Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Friday afternoon, July 4, 1862, a rowing party left Oxford to go on an
outing up the Thames River. At the forward set of oars, dressed in
flannels and a straw boater, was Charles Dodgson, a thirty-year-old
in mathematics. Rowing as well was his friend, Robinson Duckworth,
Oxford fellow. Their passengers, seated at the bow and stern of the
were the three young Liddell girls, daughters of the Dean of Christ
the college where Dodgson taught.
The eldest, Lorina, who was thirteen, demanded that Dodgson tell them a story as he'd often done before. The middle sister, ten-year-old Alice, Dodgson's special favorite, seconded the request more nicely. And she asked that the story have nonsense in it.
In most situations, Charles Dodgson was an intensely inhibited man. He hid out from life in his teaching position which required him to take nominal religious vows and remain unmarried. He was meticulous and proper and feared ridicule. When he had to talk to adults, he stammered, and the opinions he expressed were always conservative and conventional. Some of his students thought he was the most boring teacher they'd ever had.
But there was another side to this man that could be brought out by a young girl encouraging him to talk nonsense. He didn't stammer then. Instead he became capable of saying anything at all that popped into his head.
This is a rare gift. Most people aren't able to place everything they're sure they know on hold and then just make stuff up, saying whatever outrageous, unlikely or impossible thing happens to fly off the tongue next. But this shy young man, who ordinarily found speaking so difficult that his very fear of being made fun of turned him into a figure of fun, was practiced at doing this for the right sort of audience.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had grown up in relative social isolation as the third child and eldest son of a country parson. He was a precocious boy who took his greatest pleasure in entertaining his seven sisters and three younger brothers. He set up a railroad line in the garden with stations and tickets. He dressed up as a sorceror in a brown wig and white robes and did magic for them. And he built a marionette theater where he performed puppet plays which he wrote himself.
Over a period of time, from 1845 to this very year of 1862, he even produced a series of magazines by hand for his family featuring his own drawings and writings. The last of these, a scrapbook entitled Mischmasch, included a so-called "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry" written when he was twenty-three. It went:
His explanation of this, after learned definitions of all the strange words, was:Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves
"Hence the literal English of the passage is: 'it was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out.' "
To this, he added:
"There were probably sundials on the top of the hill, and the 'borogoves' were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of 'raths', which ran out, squeaking with fear, on hearing the 'toves' scratching outside. This is an obscure, yet deeply-affecting, relic of ancient Poetry."
Nonsense like this was a Nineteenth Century amusement in which a recognizable form of some kind--such as a stanza of poetry--was filled in with an absurd content. Here, for example, is a mock letter that was sent to a friend in this same year of 1862 by one of the acknowledged masters of nonsense, the gentleman artist Edward Lear:
is obvious that this stuff is being
invented even as it is being written. The shape, the sound, and the
are all familiar -- but whatever does it mean? Is it just tomfoolery?
it funny? Or is it deeply critical of all meaningless formalities and
phrases and that aspect of society which above all wanted the proper
to be observed?
The Victorians didn't press these questions. It was sufficient that the Nineteenth Century was a period in which a certain limited exercise of the imagination had become socially acceptable. Adults might play parlor games, novels were read aloud to the family, and the professional houseguest like Lear or the Oxford don like Dodgson who was able to do it was given leave to utter extravagant and untrue things for the amusement of children.
Nonsense was outside ordinary rules. By its very name, it was acknowledged to be harmless inconsequential fun. Not sense. Nonsense.
Dodgson came by this form of verbal play honestly. His own father was someone who had a taste for nonsense. When Charles was eight, for instance, Rev. Dodgson had traveled to Leeds, and his son made a special request that a file, a screwdriver, and a ring be bought for him there. In the course of the journey, his father wrote to young Charles detailing the hubbub and uproar that would follow if the city should fail to comply with this commission:
"Then what a bawling & a tearing of hair there will be! 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."
In order to write nonsense like this, a certain confidence in nonsense is required. There must be trust that the spontaneous flow of oddly juxtaposed objects and whimsical events or of made-up words which sound as though they should refer to familiar objects but don't is going to take care of itself and come out right.
It might very well come out wrong. Nonsense is fragile and ambiguous. There is always a risk when talking nonsense of having the wind taken out of your sails by someone who just doesn't want to play this game, or of being understood a little too well and causing offense, or simply of sounding like some babbling idiot and leaving your audience shaking its head.
The imaginative young Charles Dodgson faced his own measure of incomprehension. In his teen years, he was sent off to boarding school in the manner typical of his class. Scholastically, he did well there, but the creative side of his nature got stuffed at Rugby.
In this place where the future masters of the growing British Empire came to learn how to dominate each other and excel at sports, he had much of the nonsense knocked out of him. During his time at school, Dodgson became fixed in the shy, overserious, stammering public persona that he would display throughout his adult years.
And yet he didn't lose all touch with his former playfulness. When he first left Rugby, it wasn't immediately possible for him to take up residence at Oxford, so he spent a year studying at home. During that time, he produced The Rectory Umbrella, his most ambitious and creative homemade magazine yet, for the eyes of his family.
While he was at Oxford, he continued to write as he could. Eventually he began to accumulate the scrapbook of his best new work which would become Mischmasch.
In 1854, his last year as an undergraduate, Dodgson contributed two poems to a short-lived Oxford advertising sheet. And during his Long Vacation that year, he published a poem and a story in a local newspaper. But, as he would note in the diary he had begun to keep, he didn't count these as "real publication."
He had hopes for better. He began submitting material to Punch, the premier humor magazine of the day, but with no success.
Then, in the summer of 1855, Frank Smedley, a novelist who was the cousin of a cousin of his father, proposed to him that he should contribute to a new humorous weekly, the Comic Times, which was about to commence publication. Dodgson, who had now become a tutor at Oxford, sent Smedley a travesty of some lines in Thomas Moore's Romantic poem Lalla Rookh that Punch had previously turned down.
His humorous verse was published in the second issue of Comic Times. During the four months the publication lasted, Dodgson contributed to it four times. And when it folded and was succeeded by a monthly called The Train, he wrote for that, too, even though its hopes of ability to actually pay contributors never came to anything.
At first, he tried to hide behind the false initials "B.B." His editor, Edmund Yates, suggested that he adopt a pen name instead. Dodgson proposed "Dares." That was short for Daresbury, the town in Cheshire where he was born. It may also have been an indication that he intended to follow an unconventional line of development.
The editor replied that this name had too much of the appearance of a typical newspaper signature, and asked him to try again. So Dodgson offered Yates four possibilities. Two of them were anagrams of Charles Lutwidge and two were Latinized versions of his first two names. The editor passed over the likes of "Edgar Cuthwellis" and settled upon his final suggestion, "Lewis Carroll." Henceforth, that would be the name he would use on all the stories, poems and puzzles he would publish.
However, professional acceptance of his writing wasn't enough to satisfy Dodgson. He also felt a continuing urge to be visually creative.
He tried sending Comic Times humorous drawings he'd done for Mischmasch. But contrary to his expectation, the paper didn't use his pictures. Instead, it rejected them, saying they were "not up to the mark." At this point, Dodgson, who could be extraordinarily sensitive to any hint of rebuff, determined he wouldn't send any more drawings to the publication.
That didn't mean he was ready to accept this assessment of his artwork as final, however. In October 1857, he noticed John Ruskin, an Oxford don who was the best known art critic of the day and whose opinions he respected, having breakfast in the Christ Church Common Room. Dodgson took advantage of this unusual opportunity. He overcame his shyness enough to show his drawings and ask for an opinion. Ruskin looked them over and, as nicely as he could, told him that he lacked sufficient talent to make sketching worth his time.
This was a blow. However, Dodgson was someone who had a stubborn nature and an active need to express himself in visual terms. He continued to produce his amateurish but amusing drawings anyway. And though he might drop all thought of professional publication of his artwork for the moment, such was the quiet persistence of this man that the day would eventually come when he would arrive at a way for his drawings to be seen by a wider audience.
However, the immediate remedy that Dodgson found for the deficiencies of his draftsmanship was to develop an alternative. In the aftermath of his rejection by Comic Times, he took up another form of picture making, the recently created art of photography.
Like so many people of the mid-Nineteenth Century, Dodgson was deeply impressed by the technical advances of the era. In 1851, he attended the first international exhibit of modern technology in the Crystal Palace, an amazing new structure which enclosed and covered twenty acres of Hyde Park in London in iron and glass. He was awestruck by what he saw there. He wrote to his family: "I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is one of bewilderment. It looks like a sort of fairyland."
For Dodgson, the innovations of the day were marvelous new toys. He would own and use an early typewriter. He would ride a velociman, an adult tricycle powered by hand, and give thought to how it might be improved. And he himself would invent a nyctograph, a device for taking notes in the dark.
Of all the man-made
wonders of the age, however,
it was photography that Dodgson loved first and loved best. Somehow it
was the very essence of the new magic of technology that it had now
possible to project a view of the world through a lens onto a polished
glass plate and capture it there in negative form with the aid of
and then by a further application of chemicals translate this
into a positive picture on paper.
Dodgson had first seen photographs
on display in the fairyland of the Crystal Palace. But it wasn't until
early in 1855 that it finally became feasible for an amateur enthusiast
with the necessary time and money and patience to take pictures. And
the course of that year, he was persistently intrigued by this new
At last, in January 1856, Dodgson went to an exhibition of photographs that was being held in London. He came back the next day to see it again. The following week he wrote to a knowledgeable uncle asking for help in obtaining a photographic apparatus of his own.
It took some arranging, but that spring he managed to buy all the equipment that was necessary: a camera and a tripod for it to stand on, along with a chest of chemicals, and a portable dark tent for preparing and sensitizing photographic plates and then fixing and varnishing them after they had been exposed. Over the next twenty-five years, one of Dodgson's primary modes of dealing with the world would be crouched behind a camera, covered by a cloth drape and peering through a lens.
He quickly became a skilled photographer -- one of the best of his time -- with a gift for taking pictures of people, especially youngsters willing to put on costumes and assume attitudes for him. Theater was a particular passion of his, and he applied ideas about composition and grouping he'd taken from observation of the stage to his photography.
Dodgson went through a period in which he was ready to presume upon the novelty of photography and his ability to take a good portrait in order to make the acquaintance of various eminent people of the day. And he would also use photography as a convenient reason to meet and make friends with children.
Having child friends -- and there would be troops of them over the years -- was absolutely necessary to him. All that seemed most worthwhile about human life, Dodgson identified with childhood. The first work that he published under the name Lewis Carroll was a poem he'd written when he was only twenty-one entitled "Solitude," which ended:
In our time, a photographer with a fixation on little children might be suspected of harboring dubious sexual intentions. But that wasn't the nature of this man. Dodgson had both a keen awareness of social propriety and an exacting conscience. He went to lengths to be sure that all his interactions with the young were first approved by their parents. More important is that he was confident in his own mind that his relations with children were "innocent and right in the sight of God," as he put it in a letter to one of his sisters.I'd give all wealth that years have piled,
What he wanted from children was simple. He was looking for people to play with. He sought someone to think his nonsense was amusing, somebody who would do her best to answer a difficult question for him, or pose for a picture, or listen to him tell a story and respond to it.
One half of Dodgson's two-sided nature sustained the other. In his teen years, he had constructed his outward adult persona of stodgy, proper Do-do-dodgson, shy, sometimes exact to a fault, but earnest and reliable, in order to make a safe space within which his inner self -- the part of him which loved nonsense, stories and games and didn't want to ever give them up -- might continue to function even though childhood was over. And the activities of this creative self -- call it "Charles Lutwidge" or "Lewis Carroll" -- went to make life tolerable for the otherwise constricted adult Dodgson.
But Charles Lutwidge was always and ever a boy. He needed to get out and play. That's why it would be Dodgson's practice whenever he set off on a train journey or went on vacation at the seaside to carry a black bag filled with puzzles and toys and other items of interest to the young and look for children to entertain.
Charles Lutwidge primarily sought his playmates where he'd found them in the days before the adult Dodgson was bound to the social wheel -- among young girls. Although he did make friends in early days with a few boys such as the eldest Liddell child, Harry, he would be much less fond of them. But then when the time arrived that his young female friends reached the age of puberty and were no longer as eager to dress for the camera or figure out a brainteaser, he got out of their way and allowed them to move on with their lives while he discovered new friends who were the right age and temperament to like the things that he liked best.
When she was seventy, Enid Stevens, to whom Dodgson's final work of fiction is dedicated, and who regarded herself as having been his last special child friend, said of him: "The truth of the matter is that he had the heart of a child himself, so when he spoke to a child she understood -- even about the deeper things of life -- because he spoke her own language."
Enid thought of him as a much-loved grandfather in the same way that earlier child friends had looked on him as a favorite uncle. Several times a week, Dodgson would " 'borrow' " her to go on walks with him. He made up stories and songs to amuse her, and played hide-and-seek with her among the chimney-pots on the roof above his rooms. He took her to the theater for the first time. And when she was cut off from all society for six weeks with scarlet fever, he wrote to her every day with a cipher, a puzzle or a game.
Enid Stevens Shawyer would be speaking for more than one of his child friends when she said:
"I never realized -- as I do now -- what jewels were being poured out for my entertainment. I know now that my friendship with him was probably the most valuable experience in a long life, and that it influenced my outlook more than anything that has happened since -- and wholly for good."
Dodgson actively avoided all talk about his child's play and what it meant to him. The outer man -- the mathematician, the don, the deacon -- kept vulnerable, creative Charles Lutwidge shielded behind a wall of silence to protect him from the world at large.
In his autobiography, the American magazine editor Edward Bok tells of being introduced to Dodgson at Oxford and spending two delightful hours in his company. Bok was shown some of the college buildings and they had lunch together. But first and last Dodgson informed him, "You are not speaking to 'Lewis Carroll.' "
Even a long-time theatrical friend, the playwright Augustus Dubourg, in writing a brief appreciation of Dodgson following his death at the beginning of 1898, would conclude regretfully: "I may truthfully say that throughout much friendly intercourse with Charles Dodgson, the remembrance of which I value greatly, I never met that exquisite humorist, Lewis Carroll."
When he was with adults,
Dodgson didn't even like
to admit that he knew Lewis Carroll. He would refuse any mail for
that was addressed directly to him at Oxford, and not sent to him by
of his publisher. Since he laid no claim to that man's work, it was
for anyone to assume that it had anything to do with him.
in the diary that Dodgson kept
for his own eyes, his play with children would hardly be mentioned.
is just one entry -- for June 26, 1857, a day spent with the Liddell
at the Christ Church Deanery -- in which it almost becomes possible to
catch the outward Dodgson admitting his identity with that eternal boy,
"I had Alice and Edith with me till 12; then Harry and Ina till the early dinner at 2, which I joined; and all four children for the afternoon. The photographing was accordingly plentifully interspersed with swinging, backgammon, etc.
"I mark this day most specially with a white stone."
We should take note of both the rarity and the reticence of these remarks. Not only does that apparently casual "etc." contain the essence of everything that went to make this day a particularly special one for Dodgson, but it also must serve as the nearest thing we have to an expression by him of all the playtime activities he actually lived for, but wasn't permitted to speak about.
We don't know what age he was when he first began to mark days he found notable with a white stone. But it does seem like the sort of thing a boy in school might find to do. The days Dodgson singled out with a metaphorical white stone in his diary most often were spent with some young person.
There is only a single recorded occasion when Dodgson let down his barriers and allowed himself to talk frankly to someone about his association with children and what it meant to him. A student who had stopped by his rooms on business asked him -- " 'incautiously' " -- if children never bored him, and Dodgson replied that he couldn't understand how anyone could be bored by small children.
He said that whenever he was weary of the world and too much thinking, play with children was like a tonic to his system. He told the student outright, " 'They are three-fourths of my life.' "
The Liddells were among the earliest child friends that he made outside his own extended family. He first met them in 1856 in the same spring season in which he took up the camera. Lorina was turning seven then, Alice was just short of four, and Edith was a toddler.
At the time of this afternoon excursion in July 1862, the Liddells were the children he saw most frequently. When the three girls went on this boat trip -- which wasn't the first ride on the river this same party had taken that summer -- it could seem to them that they had known Dodgson for as long as they could remember.
So it was nothing at all new for Ina to ask him for a story, as she did that day. One of Dodgson's most successful modes of relating to the young was through storytelling. During his years of friendship with the Liddells, he'd told the children many a story.
It was a fairy tale that Lorina specifically wanted to hear. That was the collective name Victorians gave to marvelous tales of magic and giants and talking animals.
In an earlier day, stories like this had been told to a general audience. But the men of the Age of Reason in the Western world, striving to be rational and shun all superstition, had no use for old wives' tales. When it became evident to the Eighteenth Century that children were not yet capable of reason and the childhood state began to be set apart as a separate and distinct phase of human development, this sort of story had been abandoned to the young -- not without considerable misgiving and objection -- as something specially their own.
For the Victorians, the models of the fairy tale were French stories like "Cinderella," "Puss in Boots" and "Sleeping Beauty" which had been written down by Charles Perrault at the end of the Seventeenth Century, the Märchen collected by the brothers Grimm in Germany, and the fantastic oriental stories of rocs and genies gathered in The Arabian Nights. Dodgson knew all of these, of course. Storybooks formed an important corner of his library.
When he told a fairy tale, it could be something familiar like Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." Or it might be a story about a strange talking beast that he'd invented himself. But Dodgson always had some wonderful narrative to enchant a child.
Many years later, as an old lady, Alice would remember:
"He seemed to have an endless store of these fantastical tales, which he made up as he told them, drawing on a large sheet of paper all the time. They were not always entirely new. Sometimes they were new versions of old stories: sometimes they started on the old basis, but grew into new tales owing to the frequent interruptions which opened up fresh and undreamed of possibilities."
This picture of the man improvising a story, sketching to embellish the tale as he talked, and changing course in response to the promptings of his listeners is confirmed by Gertrude Chataway, who was an important child friend of Dodgson's a dozen years after this boat ride. After his death, she would recall:
"I had the usual child's love for fairy-tales and marvels and his power of telling stories naturally fascinated me. We used to sit for hours on the wooden steps which led from our garden on to the beach, while he told me the most lovely tales that could possibly be imagined, often illustrating the exciting situations with a pencil as he went along.
"One thing that made his stories particularly charming to a child was that he often took his cue from her remarks -- a question would set him off on quite a new trail of ideas, so that one felt one had somehow helped to make the story and it seemed a personal possession."
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Written 1994-96. Posted May 2001.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.