A recent auction gave public and collectors a rare insight into Lewis Carroll’s private life as Charles Dodgson.
By Taissa Csaky
When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, Lewis Carroll became a household name. Of course there was no such person as Lewis Carroll: the name was an alias, intended to protect the identity of a retiring Christ Church maths lecturer called Charles Dodgson.
In March this year a number of letters and photographs connected with Charles Dodgson were included in a Bonhams sale in London. In one of the letters, written to a friend called Ann Symonds in 1891, Dodgson describes his distaste for fame, and specifically for autograph collectors adding his private letters to their albums:
“All that sort of publicity leads to strangers hearing of my real name in connection with the books, and to my being pointed out to, and stared at by strangers, and treated as a 'lion'. And I hate all that so intensely that sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all.”
Today the name Lewis Carroll continues to be better-known than Charles Dodgson, but for collectors Dodgson’s letters are objects of desire. That Symonds letter, for instance, was bought for £11,875 — substantially more than the estimate of £4,000.
Matthew Haley, head of the Bonhams book department, was surprised by the final price, but admits that it’s understandable. “The letter really ticked all the boxes,” he explained. “It was from an Oxford address, alludes to ‘Alice’, and gives an interesting insight into Dodgson’s psyche and how he tried to maintain separation between himself as Charles Dodgson and himself as Lewis Carroll.”
Dodgson’s long-standing connection with Ann Symonds and her family is illustrated by another item in the Bonhams sale: a photograph which sold for £5,250. The studio photograph shows a girl in a bathing costume, posed with a bucket against a painted backcloth of rolling waves. On the back of the photograph Dodgson wrote, “for Miss Symonds from CL Dodgson, a memento of the beach at Eastbourne in the summer of 1883”.
Miss Symonds is thought to be Ann Symonds’ daughter May. The girl in the photograph is probably Eleanor Howes, one of several daughters of friends whom Dodgson took to a commercial photography studio — William Kent’s of Eastbourne — during his annual summer holidays. “The photographs are always sought after,” explains Hays. “More so recently as people have become increasingly aware of Dodgson as a photographer.”
As photographer, writer and Oxford academic Charles Dodgson-Lewis Carroll had multiple identities. It was a source of frustration for him in his own lifetime, but a continuing source of fascination for the public and collectors today.