The controversial life of Lewis Carroll

Illustrazione di Zoa Studio ispirata ad Humprey Dumpty, personaggio di Lewis Carroll
Illustration by Zoa Studio inspired by Humpty Dumpty, character of Lewis Carroll

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was an English novelist, best remembered for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871) and for poems such as The Hunting of the Snark, which gave birth to the “nonsense” literary genre.

But he was also a logician, mathematician, photographer and much more. Today we remember him on the day of his death, January 14, 1898. His life was rich and somewhat controversial, ready to read his story? We will show you how deep the White Rabbit’s lair is …

The first years

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on January 27, 1832, in England.

Dodgson was the eldest child and third child in a family of seven girls and four boys born to Frances Jane Lutwidge and Reverend Charles Dodgson. The little Dodgsons, who lived in a sort of isolated country village, had few friends outside the family but found a thousand opportunities to entertain each other.

Accomplice was also little Charles who showed great aptitude for inventing games to amuse them. At the age of 12, he began contributing to the Rectory Magazines, a compilation of manuscripts that the whole family should have participated in. In fact, Charles wrote almost everything that survives even today.

By now you will be used to my rhetorical question: what did we do at 12? On the one hand there was Arthur Rimbaud who wrote poems in Latin, on the other hand, myself, who chose her first (horrendous) blouse without parental help … and you?

Meanwhile, young Dodgson went to public school, and he didn’t like the four years there. Mainly due to his innate shyness, even though he was subject to a certain amount of bullying. In order not to miss anything, he also suffered from several diseases, one of which left him deaf in one ear. In 1851 he went to Oxford University.

Lewis Carroll “becomes a priest”

Dodgson excelled in both mathematical and classical studies, which earned him a scholarship. In 1854 he took first place in the mathematics finals and, in the meantime, earned a degree in literature.

A curious thing is that, as in the case of all scholarships at the time, even that of Christ Church, Oxford, depended on Carroll staying celibate and, in this specific case, taking vows. Dodgson was ordained a deacon in the Church of England on December 22, 1861.

Had he pursued the path to becoming a priest, he could have married. But he felt unsuitable for parish work, and although he considered getting married, he decided he was perfectly happy to remain a bachelor. Another bachelor writer in our short stories! Let’s think for example of Christina Rossetti or Jane Austen, of whom we have spoken to you in recent weeks. Could this be the road to literary success?

Speaking of literature, the name Lewis Carroll was only adopted for written works. In 1856 Dodgson used the pseudonym for the first time in a romantic poem in The Train magazine. The name Lewis Carroll was a playful distortion of his real name: Lewis is in fact the English version of Ludovicus, from which Lutwidge derives; Carroll is the Anglicization of Carolus, the Latin for Charles.

Lewis Carroll photographer

In addition to literary success, as we have said, Lewis Carroll was interested in photography since the dawn of this scientific art form.

Photography suited Carroll well as a man of infinite patience, attentive to the smallest details. The process was very meticulous at the time and it is thought that he gave it up in 1880 when dry development was introduced because he felt that photography was becoming easy for everyone.

The collection

Less than a third of his collection survives. Some photos were even destroyed by Carroll himself … we will soon reveal why. Lewis Carroll is considered to be one of the best amateur photographers of his time, particularly in his images of Victorian children, but he also photographed friends, family, fellow scholars and well-known personalities of his time, including Lord Tennyson and members of the Rossetti family.

 From the essay Lewis Carroll, Photographer by Roger Taylor (not the drummer of Queen!), Which contains all the photos of Carroll still in our possession, it appears that over half of his works were portraits of little girls. In 1880, when he stopped shooting, he tried to get permission to photograph sixteen-year-old “Xie” in a bathing suit, but failed.

As mentioned above, Carroll is thought to have destroyed (or perhaps returned to families after some rumors circulating in Oxford regarding the reverend’s photographic hobby) the photographs of naked girls; however, at least six survived and four of them went to press.

The fact that Carroll photographed or drew naked girls contributed to the contention that he was a pedophile.

Today, after a period of oblivion, Carroll is considered one of the greatest photographers of the Victorian era, and certainly one of those who most influenced modern photography for being able to free himself from the symbology of the time by portraying girls as free creatures of the woods instead of educated figures of good English society.

The Alice saga itself is a tale without morals, written during a period, the Victorian one, in which even the legs of the tables had to be covered.

The Lewis Carroll enigma

A couple of paragraphs ago we threw a bomb, namely the thesis that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. We explain all the components that led to these conclusions.

Supporting elements


An important component of the Lewis Carroll myths is the theory that he stammered in the presence of adults, while with children he felt free and spoke fluently. There is no evidence that this is true. Carroll was certainly as stammering as six of his sisters. However, the birth of Dodo, one of the characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is interesting. The name is nothing more than the first syllable of Dodgson repeated due to stuttering! (Do-do-dodgson)


At a time when the ability to sing and even act were important requisites in society, Carroll was quite at ease. He sang pretty well and wasn’t afraid to perform in public. He was good at storytelling and was known for his ability to entertain with witty riddles and charades. That’s why the kids loved it. When Alice in Wonderland became a hit, Reverend Dodgson became popular with all the children of England.


As we said before, Carroll’s favorite subject was the little girls but, if we look at the photos themselves, there is nothing vulgar about them. Mischievous sometimes yes, but never vulgar. In fact, it seems that Carroll always asked the mothers of the girls to be present during the photo sessions. What is certain is that the photos that have come down to us, for example of Evelyn Hatch, would not be very understood nowadays.


The story goes that Lewis Carroll and Reverend Robinson Duckworth went on a boat trip on the Thames with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell (vice chancellor of the University of Oxford and dean of Christ Church): Lorina; Alice and Edith.

The trip ended due to a thunderstorm, but during the trip Carroll told the girls a story that featured a bored little girl named Alice who goes in search of an adventure. The girls loved her and Alice Liddell asked Carroll to write the story for her. There was another boat trip a month later, during which the writer worked out the plot of Alice’s story. Et voila.

This story is translated into the book in the meeting between Dodo – Dodgson and Alice; in fact the other characters that appear in the same chapter are the Duck which is the reverend Robinson Duckworth, while Lorina and Edith Liddell, Alice’s sisters, are represented as the parrot and the eagle. Among other things, the only merit of Dodo is that of proposing a caucus-race to ensure that everyone gets dry after the unscheduled swim of the previous chapter.

The possibile reality of facts

For the record, we must say that Alice Liddell and her sisters Lorina and Edith were obviously not Dodgson’s first friends. They had been preceded or even seen along with the children of writer George Macdonald, the children of the poet Tennyson, and various other casual acquaintances. But Liddell’s children undoubtedly held a particularly high place in her affections. In particular Alice, who was certainly the inspirational muse for Carroll’s most famous literary work as we can read in the last chapter of Through the Looking Glass. Alice Pleasance Liddell was the full name of the real Alice.

«A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July–

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear–

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream–
Lingering in the golden gleam–
Life, what is it but a dream?»


Perhaps for Carroll, girls were simply just a symbol of innocence and purity: like a mathematical formula that has no human impulses. Various attempts have been made to solve the “Lewis Carroll riddle”. Psychologists argued that his friendships with girls were some sort of unconscious substitute for a married life and that his hidden dream was to marry Alice Liddell.

In support of the thesis, some find in the famous episode in which Alice meets the Dodo-gson a marriage metaphor. In fact, at the end of the race, due to a logical dispute (here the chapter), the Dodo gives Alice a thimble in a sort of award ceremony after which the participants eat confetti.

But there is little or no clear evidence to support this theory. Carroll in fact dropped the knowledge of Alice Liddell when she was 12, as he later did with most of her young friends. In the case of the Liddells, his friendship with the younger children, Rhoda and Violet, was severed sometime later.

In a famous BBC documentary, Vanessa Tait, Alice Liddel’s great-granddaughter says, “My understanding is that (Lewis Carroll) was in love with Alice, but he was so repressed that he would never cross borders.” She adds that explicit photography could explain the rift that broke contact between Carroll and the Liddell girls in 1863, when Alice was 11. Unfortunately, Carroll’s diaries from April 1858 to May 1862 are missing, the period that coincides precisely with his friendship with Liddell’s girls.

The Victorian Age

We must remember that the Victorian era was a time of enormous moral repression. It is the period, for example, in which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published. Marriages between very young women and mature men were not isolated cases. It is perhaps illustrative to recall the story of a colleague of Lewis Carroll and former Oxford student: John Ruskin; in fact, the frustrated and contradictory dynamics of the time had an impact on him too.

A 21-year-old Ruskin met 13-year-old Effie Gray and in 1848, at the request of his family, married her. When the two got married, Effie was now 20 years old, but the marriage was canceled six years later, in 1854, by the Anglican church. It was a great scandal: the marriage was never consummated and her wife, after five years of marriage, denounced him for impotence. Ruskin explained that the causes of marital default were his wife’s poor physical attractiveness (but there are engagement letters in which Ruskin himself is concerned about his future wife’s too much beauty), his emotional instability, and his own morbid attention to the very young. After the cancellation, Ruskin courted a 9-year-old girl.

The legacy of Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll died of bronchitis in Guildford, Surrey, in 1898 and was interred in the same town cemetery.

Many scholars speak of a double personality in reference to today’s protagonist and there is only one that has passed down a huge legacy. One is that of the Reverend Dodgson, a reserved and demanding bachelor who always kept out of the political and religious storms that plagued England during his lifetime.

The other, luckily for us, is that of Lewis Carroll, a friend of the children for whom he created his books, his stories and nonsense poems. Not only that, we have seen that Carroll has delivered photos, essays and much more to history.

His extraordinary intelligence is also demonstrated by some of his inventions. In 1891 Carroll created a writing system called nyctography that allowed writing in the dark, using a code of signs on a rectangular grid with square holes. It seems that he has also invented a paper and pencil game, the word ladder (the “word ladder”). Although the attribution is uncertain, this game is quite popular all over the world. With this article we hope to have shed some light on the life of Lewis Carroll.

A man who certainly, to be understood in his genius, must necessarily be contextualized in the uses and customs of the Victorian era, in which what seemed meaningless or controversial was actually an escape from rigid schemes.

Now sorry, we have to take our leave, a cup of tea awaits us with the Mad Hatter!



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