family members.
Just as his family rarely discussed him with outsiders, so Carroll spoke little to outsiders about them. No descriptions remain of any of them as children, but in adulthood Carroll sometimes referred to his sisters generally as the ‘sisterhood’. The ‘sisterhood’ were intelligent women who were generally acknowledged to share a strong sense of duty and family interdependence. They did a great deal of charitable work, all had a good sense of humour and were fond of children. In later life, he regarded their home in Guildford as his home, too, and he spent a good deal of time there.
The two oldest sisters were Frances (Fanny) and Elizabeth, respectively four and two years older than him. Fanny was said to be sensible and capable, artistic, musical, fond of flowers and devoutly religious, with a flair for looking after the sick and helpless.
Carroll seems to have particularly confided in the second sister, Elizabeth. He told her of his joys and sorrows, and she was probably the one who mothered him most. She was extremely fond of children, and always yearned to look after babies. A touching little sheet of paper has survived on which young Elizabeth dotingly copied down some of the chit-chat of her small brothers and sisters playing in the nursery.
The third sister, Caroline, was very shy and reclusive, and many early family letters mention unspecified anxieties about her. She hardly went out, and suffered particularly badly from one of the speech defects which plagued the family.
The only one of the seven daughters to marry was the fourth, Mary. She was artistic and strongly religious. She was in her mid-thirties when she married shortly after her father’s death, and a Dodgson family descendant has suggested that it may have been a relief that someone had come forward to look after Mary, leaving one less mouth to feed.7 Mary may have had a hard life, for her husband was often ill. She obviously missed her sisters, for she returned to live with them after his death, and one of her two children, Stuart Collingwood, became the family biographer.
The fifth daughter, Louisa, survived all her brothers and sisters, dying at the age of 90. She had become an invalid, which probably gave her the leisure to pursue her keen interest in mathematics, which sometimes occupied her mind so much that she did not notice what was going on around her.
The sixth daughter, Margaret, also liked mathematics and backgammon, and helped a good deal with the Croft National School, which her father had established in order to educate local poor children. Margaret does not sound particularly unconventional, but the youngest daughter, Henrietta, certainly was. By the time Henrietta was middle-aged, she had managed to inherit and keep enough money to set up a modest household independently from her sisters, although she did remain in close touch with everyone. She moved to Brighton, where she lived with an ancient maidservant and a menagerie of cats.8
Tall and gaunt, Henrietta generated several family stories about her eccentricities. There was the portable stove she brought along when visiting relatives, to enable her to fry sausages in her bedroom. There was the time she once became so involved with singing hymns on the train with fellow passengers that she missed her stop, and on another occasion she accidentally took an alarm clock to church one day instead of her prayer book. Carroll often visited Henrietta in Brighton, and he sometimes took his young friends along, too. One such was Katie Lucy, aged 17, who noted in her diary, ‘I like her. I think she is like him.’9
Of the four brothers, Edwin, the youngest of all the children, felt called to become a missionary and spent time in Africa and Tristan da Cunha. His work was at times very hard and discouraging, and his descriptions of his extremely difficult life in Tristan make it clear that, for Edwin, human love and pleasure were not part of his self-denying life plan. He never married and his last years were spent as an invalid.
The third son and seventh child, Wilfred, was lively minded, humorous and clever. He loved the outdoors and rejected academia, breaking from the family clerical tradition to become an estate manager. He was a successful businessman, married his childhood sweetheart in 1871, and had nine children.
The second son and sixth child, Skeffington, had difficulty with academic work, and was forgetful and emotional. He married late in life after a rather turbulent clerical career, and settled in Vowchurch, Herefordshire. There, he lived as an impoverished vicar, pursuing his passionate hobby of fishing. He was often teased for his eccentricity by his rustic parishioners, but his wife was charming and clever and the family was very happy. He was a strict but beloved father to his three surviving children.
The fact that only three of the Dodgsons’ eleven children married has sometimes attracted comment, but this is not necessarily a sign that the family had issues with the idea of marriage. Carroll and Edwin both had jobs that made marriage difficult, and the girls probably did not meet enough people or socialize enough for all of them to find husbands. Like the vast majority of young women of their class, they had a very restricted existence. They could not attend university, nor have careers. If of marriageable age, they could not go out alone to make friends outside the extended family circle, nor speak to men they did not know. Carroll never danc...

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