Over 150 years after it was published, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues to rate as one of the most-loved children’s books of all time and Lewis Carroll has remained a household name, but there was far more to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson than a vivid imagination and penchant for the absurd.
A mathematician, writer, photographer and inventor, Carroll was born in 1832 to a High Anglican family whose members tended to pursue careers in the army or clergy. His father became Archdeacon of Richmond and was heavily involved in the religious debates of the day, but Lewis was broader in his outlook. He did, however, inherit his father’s gift for mathematics and after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford with a first in the subject he remained there as a tutor. His study – next to the home of Alice Liddell – was the location for much of his photographic work and he even obtained permission to break the roof of his room and build a glasshouse to improve the light.
Alongside his academic studies, which saw him write eleven mathematical books over the course of his adult life and make subjects such as Euclid more accessible, he continued to write poetry and short stories for the family magazine Mischmasch, including an early version of Jabberwocky. His love of fantasy and word play – exemplified in his pen name, which developed by Latinizing his name to Carolus Ludovicus and then translating it back to English and switching the order – coincided with the growing popularity of nonsense literature, which he took to a worldwide readership following the publication of Alice’s Adventures in 1865.
Carroll improvised the story to entertain the Liddell sisters during a boating trip and Alice insisted that he write it down. Throughout the publication process Carroll retained a tight control over his manuscript – ensuring it was read, and approved, by other children; adding his own drawings, but then hiring John Tenniel to illustrate the published version; and destroying much of the initial print run (which he had financed himself) because the quality was poor.
In a life rich with imagination, he also tinkered with new inventions, creating a travel chess set, card games and an early form of Scrabble as well as a fairer system for conducting lawn tennis competitions.
Two childhood illnesses had left Carroll deaf in one ear and with a weak chest, and he died at his sister’s home in 1898 after developing pneumonia. His most famous work continues to be popular and has been repeatedly adapted for the screen, most recently by Tim Burton.