How little we really know of Lewis Carroll, pun-master, nonsense rhymer, genius, most recognized for his work as author of Alice In Wonderland. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, born on the 27th of January, 1832 in Daresbury, in county Cheshire, England, Charleses’, was an Anglican rector who frequently held services on barges for those who lived on the river that ran through Daresbury County in Englad. The Dodgson family was all Anglican, and High Church (in America, this would be High Episcopal so high that it borders on Catholicism.) The cloth, was in the family blood. Young Charles’s great grandfather had risen as far as Bishop of Elphin.
When the elder Dodgson was named Rector of Croft in 1843, Charles, age eleven and his family moved to the more spacious rectory at Croft-on-Tees in Yorkshire. The oldest son of eleven children, it was assumed that Charles would be ordained in the family tradition. From an early age, his parents tutored in religion, Latin, and mathematics. To this day, Dodgson’s theorems are widely used in modern mathematics and texts and his work as a mathematician parallels his work as an author of children’s books. This, by no means, was where Dodgson’s influence ends: he also ranks as one of the top photographers of the Victorian Era, right alongside Julia Margeret Cameron and Oscar Gustav Rejlander.
The elder Dodgson, later Archdeacon of Ripon, was an active participant in the Oxford Movement, and was on friendly terms with Canon Pusey, “one of the most elaborate forms of a doomed species.” – who preached one of the main tracts of the Oxford Movement, entitled “National Apostasy” at St. Mary’s, Oxford, in 1833. Charles’s father was largely influential in the Movement and admired Newman and other Tractarians and was High Church tending toward Anglo-Catholicism. vIn February, 1852, he preached a sermon, published as “Ritual Worship,” that caused great uproar. It was clear from his sermon that he believed firmly in the principles of Apostolic Descent, baptism, absolution, and Holy Communion and the ‘real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.’
Despite the schism in the church between the liberals and the Tractarians, Oxford remained true to tradition and up until 1870, if one wanted to matriculate, it was necessary to be a member of the church and to swear to uphold the Thirty Nine Articles.
Guided by the influence of his family and Canon Pusey and Bishop Wilberforce’s, young Charles Dodgson was ( inevitably) ordained Deacon at Christ Church, Oxford on December 22, 1862. Canon Pusey once remarked, “I love my grief better than any hollow joy.” The mood at Oxford was palpable: “The undercurrent of guilt and sorrow that pulses through the lives of the best men is not sufficiently accounted for by their anachronistic education, or even by the great incubus of other worldly religion that hung over them; there was a real guilt and a real sorrow…even more poignantly – the crucifixion of their fellow man.”
Dodgson did not go on to become rector for myriad reasons. His love of the theater and attendance at plays and musicals was not considered conduct becoming of a minister, and he was not willing to give up either his photography or love of theatre. After petitioning the Dean and expressing his wish not to continue on to become a rector (in part, because of his stutter and later, seizures) Dodgson was allowed to remain a deacon and maintain his post as a Mathematics Don. Dodgson stayed at Christ – forty-seven years – until his unexpected death from pneumonia in 1898.
Charles the younger though conservative in many ways, was influenced by other friends, and no doubt, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (whom he photographed) and who tended toward a more liberal stance and believed that the concept of “eternal punishment and damnation” were the result of superstition and were “unworthy of doctrinal sanction.” Tennyson embraced the new religious liberalism and the ‘mysterious nature of the Universe.” For his part, Dodsgon felt that he could do the same, deciding for himself the criterion for salvation. He could embrace this doctrine while remaining Anglican.
Dodgson’s great sin, as one biographer noted, was the sin of thinking for himself about religion. What he believed, ultimately, was that God is a God of love. He wrote in his Easter Greeting in the preface of Alice, “I do not believe that God means us thus to divide life into two halves – to wear a grave face on Sunday and to think it out of place to mention him on a weekday… surely their [children’s] innocent laughter is a sweet in his ears as the grandest anthem that ever rolled.”
Dodgson even reconciled the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species by Darwin, noting that there was an “insufficiency” of natural selection alone to account for the universe, but that it was “in perfect compatibility with the creative and guiding power of God…” Though most saw the new theories in conflict with Christianity, Dodgson saw a “correspondence to the environment” and thus cleverly reconciled the new philosophy with his Christian beliefs.
Alice in Wonderland has been interpreted in myriad ways. Some have seen it as an erotic adventure, while others view it as a commentary of Oxford and Victorian England.
The latter makes the most sense. The strict rules, the things that must be done but that don’t any make sense. Rules for rules sake. To this day, Alice in Wonderland is quoted so widely that it is rivaled only by Shakespeare and the Bible. It has been translated into every language, including Braille and Swahili, and has seen numerous editions. Carroll himself could not explain the “Why” of this book. In the preface to the original Alice’s Adventures Underground , he writes, “Those for whom a child’s mind is a sealed book, who see no divinity in a child’s smile, would read such words in vain.” And about God, “he is talked about only in way that makes them think of going to church and having to be quiet….” Instead, Charles saw a God who waited for them “so tenderly, and wanting them to run to Him with all their little joys and sorrows.”
It is Dodgson/Carroll’s understanding of a child’s mind – and at heart, perhaps we are all children – that contrived to make him differenty by any standard. A free-thinker who dare write his thoughts will no doubt be judged and mythologized as Carroll has, and although we may think of him more as a writer/photographer than deacon, he was clearly one of the most empathetic and influential members of the Anglican church. Perhaps Sundays aren’t for solemn faces after all.
We grin, proud as Cheshire Cats, in our private Wonderlands, just taking it all in, knowing that indeed, ‘we’re all mad here.’
See also: Benjamin Jowett