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What was Lewis Carroll like?

Updated Monday, 2nd November 2015

In her memoir, The Story of Lewis Carroll Told For Young People By The Real Alice In Wonderland, Carroll's young friend Isa Bowman describes a man whose behaviour might feel uncomfortable viewed from the 21st century; and a man who found the fame of being the author of Alice In Wonderland too much to take. This is an edited extract from her memoir.

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It seems to me a very difficult task to sit down at a desk and write "reminiscences" of a friend who has gone from us all.

It is not easy to make an effort and to remember all the little personalia of some one one has loved very much, and by whom one has been loved. And yet it is in a measure one's duty to tell the world something of the inner life of a famous man; and Lewis Carroll was so wonderful a personality, and so good a man, that if my pen dragged ever so slowly, I feel that I can at least tell something of his life which is worthy the telling.

Writing with the sense of his loss still heavy upon me, I must of necessity colour my account with sadness. I am not in the ordinary sense a biographer. I cannot set down a critical estimate, a cold, dispassionate summing-up of a man I loved; but I can write of a few things that happened when I was a little girl, and when he used to say to me that I was "his little girl."

The gracious presence of Lewis Carroll is with us no longer. Never again will his hand hold mine, and I shall never hear his voice more in this world. Forever while I live that kindly influence will be gone from my life, and the "Friend of little Children" has left us.

And yet in the full sorrow of it all I find some note of comfort. He was so good and sweet, so tender and kind, so certain that there was another and more beautiful life waiting for us, that I know, even as if I heard him telling it to me, that some time I shall meet him once more.

Isa Bowman as Alice In Wonderland Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain Isa Bowman

In all the noise and excitement of London, amid all the distractions of a stage life, I know this, and his presence is often very near to me, and the kindly voice is often at my ear as it was in the old days.

To have even known such a man as he was is an inestimable boon. To have been with him for so long as a child, to have known so intimately the man who above all others has understood childhood, is indeed a memory on which to look back with thanksgiving and with tears.

Now that I am no longer "his little girl," now that he is dead and my life is so different from the quiet life he led, I can yet feel the old charm, I can still be glad that he has kissed me and that we were friends. Little girl and grave professor! it is a strange combination. Grave professor and little girl! how curious it sounds! yet strange and curious as it may seem, it was so, and the little girl, now a little girl no longer, offers this last loving tribute to the friend and teacher she loved so well. Forever that voice is still; be it mine to revive some ancient memories of it.

First, however, as I have essayed to be some sort of a biographer, I feel that before I let my pen run easily over the tale of my intimate knowledge of Lewis Carroll I must put down very shortly some facts about his life.

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died when he was sixty-six years old, and when his famous book, "Alice in Wonderland," had been published for thirty-three years. He was born at Daresbury, in Cheshire, and his father was the Rev. Charles Dodgson. The first years of his life were spent at Daresbury, but afterwards the family went to live at a place called Croft, in Yorkshire. He went first to a private school in Yorkshire and then to Rugby, where he spent years that he always remembered as very happy ones. In 1850 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, and from that time till the year of his death he was inseparably connected with "The House," as Christ Church college is generally called, from its Latin name "Ædes Christi," which means, literally translated, the House of Christ.

There he won great distinction as a scholar of mathematics, and wrote many abstruse and learned books, very different from "Alice in Wonderland." There is a tale that when the Queen had read "Alice in Wonderland" she was so pleased that she asked for more books by the same author. Lewis Carroll was written to, and back, with the name of Charles Dodgson on the title-page, came a number of the very dryest books about Algebra and Euclid that you can imagine.

Still, even in mathematics his whimsical fancy was sometimes suffered to peep out, and little girls who learnt the rudiments of calculation at his knee found the path they had imagined so thorny set about with roses by reason of the delightful fun with which he would turn a task into a joy. But when the fun was over the little girl would find that she had learnt the lesson (all unknowingly) just the same. Happy little girls who had such a master. The old rhyme--

Multiplication is vexation
Division is as bad
The rule of three doth puzzle me
And Practice drives me mad

would never need to have been written had all arithmetic lessons been like the arithmetic lessons given by Charles Dodgson to his little friends.

As a lecturer to his grown-up pupils he was also surprisingly lucid, and under his deft treatment the knottiest of problems were quickly smoothed out and made easy for his hearers to comprehend. "I always hated mathematics at school," an ex-pupil of his told me a little while ago, "but when I went up to Oxford I learnt from Mr. Dodgson to look upon my mathematics as the most delightful of all my studies. His lectures were never dry."

For twenty-six years he lectured at Oxford, finally giving up his post in 1881. From that time to the time of his death he remained in his college, taking no actual part in the tuition, but still enjoying the Fellowship that he had won in 1861.

This is an official account, a brief sketch of an intensely interesting life. It tells little save that Lewis Carroll was a clever mathematician and a sympathetic teacher; it shall be my work to present him as he was from a more human point of view.

Lewis Carroll was a man of medium height. When I knew him his hair was a silver-grey, rather longer than it was the fashion to wear, and his eyes were a deep blue. He was clean shaven, and, as he walked, always seemed a little unsteady in his gait. At Oxford he was a well-known figure. He was a little eccentric in his clothes. In the coldest weather he would never wear an overcoat, and he had a curious habit of always wearing, in all seasons of the year, a pair of grey and black cotton gloves.

But for the whiteness of his hair it was difficult to tell his age from his face, for there were no wrinkles on it. He had a curiously womanish face, and, in direct contradiction to his real character, there seemed to be little strength in it. One reads a great deal about the lines that a man's life paints in his face, and there are many people who believe that character is indicated by the curves of flesh and bone. I do not, and never shall, believe it is true, and Lewis Carroll is only one of many instances to support my theory. He was as firm and self-contained as a man may be, but there was little to show it in his face.

Yet you could easily discern it in the way in which he met and talked with his friends. When he shook hands with you--he had firm white hands, rather large--his grip was strong and steadfast. Every one knows the kind of man of whom it is said "his hands were all soft and flabby when he said, 'How-do-you-do.'" Well, Lewis Carroll was not a bit like that. Every one says when he shook your hand the pressure of his was full of strength, and you felt here indeed was a man to admire and to love. The expression in his eyes was also very kind and charming.

He used to look at me, when we met, in the very tenderest, gentlest way. Of course on an ordinary occasion I knew that his interested glance did not mean anything of any extra importance. Nothing could have happened since I had seen him last, yet, at the same time, his look was always so deeply sympathetic and benevolent that one could hardly help feeling it meant a great deal more than the expression of the ordinary man.

He was afflicted with what I believe is known as "Housemaid's knee," and this made his movements singularly jerky and abrupt. Then again he found it impossible to avoid stammering in his speech. He would, when engaged in an animated conversation with a friend, talk quickly and well for a few minutes, and then suddenly and without any very apparent cause would begin to stutter so much, that it was often difficult to understand him. He was very conscious of this impediment, and he tried hard to cure himself. For several years he read a scene from some play of Shakespeare's every day aloud, but despite this he was never quite able to cure himself of the habit. Many people would have found this a great hindrance to the affairs of ordinary life, and would have felt it deeply. Lewis Carroll was different. His mind and life were so simple and open that there was no room in them for self-consciousness, and I have often heard him jest at his own misfortune, with a comic wonder at it.

The personal characteristic that you would notice most on meeting Lewis Carroll was his extreme shyness. With children, of course, he was not nearly so reserved, but in the society of people of maturer age he was almost old-maidishly prim in his manner. When he knew a child well this reserve would vanish completely, but it needed only a slightly disconcerting incident to bring the cloak of shyness about him once more, and close the lips that just before had been talking so delightfully.

I shall never forget one afternoon when we had been walking in Christ Church meadows. On one side of the great open space the little river Cherwell runs through groves of trees towards the Isis, where the college boat-races are rowed. We were going quietly along by the side of the "Cher," when he began to explain to me that the tiny stream was a tributary, "a baby river" he put it, of the big Thames. He talked for some minutes, explaining how rivers came down from hills and flowed eventually to the sea, when he suddenly met a brother Don at a turning in the avenue.

He was holding my hand and giving me my lesson in geography with great earnestness when the other man came round the corner.

He greeted him in answer to his salutation, but the incident disturbed his train of thought, and for the rest of the walk he became very difficult to understand, and talked in a nervous and preoccupied manner. One strange way in which his nervousness affected him was peculiarly characteristic. When, owing to the stupendous success of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking-Glass," he became a celebrity many people were anxious to see him, and in some way or other to find out what manner of man he was. This seemed to him horrible, and he invented a mild deception for use when some autograph-hunter or curious person sent him a request for his signature on a photograph, or asked him some silly question as to the writing of one of his books, how long it took to write, and how many copies had been sold. Through some third person he always represented that Lewis Carroll the author and Mr. Dodgson the professor were two distinct persons, and that the author could not be heard of at Oxford at all. On one occasion an American actually wrote to say that he had heard that Lewis Carroll had laid out a garden to represent some of the scenes in "Alice in Wonderland," and that he (the American) was coming right away to take photographs of it. Poor Lewis Carroll, he was in terror of Americans for a week!

Of being photographed he had a horror, and despite the fact that he was continually and importunately requested to sit before the camera, only very few photographs of him are in existence. Yet he had been himself a great amateur photographer, and had taken many pictures that were remarkable in their exact portraiture of the subject.

It was this exactness that he used to pride himself on in his camera work. He always said that modern professional photographers spoilt all their pictures by touching them up absurdly to flatter the sitter. When it was necessary for me to have some pictures taken he sent me to Mr. H. H. Cameron, whom he declared to be the only artist who dared to produce a photograph that was exactly like its subject.

Miss Beatrice Hatch, to whose kindness I am indebtedfor much interesting information, writes in the Strand Magazine (April 1898):

"My earliest recollections of Mr. Dodgson are connected with photography. He was very fond of this art at one time, though he had entirely given it up for many years latterly. He kept various costumes and 'properties' with which to dress us up, and, of course, that added to the fun. What child would not thoroughly enjoy personating a Japanese or a beggar child, or a gipsy or an Indian? Sometimes there were excursions to the roof of the college, which was easily accessible from the windows of the studio. Or you might stand by your friend's side in the tiny dark room and watch him while he poured the contents of several little strong-smelling bottles on to the glass picture of yourself that looked so funny with its black face."

Yet, despite his love for the photographer's art, he hated the idea of having his own picture taken for the benefit of a curious world. The shyness that made him nervous in the presence of strangers made the idea that any one who cared to stare into a shop window could examine and criticise his portrait extremely repulsive to him.

I remember that this shyness of his was the only occasion of anything approaching a quarrel between us.

I had an idle trick of drawing caricatures when I was a child, and one day when he was writing some letters I began to make a picture of him on the back of an envelope. I quite forget what the drawing was like--probably it was an abominable libel--but suddenly he turned round and saw what I was doing. He got up from his seat and turned very red, frightening me very much. Then he took my poor little drawing, and tearing it into small pieces threw it into the fire without a word. Afterwards he came suddenly to me, and saying nothing, caught me up in his arms and kissed me passionately. I was only some ten or eleven years of age at the time, but now the incident comes back to me very clearly, and I can see it as if it happened but yesterday--the sudden snatching of my picture, the hurried striding across the room, and then the tender light in his face as he caught me up to him and kissed me.

I used to see a good deal of him at Oxford, and I was constantly in Christ Church. He would invite me to stay with him and find me rooms just outside the college gates, where I was put into charge of an elderly dame, whose name, if I do not forget, was Mrs. Buxall. I would spend long happy days with my uncle, and at nine o'clock I was taken over to the little house in St. Aldates and delivered into the hands of the landlady, who put me to bed.

In the morning I was awakened by the deep reverberations of "Great Tom" calling Oxford to wake and begin the new day. Those times were very pleasant, and the remembrance of them lingers with me still. Lewis Carroll at the time of which I am speaking had two tiny turret rooms, one on each side of his staircase in Christ Church. He always used to tell me that when I grew up and became married he would give me the two little rooms, so that if I ever disagreed with my husband we could each of us retire to a turret till we had made up our quarrel!

And those rooms of his! I do not think there was ever such a fairy-land for children. I am sure they must have contained one of the finest collections of musical-boxes to be found anywhere in the world. There were big black ebony boxes with glass tops through which you could see all the works. There was a big box with a handle, which it was quite hard exercise for a little girl to turn, and there must have been twenty or thirty little ones which could only play one tune. Sometimes one of the musical-boxes would not play properly, and then I always got tremendously excited. Uncle used to go to a drawer in the table and produce a box of little screw-drivers and punches, and while I sat on his knee he would unscrew the lid and take out the wheels to see what was the matter. He must have been a clever mechanist, for the result was always the same-after a longer or shorter period the music began again. Sometimes when the musical-boxes had played all their tunes he used to put them in the box backwards, and was as pleased as I at the comic effect of the music "standing on its head," as he phrased it.

There was another and very wonderful toy which he sometimes produced for me, and this was known as "The Bat." The ceilings of the rooms in which he lived at the time were very high indeed, and admirably suited for the purposes of "The Bat." It was an ingeniously constructed toy of gauze and wire, which actually flew about the room like a bat. It was worked by a piece of twisted elastic, and it could fly for about half a minute.

I was always a little afraid of this toy because it was too lifelike, but there was a fearful joy in it. When the music-boxes began to pall he would get up from his chair and look at me with a knowing smile. I always knew what was coming even before he began to speak, and I used to dance up and down in tremendous anticipation.

"Isa, my darling," he would say, "once upon a time there was some one called Bob the Bat! and he lived in the top left-hand drawer of the writing-table. What could he do when uncle wound him up?" And then I would squeak out breathlessly, "He could really FLY!" Bob the Bat had many adventures. There was no way of controlling the direction of its flight, and one morning, a hot summer's morning when the window was wide open, Bob flew out into the garden and alighted in a bowl of salad which a scout was taking to some one's rooms. The poor fellow was so startled by the sudden flapping apparition that he dropped the bowl, and it was broken into a thousand pieces.

There! I have written "a thousand pieces," and a thoughtless exaggeration of that sort was a thing that Lewis Carroll hated. "A thousand pieces?" he would have said; "you know, Isa, that if the bowl had been broken into a thousand pieces they would each have been so tiny that you could have hardly seen them." And if the broken pieces had been get-at-able, he would have made me count them as a means of impressing on my mind the folly of needless exaggeration.

I remember how annoyed he was once when, after a morning's sea bathing at Eastbourne, I exclaimed, "Oh, this salt water, it always makes my hair as stiff as a poker."

He impressed it on me quite irritably that no little girl's hair could ever possibly get as stiff as a poker. "If you had said, 'as stiff as wires,' it would have been more like it, but even that would have been an exaggeration." And then, seeing that I was a little frightened, he drew for me a picture of "The little girl called Isa whose hair turned into pokers because she was always exaggerating things."

That, and all the other pictures that he drew for me are, I'm sorry to say, the sole property of the little fishes in the Irish Channel, where a clumsy porter dropped them as we hurried into the boat at Holyhead.

"I nearly died of laughing," was another expression that he particularly disliked; in fact any form of exaggeration generally called from him a reproof, though he was sometimes content to make fun. For instance, my sisters and I had sent him "millions of kisses" in a letter. Below you will find the letter that he wrote in return, written in violet ink that he always used (dreadfully ugly, I used to think it).

"CH. Ch. Oxford, "_Ap. 14, 1890_.

"MY OWN DARLING,

It's all very well for you and Nellie and Emsie to write in millions of hugs and kisses, but please consider the time it would occupy your poor old very busy Uncle!

Try hugging and kissing Emsie for a minute by the watch, and I don't think you'll manage it more than 20 times a minute.

'Millions' must mean 2 millions at least.

20)2,000,000 hugs and kisses
60)100,000 minutes
12)1,666 hours
6)138 days (at twelve hours a day)
23 weeks.

I couldn't go on hugging and kissing more than 12 hours a day: and I wouldn't like to spend Sundays that way. So you see it would take 23 weeks of hard work. Really, my dear child, I cannot spare the time .

Why haven't I written since my last letter? Why, how _could_ I, you silly silly child? How could I have written  since the last time  I  did  write? Now, you just try it with kissing. Go and kiss Nellie, from me, several times, and take care to manage it so as to have kissed her since the last time you _did_ kiss her. Now go back to your place, and I'll question you. 

'Have you kissed her several times?'

'Yes, darling Uncle.'

'What o'clock was it when you gave her the last kiss?'

'5 minutes past 10, Uncle.'

'Very well, now, have you kissed her since?'

'Well--I--ahem! ahem! ahem! (excuse me, Uncle, I've got a bad cough). I--think--that--I--that is, you, know, I----'

'Yes, I see! "Isa" begins with "I," and it seems to me as if she was going to end  with "I,"  this  time!'

Anyhow, my not writing hasn't been because I was _ill_, but because I was a horrid lazy old thing, who kept putting it off from day to day, till at last I said to myself, 'WHO ROAR! There's no time to write now, because they sail on the 1st of April.' In fact, I shouldn't have been a bit surprised if this letter had been from Fulham, instead of Louisville. Well, I suppose you will be there by about the middle of May. But mind you don't write to me from there! Please, please, no more horrid letters from you! I do hate them so! And as for kissing them when I get them, why, I'd just as soon kiss--kiss--kiss you, you tiresome thing! So there now!

Thank you very much for those 2 photographs--I liked them--hum--pretty well. I can't honestly say I thought them the very best I had ever seen.

Please give my kindest regards to your mother, and 1/2 of a kiss to Nellie, and 1/200 a kiss to Emsie, and 1/2,000,000 a kiss to yourself. So, with fondest love, I am, my darling, your loving Uncle,

C. L. DODGSON."

And now, in the postscript, comes one of the rare instances in which Lewis Carroll showed his deep religious feeling. It runs--

P.S._--I've thought about that little prayer you asked me to write for Nellie and Emsie. But I would like, first, to have the words of the one I wrote for you , and the words of what they now say, if they say any. And then I will pray to our Heavenly Father to help me to write a prayer that will be really fit for them to use."

These letters are written in Lewis Carroll's ordinary handwriting, not a particularly legible one. When, however, he was writing for the press no characters could have been more clearly and distinctly formed than his. Throughout his life he always made it his care to give as little trouble as possible to other people.

"Why should the printers have to work overtime because my letters are ill-formed and my words run into each other?" he once said, when a friend remonstrated with him because he took such pains with the writing of his "copy." As a specimen of his careful penmanship the diary that he wrote for me, which is reproduced in this book in facsimile, is an admirable example.

They were happy days, those days in Oxford, spent with the most fascinating companion that a child could have. In our walks about the old town, in our visits to cathedral or chapel or hall, in our visits to his friends he was an ideal companion, but I think I was almost happiest when we came back to his rooms and had tea alone; when the fire-glow (it was always winter when I stayed in Oxford) threw fantastic shadows about the quaint room, and the thoughts of the prosiest of people must have wandered a little into fancy-land. The shifting firelight seemed to almost ætherealise that kindly face, and as the wonderful stories fell from his lips, and his eyes lighted on me with the sweetest smile that ever a man wore, I was conscious of a love and reverence for Charles Dodgson that became nearly an adoration.

It was almost pain when the lights were turned up and we came back to everyday life and tea.

He was very particular about his tea, which he always made himself, and in order that it should draw properly he would walk about the room swinging the tea-pot from side to side for exactly ten minutes. The idea of the grave professor promenading his book-lined study and carefully waving a tea-pot to and fro may seem ridiculous, but all the minutiæ of life received an extreme attention at his hands, and after the first surprise one came quickly to realise the convenience that his carefulness ensured.

Before starting on a railway journey, for instance (and how delightful were railway journeys in the company of Lewis Carroll), he used to map out exactly every minute of the time that we were to take on the way. The details of the journey completed, he would exactly calculate the amount of money that must be spent, and, in different partitions of the two purses that he carried, arrange the various sums that would be necessary for cabs, porters, newspapers, refreshments, and the other expenses of a journey. It was wonderful how much trouble he saved himself en route by thus making ready beforehand. Lewis Carroll was never driven half frantic on a station platform because he had to change a sovereign to buy a penny paper while the train was on the verge of starting. With him journeys were always comfortable.

For his little girl friends, of course, he reserved the most intimate side of his nature, but on occasion he would throw off his reserve and talk earnestly and well to some young man in whose life he took an interest.

Mr. Arthur Girdlestone is able to bear witness to this, and he has given me an account of an evening that he once spent with Lewis Carroll, which I reproduce here from notes made during our conversation.

Mr. Girdlestone, then an undergraduate at New College, had on one occasion to call on Lewis Carroll at his rooms in Tom Quad. At the time of which I am speaking Lewis Carroll had retired very much from the society which he had affected a few years before. Indeed for the last years of his life he was almost a recluse, and beyond dining in Hall saw hardly any one. Miss Beatrice Hatch, one of his "girl friends," writes apropos of his hermit-like seclusion:

"If you were very anxious to get him to come to your house on any particular day, the only chance was not to invite him, but only to inform him that you would be at home. Otherwise he would say, 'As you have invited me I cannot come, for I have made a rule to decline all invitations; but I will come the next day.' In former years he would sometimes consent to go to a 'party' if he was quite sure he was not to be 'shown off' or introduced to any one as the author of 'Alice.' I must again quote from a note of his in answer to an invitation to tea: 'What an awful proposition! To drink tea from four to six would tax the constitution even of a hardened tea drinker! For me, who hardly ever touch it, it would probably be fatal.'

"All through the University, except in an extremely limited circle, Lewis Carroll was regarded as a person who lived very much by himself.

"When I went to see him on quite a slight acquaintance, I confess it was with some slight feeling of trepidation. However I had to on some business, and accordingly I knocked at his door about 8.30 one winter's evening, and was invited to come in. "He was sitting working at a writing-table, and all round him were piles of MSS. arranged with mathematical neatness, and many of them tied up with tape. The lamp threw his face into sharp relief as he greeted me. My business was soon over, and I was about to go away, when he asked me if I would have a glass of wine and sit with him for a little.

"The night outside was very cold, and the fire was bright and inviting, and I sat down. He began to talk to me of ordinary subjects, of the things a man might do at Oxford, of the place itself, and the affection in which he held it. He talked quietly, and in a rather tired voice. During our conversation my eye fell upon a photograph of a little girl--evidently from the freshness of its appearance but newly taken--which was resting upon the ledge of a reading-stand at my elbow. It was the picture of a tiny child, very pretty, and I picked it up to look at it.

"'That is the baby of a girl friend of mine,' he said, and then, with an absolute change of voice, 'there is something very strange about very young children, something I cannot understand.' I asked him in what way, and he explained at some length. He was far less at his ease than when talking trivialities, and he occasionally stammered and sometimes hesitated for a word. I cannot remember all he said, but some of his remarks still remain with me. He said that in the company of very little children his brain enjoyed a rest which was startlingly recuperative. If he had been working too hard or had tired his brain in any way, to play with children was like an actual material tonic to his whole system. I understood him to say that the effect was almost physical!

"He said that he found it much easier to understand children, to get his mind into correspondence with their minds when he was fatigued with other work. Personally, I did not understand little children, and they seemed quite outside my experience, and rather incautiously I asked him if children never bored him. He had been standing up for most of the time, and when I asked him that, he sat down suddenly. 'They are three-fourths of my life,' he said. 'I cannot understand how any one could be bored by little children. I think when you are older you will come to see this--I hope you'll come to see it.'

"After that he changed the subject once more, and became again the mathematician--a little formal, and rather weary."

Mr. Girdlestone probably had a unique experience, for it was but rarely that Mr. Dodgson so far unburdened himself to a comparative stranger, and what was even worse, to a "grown-up stranger."
 

 

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