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Lewis Carroll

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - 'Lewis Carroll' as he was to become known - was born into a comfortable middle class family, on January 27 1832, the son of the Rev. Charles Dodgson, of Daresbury, Cheshire, England, and his wife Frances Jane. He was the third child, and first son of a family of eleven children.

At the age of 14 he was sent to Rugby School, where he was evidently unhappy. He made reference years later to the 'annoyance' he had suffered there 'at night' The nature of this nocturnal 'annoyance' will probably never now be fully understood, but it may be that he is delicately referring to some form of sexual abuse. Scholastically, though, he excelled with apparent ease. He left Rugby at the end of 1849 and a little more than 12 months later, went on to Oxford: to his father's old college, Christ Church. The following year he achieved a first in Honour Moderations, and shortly after he was nominated to a Studentship (the Christ Church equivalent of a fellowship), by his father's old friend Canon Edward Pusey.

At the age of 23, his clear brilliance as a mathematician won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he continued to hold for the next 26 years. The income was good, but the work bored him. Many of his pupils were stupid, older than him, richer than him, and almost all of them were uninterested. They didn't want to be taught, he didn't want to teach them. Mutual apathy ruled.

In appearance Dodgson was about six foot tall, slender and handsome in a soft-focused dreamy sort of way, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. The only overt defect he carried into adulthood was what he referred to as his 'hesitation'; a stammer he had acquired in early childhood and which was to plague him throughout his entire life. But, although it troubled him - even obsessed him sometimes - it was never bad enough to stop him using his other qualities to do well in society. He was a highly socially competent man; persuasive, manipulative and attractive to women.

Although he spent so much of his life in the academic environment, Dodgson's real passions were always artistic. He loved the theatre and the company of 'theatricals'. He loved artists and their work. He courted the bohemian life in a way that sometimes compromised the required dignity of his position as an Oxford don. His scholastic career was only a stop-gap to other more exciting attainments that he wanted hungrily. In 1856 he took up photography and very soon became an acknowledged master of the art, making portraits of some of the greatest celebrities of his day. His passionate admiration of the naked human form, and his desire to celebrate this in his work was one of several aspects of his life that brought him into conflict with the 'decent' middle class morality of his day.

In 1861 he became a deacon of the Anglican church, but, despite his religious background, and in direct defiance of the laws of his college, he refused to become a priest. The reason for this is one of the several enigmas that still surround his life.

At the time that he was supposed to take his vows, he was in a turmoil of sexual guilt, resulting, it would appear, from a tormenting love affair, although evidence is fragmentary since his family destroyed the relevant portions of his diaries. Whether this guilt was behind his decision to abandon the priesthood we simply do not know, although the extant evidence suggests a connection.

Dodgson was writing from his earliest youth. First for family magazines, then as he matured, his poetry and short stories began appearing in various magazines like The Comic Times and The Train. Most of his output was funny, sometimes very sharply satirical. He specialised in a kind of anarchic mockery of hypocrisy and authority , that has its most famous example in his 'Alice' books.

In the same year that he became a photographer he published his first piece of work under the name that would make him famous. A very predictable little romantic poem called 'Solitude' appeared in the The Train under the authorship of 'Lewis Carroll'.

Also in the same year, a new Dean arrived at Christ Church, Henry Liddell, bringing with him a young wife and children, all of whom would figure largely and sometimes rather mysteriously, in Dodgson's life over the following years.

He became close friends with the mother and the children, particularly the three sisters - Ina, Alice and Edith. It seems there became something of a tradition of his taking the girls out on the river for picnics at Godstow or Nuneham.

It was on one such expedition, in 1862, that Dodgson invented the outline of the story that eventually became his first and largest commercial success - the first 'Alice' book.

Having told the story and been begged by Alice Liddell to write it down, Dodgson was evidently struck by its potential to 'sell well'. He took the MS to Macmillan the publisher who liked it immediately.

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' was published in 1865, under the pen-name Dodgson had first used some nine years earlier - Lewis Carroll.

With the launch and immediately phenomenal success of 'Alice', the story of the author's life becomes effectively divided in two: the continuing story of Dodgson's real life and the evolving myth surrounding 'Lewis Carroll'.

Throughout his growing wealth and fame, Dodgson continued to teach at Christ Church until 1881, and he remained in residence there until his death. He published 'Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there' in 1872, and his last novel the two volume 'Sylvie and Bruno' in 1889 and 1893 respectively. He also published many mathematical papers under his own name and toured Russia and Europe in an extended visit (in 1867).

He never married, though there is evidence of at least one traumatic sexual relationship during the 1860s, and in later years, he enjoyed increasingly open and intimate friendships with numbers of women, married and single. He died, suddenly of violent pneumonia, on January 14 1898.

After his death, his invented name 'Lewis Carroll' quickly became the focus of a potent mythology. Despite the evidence of his slightly irregular private life, and his many unconventional and possibly sexual relationships with women, the man became legendary as a 'scholar-saint' who avoided the adult world; a 'perpetual child' who could only relate to children; a tragic deviant, whose lifelong passion for a child - Alice Liddell - fired his burning creativity.

Biographers wrote these things up as if they were fact, but they were never true in any real biographical sense. It seems rather as if 'Carroll' had ceased to be any kind of portrait of a real man and had become, instead, some sort of symbol for the human need to 'believe', and for nearly a century, until the most recent work began to be done, his life story as presented to the public has been dominated by a kind of aspirational fiction.

Looked at in this way, Richard Wallace's claim that Dodgson was Jack the Ripper is only an extreme expression of the existing trend. There is no evidence at all - anywhere - to support Wallace's claim. But then there is no evidence at all - anywhere - to support the story of Dodgson's marriage proposal to child-Alice - and that has never stopped anyone believing in it.

Wallace published his theory in 1996, in his book 'Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend'. It was, in brief that Dodgson and his Oxford colleague Thomas Vere Bayne, were both responsible for the Whitechapel murders. He based his belief on anagrams he constructed out of Dodgson's work, which he claimed were hidden confessions of the author's life of crime in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888.

The anagrams he presents in his book are not very good, in that they tend to make limited grammatical sense, and Wallace tends to cheat rather by simply leaving out or changing any letters he can't fit in.

For example he takes this passage from Dodgson's 'Nursery Alice':

'So she wondered away, through the wood, carrying the ugly little thing with her. And a great job it was to keep hold of it, it wriggled about so. But at last she found out that the proper way was to keep tight hold of itself foot and its right ear'.

and turns it into:

'She wriggled about so! But at last Dodgson and Bayne found a way to keep hold of the fat little whore. I got a tight hold of her and slit her throat, left ear to right. It was tough, wet, disgusting, too. So weary of it, they threw up - jack the Ripper.'

For anyone who knows Dodgson's work, and his mastery of all word-games, the idea that he could perpetrate a word-trick as messy as this is almost more unbelievable than the image of him hanging round Whitechapel with a big knife. The structure is barely literate, and Wallace has to substitute three letters (including a very important 'o' to 'i' in order to construct the word 'ripper') in order to make his 'anagram' work at all.

But beyond all such consideration, Wallace's theory is flawed by the fact that one could rearrange the words in any piece of writing anywhere and make half-connected sentences suggestive of just about anything. The very first sentence on the opening page of 'Winnie the Pooh', for example:

'Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now'

can be turned into

'Stab red red women! CR is downing whores - AA'

(Obviously the 'CR' is Christopher Robin, who is thus revealed as an infant psychopath).

In fact all Wallace really succeeds in demonstrating is that Dodgson used the same alphabet as everyone else in the western world, and that, therefore his words can be rearranged to make other words - including rather rude ones about ripping ladies open.

Outside his 'anagrams', Wallace presents no shred of proper evidence, primary or secondary, to lend support to his belief. He does try to find circumstantial links between Dodgson and the crimes, and isn't shy of putting forward the most attenuated of possibilities. He suggests for example, that the lines from Dodgson's nonsense poem 'The Mad Gardener's Song', 'He thought he saw an Argument/That proved he was the Pope' is a reference to Mitre Square (because Popes wear mitres).

More bafflingly, he asks at one point 'Is there a connection between the victim being murdered in Buck's Row, Dodgson's writings on 'sport', and the deerstalker hat seen in the area?'

To which the probable answer would seem to be - 'no'.

The other of Wallace's brace of theories about Dodgson is that this most entirely 'philogynic' of men, who spent his life collecting images of naked girls and women, was actually a closet homosexual.

He demonstrates this with anagrams too.

But it may be that Wallace has more in common with mainstream 'Carrollianism' than might at first be imagined.

Belief, imagination, even fantasy, have been the stuff of Carroll biography for most of its history. Wallace's image of Carroll as Jack is not all that much further removed from reality than Dennis Potter's 'Dreamchild'. Both are about imposed views disseminated in defiance of existing data.

Sociologically, then, Wallace's claim follows a well-marked tradition of Carroll as a hook to hang belief on, even if, historically and biographically, it is a non-starter.

Was Dodgson Jack the Ripper? Well, even after Wallace's anagrams, the Pope's mitre and the deerstalker hat, the general consensus has to be - probably not.

He was, however a mystery, quite a dark and deep one - still waiting to be solved.

Dodgson did mention the ripper in his private diary - just once, on 26 August 1891, when he records talking to "Dr. Dabbs" (an acquaintance of his on the Isle of Wight), about "his very ingenious theory about 'Jack the Ripper'". Though, being Dodgson, and one of the most contrary animals God ever made, he did not mention what that 'very ingenious theory' was.

Karoline Leach
Author of In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll.


Lewis Carroll
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Related pages:
  Lewis Carroll
       Dissertations: Jack Through the Looking-Glass (or Wallace in Wonderland) 
       Message Boards: Lewis Carroll 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide - Charles Lutwidge Dodgs... 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: Light-hearted Friend