When Charles L. Dodgson was born in January 1832, his clergyman father, already “overdone with delight” whenever he looked at his family, put a notice in The Times to announce the arrival of his much-wanted first son. The baby would grow up to become Lewis Carroll, author of two of the most famous children’s books in the world.
From all accounts, Charles relished the role of older brother, and his siblings are reported to having thought a lot of him; they certainly stayed in close touch all his life. It seems that he was markedly protective, for as a schoolboy he was known for getting into fights in defense of smaller boys. Later in life, friends sometimes commented on how well he looked after them one niece even affectionately compared him to a “mother hen.”
At nineteen, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, his father’s old college. He did very well, and before long was appointed a Fellow, and was engaged in teaching mathematics. Teaching the undergraduates did not suit him, for with his quiet voice, gentle manner and troublesome stammer, he found it hard to keep order. He seems to have coped with the emotional discomforts of his life by presenting a cold, remote face to those he did not know well.
He wrote his brothers and sisters long, entertaining letters, got involved in college politics and spent as much time as possible with the Liddell children, Harry, Ina, Edith and Alice, who lived in the college Deanery. With them, he could be more like his real self, the person he showed to his family. He took the children out, helped them with all kinds of projects, and made up stories for them.
So this was the outward appearance of the man who created the story of “Alice in Wonderland” in 1862, when he was thirty years old. The famous story is said to have been told during a boating trip on July 4, when Charles, his friend Duckworth and the three Liddell girls rowed to the village of Godstow. Alice Liddell was ten at the time, three years older than the “Alice” of the story. She was a clever, artistic little girl, with short, dark hair, and a bold confident gaze, and Charles was very fond of her. When she pestered him to write the story out for her, he did, although it was over two years before he arrived at the Deanery with his pretty handwritten volume of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
Charles did not record Alice’s reaction to his gift, but many other people who saw the story loved it; so many, indeed, that he had already decided that he would publish it by the time he’d presented it to Alice. The publisher Alexander Macmillan agreed to work on it, although the agreement was that Charles would have to pay most of the cost of production. When the book first appeared, Charles was not optimistic about its prospects. He thought he would lose about £200, which was a huge sum then. He might recoup the loss if sales were exceptionally good, “but that,” he concluded grimly, “I can hardly hope for”.
Famous last words! Eventually, Alice enabled him to retire early, although it did not make a fraction of the money that such a bestseller would generate today. Within a decade, Charles pseudonym of “Lewis Carroll” was a household name, and when he died in 1898, the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass were world-famous.
Adapted from Jenny Woolf, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll @ 2015 by The Public Domain Review.
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