17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

Amanda examines Carroll’s time in Guildford.

“I am very glad that my little book has proved so acceptable to yourself and your children. Giving it away to my little friends is a cheap luxury in which I frequently indulge as they are a numerous tribe; in fact.. I find that they become friends on short acquaintance, though few with whom it has been so short (about 30 minutes I think!) as in the present case…”

“I am very glad that my little book has proved so acceptable to yourself and your children.”
Lewis Carroll

So Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (an amalgam of his own name) wrote to a new acquaintance-formed on a brief railway journey- in the late summer of 1868 about his gift of a copy of the immortal Alice in Wonderland.

It was just two months since “the greatest blow that has ever fallen on my life,” the sudden death of his father the Reverend Dodgson in June. In his mid thirties, the oldest from amongst a family of eleven children, it was Charles’ responsibility (since his mother’s death in 1851) to look after his siblings and a move south from Yorkshire was chosen, “our ideas for a home seem inclining to the neighbourhood of Guildford,” as his diary records.

Whether to capitalise on proximity to Carroll’s home at Christ Church, Oxford – where he was a Maths don- or the town’s easy access to capital and coast isn’t documented, but, in characteristically decisive fashion Carroll begun perusing the area by mid August. “I found two houses which would suit very well: one, the Chestnuts, is close to Guildford with a splendid view.'”After attending a local church service at St Mary’s and discussing with the vicar the possibility of a curacy for his brother Skeffington, Carroll stayed in the area, returning soon after with members of his family. “I went with Fanny and aunt Lucy to Guildford and spent most of the day at the Chestnuts with which they were so well pleased that they did not visit any of the other houses.” By late autumn the whole family was ensconced in the elegant four storey house that had been built in 1862 close to Castle Arch, initially paying a rent of £73 per annum.

Over the next thirty years Carroll would spend much time in Guildford, popping over from Oxford whenever free of teaching commitments, regularly enjoying summer and Easter breaks there; he rarely missed a Christmas in the company of his sisters. The Dodgsons were a large family, the house often full to overflowing and on occasion Carroll would have to stay at a nearby inn- his favourite being the White Lion. Guildford days followed a familiar pattern : work in the mornings then walks combined with social calls. There was also photography. “Lately I have taken some capital photographs at Guildford,” Carroll enthused in 1869, his great skill behind the camera earning him the distinction of acclaim as the best child photographer of his age. 1869 also witnessed the marriage of his sister Mary at St Mary’s; a day recalled as ” exceptionally lovely.” Having taken orders as a deacon, the tall, slender Carroll would occasionally preach at the church and- like his sisters- was active in the local community, spending much time in the 1890s lecturing local children.

He’d written and drawn since childhood, getting his first work published in the 1850s but, a decade later, it was the publication of Alice, originally known as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground that cemented his reputation. Remembering its evolution, Carroll harked back to a beautiful summer’s day in 1862 when he and the young Liddell sisters were enjoying a picnic on the river. Countless fairytales had been told ” yet none.. got written down until a day when one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out..I distinctly remember how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit hole..without the least idea what was to happen afterwards..”

What happened was a publishing phenomenon that remains in print to this day. Alice heralded an entirely new voice in children’s fiction, one that neither preached or patronised but which adopted a conspiratorial air that made its listeners feel understood; the nonsense world it depicted one the witty Carroll inhabited with absolute ease. Poet Christina Rossetti spoke for the majority when she said “it would give me sincere pleasure to fall in with that conversational rabbit, that endearing puppy, that sparkling dormouse;” acclaim was unanimous and the germ of a sequel was already in place although it took years to realise, the book’s illustrator John Tenniel long unavailable.

In 1869 Carroll writes from Guildford that he’s “sent off to Macmillan the first chapter of Behind the Looking Glass,” but it’s not until early 1871, also from the Chestnuts, that he confides to his diary “finished the MS of Through the Looking Glass… The volume has cost me more trouble than the first and ought to be equal to it in every way.’ By January 1872 a delighted Carroll says with more satisfaction, “my birthday was signalled by hearing that they have now sold 15,000 looking-glasses and have orders for more..”

With a superb imagination and natural affinity for children Carroll was a born storyteller. Alice Liddell, the original ‘Alice’, remembered a man who had an “endless store of fantastical tales which he made up as he told them.. slowly enunciated in his quiet voice with its curious stutter;” another “child friend”, Edith Litton, recalling that “it was his sweet smile and face that endeared him so much to his youthful friends, his never failing interest in their childlike joys and sorrows.”

Carroll’s warm-hearted nature extended well beyond his fiction. Though often portrayed in unrealistically saintly terms, he seems to have possessed a genius for friendship, striking up enduring connections with many a family on board train or taking friends walking across the Downs over to Albury and Dorking or across to Farnham. In 1874 he spent weeks nursing his godson Charlie Wilcox before the boy sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. During this period, out rambling in Guildford, a curious notion first occurred to him. “I was walking on a hillside alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse: for the Snark was a Boojum you see.” From this casual idea evolved nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark eighteen months later.

Carroll’s demise was sudden and unexpected. Back in Guildford for the Christmas holidays he was startled by the news that Mary’s husband Reverend Collingwood had died, a bronchial cold preventing Carroll journeying north to comfort her although he immediately wired funds to her aid. On 13 January 1898 he reportedly said ‘take away those pillows, I shall need them no more’ and died the very next day, just weeks short of his sixty-sixth birthday. Requesting a funeral ‘simple and inexpensive’ with mourners climbing the steep hill to the Mount Cemetery Carroll was buried in the shadow of a pine tree, his grave marking the passing of a remarkably gifted man. In Through the Looking Glass Alice ponders that “the question is.. whether you can make words mean so many different things.” The answer is that in the hands of the magical Lewis Carroll anything was possible.

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