Another look "Through the Looking Glass"
by Mel Robertson
ABOUT 35 YEARS AGO I wrote an article for the "Burford Advance" titled "Alice and the Aunts". It was intended to describe the kindly, elderly, unmarried women who served as unpaid "baby sitters" and entertained children with parties, picnics, stories and games at a time when young mothers had few labour-saving devices and there were none of the excellent pre-school facilities we have today. I made reference to Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" in this article and it was from this story I drew the title.
Recently a number of my older readers have suggested that I have this article rerun. They feel that in recent years the relationship between adults and children has been under such study that now, if an older person replies to the greeting of a young child, they are thought to be a sexual predator. They point out, however, that when they respond to a child's greeting the only thought that crosses their mind is "the remembrance of a happy summer's day" the kindly "aunts" of their childhood had provided. As a person who, as a child, experienced the kindness of "aunts", I can understand their feelings.
In considering a reprint of "Alice and the Aunts" I feel that, since 1998 marks the centennial of the death of Lewis Carroll who wrote "Alic e in Wonderland" and many other children's stories, it might be of more interest to examine the life of this remarkable mathematician, photographer, inventor and writer of children's stories who, during his lifetime, had the love of thousands of children and the amazement of thousands of adults.
Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was born at Daresbury Rectory in Cheshire, England on Jan. 27, 1832, the third of 11 children of the Rev. Charles Dodgson and his wife. The Dodgsons had connections with the "upper class" and were regarded as "upper middle class" who had servants.
The Dodgsons were a very religious family where every hour of the day had its strict observations and study. Morning and evening family prayers were obligatory, and on Sunday only the Bible could be read and children were forbidden to run, whistle or play (much like my Aberdonian Sunday). Sunday meals consisted of cold dishes so that the servants would not have to work preparing hot meals.
It is thought that this home life, plus the isolation of Daresbury Rectory, encouraged the young Charles in the asking "Why" of things and encouraging his literary and inventive skills. One illustration of this was that, before he was 10, Charles had taken a book of logarithms to his father and asked him for an explanation; Other queries followed and, before he was 13, Charles was demonstrating great mathematical skill and had built a marionette theatre and written
good poetry, plays and stories.
In 1846 Charles was sent to Rugby school which was noted for the advanced view on education that the famous Dr. Arnold had fostered. At Rugby Charles astonished the masters with his knowledge of the most complicated mathematics and his ability to put his conclusions on paper for publication. People were also amazed at the many talents he had for the entertainment of children and their fondness for him. They also noted that he had remarkable skill in inventing little devices that would help in a day's work.
In 1850 Charles went to Christ Church college at Oxford where again he astonished the professors with his knowledge of mathematics and the excellence of the articles and books he published on the subj ect. During his student days at Christ Church Charles won several scholarships and, on graduation, was appointed a Lecturer in Mathematics in 1855.
In the same year, George Henry Liddell was made Dean of Christ Church and, shortly after, Mrs. Liddell began to ask Charles to entertain the three Liddell girls at her home and to take them to various university events. He was particularly interested in Alice Liddell and it became a joke in the Liddell family that eventually Alice would marry Charles despite their great differences in age.
The most memorable of the outings involving Charles and the three Liddells took place on July 4, 1862 when Charles, along with Canon Duckworth of the college, took the three Liddells - Lorina, age 13, Alice, age 10, and Edith, age eight - on a row boat trip up the Thames to Godstow where they intended to have tea on the bank and drift back to Oxford before dark. It was on their leisurely trip that Charles told the story of "Alice in Wonderland", making up his characters from the little boating party. Canon Duckworth was the Duck, he was the Dodo, and the heroine was little Alice. This story was eventually published at Alice's instigation and became a childhood classic.
Charles became fascinated with Alice Liddell and by 1863 had recorded his love for her in his diary, despite the fact that she was 11 and he 31. It is not known what his actual words were for, on his death, Charles' niece tore several pages from the diary. People suspect that the pages included Charles' intention to ask her father for her hand in marriage in spite of the age difference. This will seem ridiculous in 1998, but in 1863 it was not uncommon for young men who had not accumulated enough money to marry but had become interested in a little girl to ask her father for her hand when she was 15. This happened in my own family for my grandfather C.N. Woodin asked for the hand of my grandmother at a very early age and they married when she was 15. I dare say that other old families in the area can quote similar early marriages. We will never know what
Charles had written on the torn-out pages but it is known that Alice's mother was a social climber who hoped that Alice might marry into the nobility.
After 1863 the relationship between Charles and the Liddells became cool, although Charles kept in touch with Alice with letters addressed as "Dear Miss Liddell" and there was some social contact such as in 1870 when Charles took Alice's picture at age 21. Alice grew up to be a beautiful woman who had a short romance with one of the Royal princes. In 1881 she married Reginald Har-greaves who, while not of the nobility, was very wealthy and owned a large estate. They had three sons, two of whom were killed in World War I.
After the death of Hargreaves the estate fell into financial difficulty and Alice sold manuscripts and gifts that Charles had given her and these, since he had become so well-known, brought very large sums of money. Alice became a very strict task-mistress who was thoroughly hated by her servants. She died in 1934.
In addition to Charles Dodgson's skill as a lecturer and author of mathematical subjects and his ability to write and publish nonsense stories that appealed to both children and adults, he was also an excellent photographer. This required great skill for it was before the invention of film and to take a picture a photographer had to apply coats of chemicals to a plate, expose it briefly in a camera and then rush it to a "dark room" for development. As Dodgson's skill as a photographer became known, it involved him in photography he did not like to do. This was the photographing of nude children for parents of the time liked to have photos of their small children in the nude posing as little angels or fairies. Dodgson always insisted that the mother be present and recorded his dislike of this type of business.
In later life many things indicate the love children had for this shy, stammering professor. It is written that when he was walking in any Oxford park children would leave their "Nannies", shouting, "There's Mr. Dodgson. Let's form a chain and stop him." Then they would seize him by his arms, legs and clothing and insist that he-stop and tell them a story. Then, as his fame grew, Dodgson frequently addressed audiences of hundreds of children, always including in his nonsense tales the hope that each one would do a kind act every day.
Another post-Alice change in Dodgson's character was that he began to associate with young women whose age was much closer to his. He took them on long hikes and outings as well as entertaining them to meals in his rooms at the college. People began hoping that he would get married for he seemed to enjoy feminine company. However, he maintained that marriage was an Act of God and that since sex was a Gift of God it had to be treated the same as Holy Communion. Apparently none of the young ladies who enjoyed Dodgson's company and interesting outings were prepared to accept marriage on his terms.
As Dodgson advanced in his position at Christ Church and as a widely-read author, he became so well-to-do that he gave large sums to indigent friends, always including a note with the money saying, "This is not a loan. It is a gift." It is interesting to note that a few days before his death Dodgson sent 50 pounds ($250) to an elderly widow with a note saying, "I don't know if you need this but it may be of use if you happen to become short."
Dodgson had a number of eccentricities. One of these was that he would never eat anything at noon, This created problems for, as his fame spread, he was invited to many noonday luncheons and had to devise tricks that would give the impression that he was eating. Another oddity was that he would "set" a pot of tea by walking up and down his living room waving the teapot in the air. Yet another habit which was really not a curiosity was his habit of taking walks of from 30 to 40 miles, sometimes with persevering female friends. Up to a few days before his death a walk of 25 miles was not uncommon.
Like all his family he had a speech defect which he overcame in later life. He always wore black formal clothing and walked with a rapid jerking motion. He took great pains to keep his real name and his non-de-plume separate for he feared that his serious dissertations on mathematics would be scorned if people knew that he wrote nonsense stories and plays for children.
In addition to Dodgson's mathematic, photographic and story-telling skills, he was also the inventor of many useful things and an "improver" of many things that were in use. Some of his inventions were unusual, such as a device he invented while at Christ Church that would enable someone who had awakened on a cold night with an idea he wanted to record to write down the idea without taking his hands from under the blankets. Another was a device that would ensure patrons of a bar that they got what they had paid for. Yet other inventions included a method of retaining information that predated computers, an early version of the game of "Scrabble", and a pocket calculator. Toys included flying birds and walking animals run by elastic bands, and a circular billiard table for both adults and children. He was also very interested in the invention of such things as the typewriter and the phonograph, offering people who were working on these devices suggestions that they were able to use. Indeed, Dodgson was so interested in inventions that when travelling he always carried small models in his bag as he felt this was a good way to start a conversation with strangers.
Dodgson was ordained a Deacon in the Anglican church in 1861. This apparently was not due to any religious fervour but rather to the fact that at the time masters at such colleges as Christ Church were expected to take Holy Orders. He refused, however, to become a full priest for he felt that his speech defect would prevent him from conducting services and preaching sermons. He also deplored the rigidity of the Anglican church in doctrine and the discipline that his father had been obliged to accept. Also of importance was his feeling that, if he became a full priest, his writing and production of plays would be condemned. It is interesting to note that Dodgson was asked frequently to conduct services and preach sermons, things he did with considerable skill after he learned to avoid words he could not say.
Dodgson died at Guildford on Jan. 14,1898 at the age of 66. His death was attributed to "broncial conjestion". It is thought that his demise may have been hastened by the fact that he hnd "nsbcsfo^sa^nre^jn an nis rooms. He considered them to be a great improvement on coal fires but, with modem knowledge of the danger arising from asbestos, this may have hastened his death.
On Dodgson's instructions, his funeral was very simple. Neither Alice nor any of the Liddell family attended. Indeed, Alice said many times in her adult life that she was tired of being "Alice in Wonderland".
A very simple stone cross marks Dodgson's grave. It bears the words, "Where I am there shall also my servant be". It also bears Dodgson's pen-name, "Lewis Carroll". Dodgson's obituaries were published all over the world and he was so well-known and beloved in England that undoubtedly a national funeral would have been held. However, Dodgson had insisted that his funeral be quiet and simple and his wishes were observed. Following the funeral Christ Church insisted that Dodgson's living quarters be cleared immediately even though his executors wanted to examine the many things he had accumulated during his life. Therefore, models of inventions he had made were smashed and great bundles of his correspondence and other writing were burned. Fortunately, his diaries and other writing were saved. His furniture suffered a quick auction and only brought 700 pounds ($3,500), a very small sum when we remember that "Alice" sold one manuscript for over $77,000.
In writing about Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), I realize that many people today are not familiar with "Alice in Wonderland", "Through the Looking Glass" and "The Hunting of the Snark". It is also doubtful if, in this age of electronic mathematics, his views on that subject are still of use. However, it is interesting to note that in almost every year since Dodgson's death something he wrote has been presented in one form or another as stage plays, TV and radio productions, Walt Disney films and references on the "Net". Currently I note in the recent issue of "TV Guide" that NBC will present a film of "Alice in Wonderland" starring Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Ustinov, Jim Henson and other entertainment stars. So it can be seen that Dodgson's whimsey lives on.
Much of the information in this article was taken from Prof. Morton N. Cohan's 1995 (continued on page 13)
(continued from pg. 12)
book, "Lewis Carroll - A Biography". This book, like many recent books, contains a vast amount of electronically-stored data, some of which I did not want know and much more than I could use in a short article. For example, I was not really inter-
ested to know that the Liddell family (including Alice), who were delighted to have Dodgson as an unpaid "baby sitter" and were amazed at his academic skill, regarded him as a social inferior until he became world-famous.
It is also indicative of mod-
ern times that the author seems to be interested in finding some evidence of pederasty in Dodgson's relationship with hundreds of adoring children and their parents.
However, finding none, he seems to come to the conclusion that Dodgson, despite
his incredible scientific knowledge, retained throughout his life "The Wonder of Childhood", a term that was used to describe Kenneth Graham, the pompous Secretary of the Bank of England who wrote "The Wind in the Willows" and other children's classics.