One of the many far-fetched theories about Lewis Carroll which must be finally abandoned is that he was a split personality, a sort of literary Jekyll and Hyde, divided between a prim and pedantic mathematician named C. L. Dodgson and a delightful writer of children's stories called Lewis Carroll. True, he chose, for his own convenience, to publish his serious mathematical and logical books under his own name and to issue his fanciful creative work under a pseudonym, but there is no more justification for the theory of split-personality than this. In fact, apart from the unpredictability of genius, the outlines of his personality were foreshadowed in his heredity and are clearly recognizable in him as a child. It almost appears that his intimations of Wonderland were, one might say, photographed in his mind before he was fourteen and remained to be developed long afterwards, when he was outwardly cast in the mould of the Victorian don. Only thus, perhaps, can we explain the curiously similar freshness of outlook, the same combination of would-be sophistication and complete innocence that we recognize both in The Young Visitors by the child-author Daisy Ashford and in Alice in Wonderland. The former suggests a remarkable fusion of precocity and inspiration; the latter represents a precocious emotion recollected in tranquillity for the benefit of other children.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, born at Daresbury parsonage, Cheshire, on 27 January 1832, was descended from two ancient North-country families, and inherited from the Dodgsons a tradition of service to the Church and from the Lutwidges a tradition of service to the State. His father, the Rev. Charles Dodgson, a distinguished classical scholar with a special interest in mathematical studies, combined personal generosity with a certain puritanical austerity, and yet enjoyed a rich vein of nonsensical humour. His mother Frances Jane Lutwidge, a first-cousin of his father, was a woman of unusually sweet and gentle character. The qualities of his parents descended to their son. No father, perhaps, ever sent his son a more direct invitation to devote himself to nonsense than did Canon Dodgson when he wrote to Charles at the age of eight:
. . I will not forget your commission. As soon as I get to Leeds I shall scream out in the middle of the street, Ironmongers—Ironmongers — Six hundred men will rush out of their shops in a moment — fly, fly, in all directions — ring the bells, call the constables — set the town on fire. I will have a file & a screw-driver, & a ring, & if they are not brought directly, in forty seconds I will leave nothing but one small cat alive in the whole town of Leeds, & I shall only leave that, because I am afraid I shall not have time to kill it.
Then what a bawling & a tearing of hair there will be I Pigs & babies, camels & butterflies, rolling in the gutter together — old women rushing up the chimneys & cows after them — ducks hiding themselves in coffee cups, & fat geese trying to squeeze themselves into pencil cases — at last the Mayor of Leeds will be found in a soup plate covered up with custard & stuck full of almonds to make him look like a sponge cake that he may escape the dreadful destruction of the Town . . .
To find young Dodgson brought up on parental fantasies of this kind is significant. In Alice in Wonderland he sent Bill the Lizard down the chimney and put the Dormouse into the teapot; and though he refined his nonsense into a sensitive art, there is conspicuous in it an element of ruthlessness which may have been inherited from his father. During childhood his character developed on lines which it followed consistently throughout his life. When the family moved to Croft Rectory near Darlington in 1843, Charles Dodgson set out to entertain his brothers and sisters with elaborate games in the big garden, with poems and stories, with humorous drawings, and with a series of illustrated manuscript magazines, of which the first, Useful and Instructive Poetry, produced at the age of thirteen, contains remarkable anticipations of Humpty Dumpty and of the Mouse's tail in Alice. A collection of treasures hidden under the nursery floor at Croft in 1843 included a small thimble, a child's white glove, and a child's 'left-hand shoe'—objects that had their individual significance for the Dodo, the White Rabbit and the White Knight. There was also a block of wood with these words scribbled on it in Charles's hand:
And we'll wander through the wide world and chase the buffalo.
(I am indebted to Miss Winifred Mansbridge for the suggestion that this is a misquotation of a line from the song the 'The Buffalo', dating from the early eighteenth century: 'We'll wander through the wild woods and we'll chase the buffalo' "English Folk-Songs, ed. W. A. Barrett, 1891).
Lewis Carroll may have had a subconscious longing to escape into Wonderland, but, despite the handicap of a stammer which never left him, his was a happy and active childhood. He displayed a precocious talent for mathematics, for parody, for diverting his brothers and sisters. His hand-writing at the age of twelve has been described by an expert analyst as 'outstanding in maturity, tenderness and sensitivity'. Yet by the time he was twenty he was writing a careful round hand which seems to show him decidedly introverted and rigidly set in his ways.
What was it that disturbed his development and narrowed his outlook? He had, no doubt, advanced prematurely and suffered proportionately in adolescence; but it was the miserable years he spent at Rugby and the untimely loss of his beloved mother that most affected him. His diligence as an Oxford undergraduate was rewarded by a double first in mathematics and by a Christ Church Studentship. Yet at twenty-one he could write:
I'd give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life's decay,
To be once more a little child,
For one bright summer-day.
Although this deep sense of nostalgia was to remain a dominant influence throughout his life, Lewis Carroll's character was so complex and original, his interests were so varied, that he found much to off-set his recurrent melancholy. He was by instinct a graphic and visual artist who never abandoned the struggle to draw, and who regularly visited art exhibitions and the studios of artists. Realising that he lacked the talent to become a professional artist, he turned to the new art of photography and made himself the best Photographer of children in the nineteenth century. Long before his pseudonym Lewis Carroll derived by transposition from the names Charles Lutwidge—had become famous, he was known to Ruskin, Tennyson, George MacDonald, Holman Hunt, and many other well-known people as a student of art and an ardent amateur photographer. Allied to his interest in art, a love of the theatre became a lasting passion. Literature, science and medicine all attracted him; his devotion to children proved life-long. Nevertheless, his life had its mainspring in religion. At the age of twenty-nine he was ordained Deacon of the Church of England. This was a necessary step if he was to retain a Christ Church Studentship; his conscience approved; yet, even had he been able sufficiently to overcome his stammer, it is unlikely that he would have found parochial work congenial to his temperament. He did not proceed to Priest's Orders, and in later life he considered himself 'practically a layman'.
All this varied activity lay outside the sphere which he had specially chosen for himself—the sphere of mathematical and logical studies. 'I always feel that a sermon is worth the preaching', he once wrote, 'if it has given some help to even one soul in the puzzle of Life'. The choice of words was significant, for Dodgson indeed viewed life as a great puzzle, or series of puzzles. Much of his energy went to the solving and devising of puzzles, whether the official problems of academic research or the amateur conundrums that he propounded to his child-friends. As a mathematician, his work was useful, up to a point, notably in Euclid, but has not proved sufficiently distinctive to interest his posterity. Yet, though lasting success in pure mathematics eluded him, his knowledge of mathematics and logic provided an essential element in Lewis Carroll's literary achievement. Never before had such a humorist, such a lover of children, such an artist, such a precise student of language, possessed Dodgson's equipment as mathematician and logician. The rich glow of fantasy was controlled by a scientific, analytical mind; the paradoxes were shaped and refined until they formed the inimitable crystal.