Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.
His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂
Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors. In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.
In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.
It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice. Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare. And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor. Some of my favorites:
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.
“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!”
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.” It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.
Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.
Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!
Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.
At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation. Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.
Some Fun Facts:
- He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
- As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
- He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
- A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
- In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
- He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
- He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
- Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.
Happy Birthday Lewis!