Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (January 27, 1832-January 14, 1898), a.k.a. 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, here are a few other things you should know.
1. Lewis Carroll 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 for most of his life.
Dodgson had a rough childhood. He developed a stutter—which he called his “hesitation”—at an early age. It 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. Carroll was the dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
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. Carroll 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.
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.
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 person thought Carroll was Jack the Ripper.
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-fifties. 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-twenties 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. Carroll 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. Carroll may have been one inspiration for the novel Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov, who translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Russian, once referred to Carroll as “Lewis Carroll Carroll, because he was the first Humbert Humbert.” Nabokov’s suspicions centered around Carroll’s photographs.
11. He became a deacon, but never a priest.
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.
A version of this story was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.