Biography of Lewis Carroll, Author of Children's Books and Mathematician

Famed Author of 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland'

Lewis Carroll
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson called Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), English author, mathematician, and photographer. Ca. 1857 (edited).

 adoc-photos / Corbis / Getty Images

Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832—January 14, 1898), was a British writer mostly known for his children’s fiction books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its sequel Through The Looking Glass, and his poems Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark. However, his fiction is only a small part of his creative output, as he was also a noted mathematician, Anglican deacon, and photographer.

Fast Facts: Lewis Carroll

  • Full Name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
  • Known For: Innovative author of children’s literature whose style combined fantastical and nonsensical elements.
  • Born: January 27, 1832 in Cheshire, England
  • Parents: Charles Dodgson and Frances Jane Lutwidge
  • Died: January 14, 1898 in Surrey, England
  • Education: Christ Church College, Oxford University
  • Notable Works: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass (1871), “The Hunting of the Snark” (1874-1876), Sylvie and Bruno (1895)

Early Life (1832-1855)

  • La Guida di Bragia (1850s)

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name Carroll Lewis) was born on January 27, 1832 in the parsonage at Daresbury in Cheshire, England. He was the third out of eleven children and came from a prominent family of high church Anglicans. His father was a conservative Anglican cleric who later became the Archdeacon of Richmond, held conservative views inclined toward Anglo-Catholicism, and tried to teach his beliefs to his children. Charles, however, ended up developing an ambivalent relationship with both his father’s teachings and the whole Church of England. He was homeschooled in his young age, and, given his precocious intellect, he was reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan by age 7.

Lewis Carroll
Photograph of Lewis Carroll (C) when he was a child. (Photo by Gabriel Benzur). The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

When Charles was 11, the family moved to Croft-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire because his father was given the living of that village, and they remained there for the following 25 years. At age 12, he was sent to Richmond Grammar School in Yorkshire. Even though he was always an avid storyteller, he had a stutter, which prevented him from being too performative and hindered his socialization. In 1846, he enrolled in Rugby School, where he excelled as a student, particularly in mathematics. 

In 1850, Lewis matriculated at the University of Oxford as part of Christ Church, which was his father’s old college. While he was by nature a gifted student, he was prone to both high performance and easy distraction, but he obtained first-class honors in Mathematics Moderations in 1852, and, in 1854, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts, again, with first-class honors in the Final Honors School of Mathematics. In 1855, he obtained the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he held for the following 26 years. He remained at Christ Church until his death.

He was a prolific writer of academic work, and published nearly a dozen books under his real name, developing ideas in linear algebra, probability, and the study of election and committees. 

The Age of Alice (1856-1871)

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
  • Phantasmagoria and Other Poems (1869)
  • Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, with "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (1871)

Carroll’s early literary output was humorous and satirical, and it appeared in national publications The Comic Times and The Train, and The Oxford Critic between 1854 and 1856. He used Lewis Carroll as a pen name for the first time in 1856 to author a romantic poem titled Solitude, which appeared in The Train. Lewis Carroll is an etymological play on his given name, Charles Lutwidge. 

In 1856, Dean Henry Liddell arrived at Christ Church with his family. Carroll soon befriended his wife Lorina and their children Harry, Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell. He would take the children on rowing trips, and during one such adventure, in 1862, he came up with the plot that formed the basis of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. In this period, he also approached the Pre-Raphaelite circle: he met John Ruskin in 1857 and befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his family around 1863, while also being acquainted with the likes of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Arthur Hughes. Modern-fantasy-literature pioneer George MacDonald was among his acquaintances as well, and Carroll read a draft of what would become Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland to his children, whose reaction was so enthusiastic that he submitted it for publication.

Carroll And Children
English mathematician, writer and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898) with Mrs George Macdonald and four children relaxing in a garden. Lewis Carroll / Getty Images

Back in 1862, he had told the story to Alice, who begged for a written version. Under MacDonald’s encouragement, he brought the unfinished manuscript to MacMillan in 1863, and in November 1864, he presented her with a written and illustrated manuscript titled Alice’s Adventures Underground. Other alternative titles were Alice Among The Fairies and Alice’s Golden Hour. The book was finally published as Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland in 1865, illustrated by professional artist Sir John Tenniel. The book tells the story of a young girl named Alice chasing the white rabbit and then experiencing surreal adventures in Wonderland. Interpretations of the widely commercially successful work ranged from its being a satire of mathematical advances (he was a mathematician after all) to a descent into the subconscious. 

In 1868, Carroll’s father died and the grief and subsequent depression are reflected in the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, which is noticeably darker in tone. In this story, Alice enters the fantastical world through a mirror, so everything, from movement to logic, works like a reflection, and at the end, she questions reality as a whole, wondering if she is anything but a figment of someone’s imagination.

Other Literary works (1872-1898)

  • The Hunting of the Snark (1876)
  • Rhyme? And Reason? (1883)
  • A Tangled Tale (1885)
  • Sylvie and Bruno (1889)
  • Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893)
  • Pillow Problems (1893)
  • What the Tortoise Said to Achilles (1895)
  • Three Sunsets and Other Poems (1898)

Mathematical Work

  • Curiosa Mathematica I (1888)
  • Curiosa Mathematica II (1892)

In his subsequent works of children’s literature, Carroll expanded on the nonsense he had been exploring in his Alice books. In 1876, he published The Hunting of the Snark, a nonsense narrative poem about nine tradesmen and one beaver who set out to find the “snark.” While critics gave it mixed reviews, the public greatly enjoyed it, and in the following decades, it was adapted into films, plays, and music. He continued to teach up until 1881 and remained at Christ Church until his death. 

Lewis Carroll - portrait
Portrait of Lewis Carroll with signature. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1895, 30 years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he published a two-volume tale titled Sylvie and Bruno (1889 and 1893) with two plots set in two worlds, one in rural England and the other in the fairytale kingdom of Elfland and Outland. Beyond the fairytale elements, the books satirize academia.

Lewis died of pneumonia on January 14, 1898 at his sisters’ home, two weeks before turning 66. 

Literary Style and Themes

There’s an anecdote on Carroll that relates that Queen Victoria noticed that her children were so taken with Alice in Wonderland that she requested to be the first person to receive a copy of his next work. She received what she requested and it was An Elementary Treatise on Determinants with their application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Geometry. This story is probably false, but it shows how Carroll reconciled his fiction work, which mainly consisted of children’s literature, with his mathematical studies. In fact, it’s crucial to remember that the majority of his written output consisted of treatises in mathematics and logic, intended for his academic circle. In addition to his Alice books, his main claim to literary fame lay in comic poems and his longer story poem The Hunting of the Snark. 

Carroll wrote for an audience; a born storyteller, he had a stutter that prevented him from being a performer, but he had an extraordinary sense of theatricality. In his youth, he drew cartoons for his siblings and conjured tricks for them, and involved them in his storytelling process. He liked entertaining other children as a means to being liked, and this started in his household—he had ten brothers and sisters after all. 

Alice in Wonderland - the Mad Hatter's Tea Party - from the book by Lewis Carroll
Alice in Wonderland original illustration by John Tenniel, 1865. Culture Club / Getty Images

He was always an outsider in society, and related to children with more ease than he did with adults. Theme-wise, his children’s literature is rife with flights of fancy, as the adventures of Alice in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass clearly show, but he also wove real-life aspects and characteristics of his listeners: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, has characters named after those who were present at the telling of the original story, and also makes fun of some real-life songs and poems children had to memorize at the time. 

Despite his success with children’s literature and his natural penchant of a performative type of writing, he never made an active effort to develop his craft nor to analyze it, claiming that it “came of itself.” His later children’s books Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), despite their display of wit and wonder, disappointed readers who were expecting something in the same range as the Alice books.

Legacy 

Alice in Wonderland - musical play
Facsimile programme for Wednesday 26 December 1888. Written by H. Saville Clarke, with music by Walter Slaughter. Based on children 's book by Lewis Carroll. Culture Club / Getty Images

Ever since its publication in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out of print. The book has been translated into more than 170 languages and adapted, both strictly and loosely, into cartoons, movies, plays, immersive theater, and even burlesque. Even the psychedelic-rock song “White Rabbit,” by Jefferson Airplane, was inspired by it, and The Matrix uses the rabbit-hole analogy to explain the way the red pill would free the protagonist from the shackles of the Matrix. 

His other works did not have a legacy as prominent as the Alice books. However, the Sylvie and Bruno books, which were written for adults and children alike and failed to please both due to their lack of plot, were actually rehabilitated by modernist writers such as James Joyce. What’s more, these books have been hailed as the first deconstructed novels, and have a strong fan base in France.

Sources

  • “Great Lives, Series 24, Lewis Carroll.” BBC Radio 4, BBC, 1 June 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010t6hb.
  • Leach, Karoline. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild. Peter Owen, 2015.
  • Woolf, Jenny. The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.