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Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, who lived from 1832 to 1898. Carroll’s physical deformities, partial deafness, and irrepressible stammer made him an unlikely candidate for producing one of the most popular and enduring children’s fantasies in the English language. Carroll’s unusual appearance caused him to behave awkwardly around other adults, and his students at Oxford saw him as a stuffy and boring teacher. He held strict religious beliefs, serving as a deacon in the Anglican Church for many years and briefly considering becoming a minister. Underneath Carroll’s awkward exterior, however, lay a brilliant and imaginative artist. A gifted amateur photographer, he took numerous portraits of children throughout his adulthood. Carroll’s keen grasp of mathematics and logic inspired the linguistic humor and witty wordplay in his stories. Additionally, his unique understanding of children’s minds allowed him to compose imaginative fiction that appealed to young people.
Carroll felt shy and reserved around adults but became animated and lively around children. His crippling stammer melted away in the company of children as he told them his elaborately nonsensical stories. Carroll discovered his gift for storytelling in his own youth when he served as the unofficial family entertainer for his five younger sisters and three younger brothers. He staged performances and wrote the bulk of the fiction in the family magazine. As an adult, Carroll continued to prefer the companionship of children to adults and tended to favor little girls. Over the course of his lifetime he made numerous child friends whom he wrote to frequently and often mentioned in his diaries.
In 1856, Carroll became close with the Liddell children and met the girl who would become the inspiration for Alice, the protagonist of his two most famous books. It was in that year that classics scholar Henry George Liddell accepted an appointment as Dean of Christ Church, one of the colleges that comprise Oxford University, and brought his three daughters to live with him at Oxford. Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell quickly became Carroll’s favorite companions and photographic subjects. During their frequent afternoon boat trips on the river, Carroll told the Liddells fanciful tales. Alice quickly became Carroll’s favorite of the three girls, and he made her the subject of the stories that would later became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Almost ten years after first meeting the Liddells, Carroll compiled the stories and submitted the completed manuscript for publication.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland received mostly negative reviews when first published in 1865. Critics and readers alike found the book to be sheer nonsense, and one critic sneered that the book was “too extravagantly absurd to produce more diversion than disappointment and irritation.” Only John Tenniel’s detailed illustrations garnered praise, and his images continue to appear in most reprints of the Alice books. Despite the book’s negative reception, Carroll proposed a sequel to his publisher in 1866 and set to work writing Through the Looking-Glass. By the time the second book reached publication in 1871, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had found an appreciative readership. Over time, Carroll’s combination of sophisticated logic, social satire, and pure fantasy would make the book a classic for children and adults alike. Critics eventually recognized the literary merits of both texts, and celebrated authors and philosophers ranging from James Joyce to Ludwig Wittgenstein praised Carroll’s stories.
Read more about Carroll’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.
In 1881, Carroll resigned from his position as mathematics lecturer at Oxford to pursue writing full time. He composed numerous poems, several new works for children, and books of logic puzzles and games, but none of his later writings attained the success of the Alice books. Carroll continued to have close friendships with children. Several of his child friends served as inspiration for the Sylvie and Bruno books. Like the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1898) relied heavily on children’s silly sayings and absurd fantasies. Carroll died in 1898 at the age of sixty-six, soon after the publication of the Sylvie and Bruno books. He passed away in his family’s home in Guildford, England.
Carroll’s sudden break with the Liddell family in the early 1860s has led to a great deal of speculation over the nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell. Some books indicate that the split resulted from a disagreement between Carroll and Dean Liddell over Christ Church matters. Other evidence indicates that more insidious elements existed in Carroll’s relationships with young children and with Alice Liddell in particular. This possibility seems to be supported by the fact that Mrs. Liddell burned all of Carroll’s early letters to Alice and that Carroll himself tore pages out of his diary related to the break. However, no concrete evidence exists that Carroll behaved inappropriately in his numerous friendships with children. Records written by Carroll’s associates and Alice Liddell herself do not indicate any untoward behavior on his part.
Carroll’s feelings of intense nostalgia for the simple pleasures of childhood caused him to feel deep discomfort in the presence of adults. In the company of children, Carroll felt understood and could temporarily forget the loss of innocence that he associated with his own adulthood. Ironically, Carroll mourned this loss again and again as he watched each of his child friends grow away from him as they became older. As he wrote in a letter to the mother of one of his young muses, “It is very sweet to me, to be loved by her as children love: though the experience of many years have now taught me that there are few things in the world so evanescent [fleeting] as a child’s love. Nine‑tenths of the children, whose love once seemed as warm as hers, are now merely on the terms of everyday acquaintance.” The sentiment of fleeting happiness pervades Carroll’s seemingly lighthearted fantasies and infuses the Alice books with melancholy and loss.