10 Fascinating Facts About Lewis Carroll

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the writer known as Lewis Carroll was a Renaissance man of the Victorian Era. He was an accomplished mathematician, poet, satirist, philosopher, inventor, and photographer in the art form’s earliest days. Yet most of us know him best as a children’s author because of Alice and her adventures through the nonsense and tea of Wonderland.

If you’ve only seen him through the looking glass, this list of 10 facts should broaden your understanding of a unique literary voice.

1. HE INVENTED A WAY TO WRITE IN THE DARK.

Like a lot of writers, Dodgson was frustrated by losing the excellent ideas that inconveniently come in the middle of the night, so in 1891 he invented the nyctograph. The device is a card with 16 square holes (two rows of eight) that offers a guide for the user to enter a shorthand code of dots and dashes. Dodgson also considered it useful for the blind.

2. HE SUFFERED FROM A STUTTER MOST OF HIS LIFE.

Dodgson had a rough childhood. Calling it his “hesitation,” he developed a stutter at an early age that stuck with him throughout adulthood and ultimately became part of his personal mythos—including the evidence-free claim that he only stuttered around adults, but spoke without problem to children. A childhood fever also left him deaf in one ear, and a bout of whooping cough at 17 weakened his chest for the rest of his life. Late in life, he developed debilitating, aura-hallucinating migraines and what doctors at the time diagnosed as epilepsy.

3. HE WAS THE DODO IN ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dodgson delivered the original story concept for Alice in Wonderland while on one of his boating trips with the Liddells—the children of his boss, Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford—and he marked the July 4, 1862, event in the book itself as the Caucus Race. Alice is Alice Liddell, the Lory is Lorina Liddell, the Eaglet is Edith Liddell, the duck was colleague Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the dodo was Dodgson himself. The popular story is that he used the bird as his caricature because his stammer made him sometimes introduce himself as “Do-Do-Dodgson,” but there’s no evidence to back up the claim.

4. DODGSON SPELLED OUT HIS INSPIRATION FOR ALICE IN THE LAST CHAPTER OF THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.

Throughout his life, Dodgson denied that Alice was based on any real-life person, but “A boat beneath a sunny sky,” the poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, is an acrostic that spells out Alice Pleasance Liddell.

5. HE WROTE 11 BOOKS ON MATHEMATICS.

Rischgitz, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A master logician, Dodgson's work in the fields of linear algebra, geometry, and puzzle-making is noteworthy. He wrote almost a dozen books that ranged from An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations to The Game of Logic to The Theory of Committees and Elections. His interests and expertise widely varied; he also wrote the first printed proof of the Kronecker-Capelli theorem [PDF] and a conceptual system for better governmental representation.

6. THE ALICE STORIES ARE POSSIBLY SATIRES OF NON-EUCLIDEAN MATH.

As with several elements of his life, Dodgson was a conservative mathematician, living and working in an age in which the discipline was dramatically changing. In a 2010 op-ed for The New York Times, Melanie Bayley made a compelling case that Alice’s adventures parodied an incipient, conceptual math that featured imaginary numbers and quaternions, which Dodgson scoffed at. The Cheshire Cat may represent the growing abstraction in the field, and the overall absurdity of Wonderland may be meant to match the “absurdity” the conventional Dodgson saw emerging in his discipline.

7. ONE ABSURD PERSON THOUGHT DODGSON WAS JACK THE RIPPER.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The list of people suspected of being Jack the Ripper is a long one, and, for some reason, the mind behind Alice is on it. The Ripper and Dodgson were contemporaries; the murders took place in 1888, when Dodgson was in his mid-50s. Author Richard Wallace theorized that Dodgson, following a strict religious upbringing and potential bullying during his unhappy school years, grew up to become a serial murderer following his successful teaching and writing careers. The bulk of the theory stems from Wallace rearranging Dodgson’s writing into “confessions.” While Dodgson did bury codes and clues in his books, scrambling random paragraphs into syntactically awkward statements about killing is more than a stretch.

8. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER.

Beginning in his mid-20s and continuing for over two decades, Dodgson created over 3000 photographic images, including portraits of friends and notable figures (like Alfred, Lord Tennyson), landscapes, and stills of skeletons, dolls, statues, paintings, and more. According to Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Morton N. Cohen’s biography of the artist, Dodgson had his own studio and briefly considered making a living as a photographer in the 1850s.

9. HE WAS A LIFELONG BACHELOR, WHICH HAS LED TO SOME SPECULATION ABOUT HIS ROMANTIC INTERESTS.

Dodgson’s photography has also been at the center of a modern reconsideration of Dodgson’s sexuality. The author was a lifelong bachelor whose surviving photographic work is 50 percent comprised of depictions of young girls, including Alice Liddell, as well as several prints where the girls are nude. The most famous of these is a portrait of one Oxford colleague’s daughter, Beatrice Hatch. Not much is directly known about Dodgson’s personal relationships, which has led to speculation—notably by Cohen—that he had romantic feelings for the 11-year-old Alice, but author Karoline Leach suggested that the reframing of Dodgson as a pedophile is a myth borne from ignorance of Victorian morals and the popularity at the time of nude children in art combined with Dodgson’s family burying information about the writer’s relationships with adult women.

10. HE BECAME A DEACON, BUT NEVER A PRIEST.

Lewis Carroll, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So much of Dodgson’s life invites speculation, including his refusal to become a priest, counter to the rules of Christ Church during his residency there. He was ordained as a deacon on December 22, 1861 but had to petition Dean Liddell to avoid becoming a priest. Once again, his stammer appears to be one possible explanation as to why he refused priesthood, but there’s no evidence that it might have impeded his ability to preach. Other possible reasons include a love of theater (which the Bishop of Oxford spoke out against), tepid interest in the Anglican Church, and a growing interest in alternative religions.

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A New Book by J.R.R. Tolkien Contains Previously Unpublished Essays About Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien photographed circa the 1940s.
J.R.R. Tolkien photographed circa the 1940s.
Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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It has been more than 80 years since J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit first appeared in bookstores in 1937—followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the mid-1950s—and the enthusiasm for all things Middle-earth doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. While the premiere date for Amazon’s prequel TV series hasn’t been announced yet, another important date in 2021 has: June 24.

On that day, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) will release The Nature of Middle-earth, a book of heretofore unpublished writings by Tolkien himself. (HarperCollins will publish an identical edition in the UK.) As avid fans likely already know, this won’t be the first supplemental Middle-earth material in existence. Tolkien wrote prolifically about his fantasy world, and much of his other content was published posthumously—most notably The Silmarillion, an extensive collection of stories edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. As literary executor of his father’s estate, Christopher Tolkien edited and oversaw the release of most Tolkien works until his death at age 95 in January of this year.

Time to solve the mystery of which Middle-earthers can grow facial hair.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

According to Gizmodo, The Nature of Middle-earth was edited by NASA computer engineer Carl F. Hostetter, who also happens to be a venerated Tolkien scholar and the head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (E.L.F., for short). HMH revealed in a press release that this latest compilation will contain previously unknown details about “Elvish immortality and reincarnation,” “the Powers of Valar,” “the lands and beasts of Númenor,” and “the geography of the Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor.” It will also reportedly clear up the confusion over which races (and sexes) can grow beards in Middle-earth, a topic that crops up on internet message boards with surprising frequency.

U.S. residents can pre-order The Nature of Middle-earth from Amazon now for $24.

[h/t Gizmodo]