“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Charles Dodgson or Lewis Carroll, as he was to become known, was born to Charles Dodgson and Frances Jane Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832. His family was predominantly northern English, with Irish connections, Conservative, Anglican, High Church, upper middle class, and inclining towards the two good old upper middle class professions of the army and the Church. His great-grandfather, also Charles Dodgson, had risen through the ranks of the church to become a bishop; his grandfather, another Charles, had been an army captain, killed most romantically in action in 1803. The boy’s father, yet another Charles, reverted to the other family business and took holy orders. Although once considered to be headed for a brilliant career, in 1827, he married his cousin and retired into obscurity as a country parson.
The youngest Charles was born in the little parsonage of Daresbury in Cheshire, the first boy but third child in his parent’s four-and-a-half year marriage. Eight more were to follow and, incredibly for the time, all of them — seven girls and four boys — survived into adulthood. When Charles was 11 his father was transferred to the Croft-on-Tees in north Yorkshire, and the whole family moved to the spacious Rectory. This would remain their home for the next 25 years. Dodgson senior made some progress through the ranks of the church, becoming in time an archdeacon. He was High Church, inclining to Anglo-Catholicism and did his best to instil such views in his children.
Charles grew out of infancy into a bright, articulate boy and in the early years he was educated at home. His “reading lists” preserved in the family, testify to a precocious intellect: at the age of seven the child was reading The Pilgrim’s Progress. At twelve he was sent away to a small private school at nearby Richmond, where he appears to have been happy and settled. In 1845, young Dodgson moved on to Rugby School, where he was evidently less happy, for as he wrote some years after leaving the place.
I cannot say … that any earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again … I can honestly say that if I could have been … secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.
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 and in January of 1851 he entered Oxford. He had only been there two days however, when he received a summons home. His mother had died of “Inflammation of the Brain” — perhaps meningitis or a stroke — at the age of forty-seven. Whatever Dodgson’s feelings may have been about this death, he did not allow them to distract him too much from his purpose at Oxford. He may not always have worked hard, but he was exceptionally gifted and achievement came easily to him.