Some Charles Dodgson letters

We give below extracts from seven letters by Charles Dodgson. The first was written from Rugby school, the next five were written while he was studying at Christ College, Oxford where he began on 24 January 1851. The final extract is from a letter written when he was curator of the Senior Common Room at Christ Church in which he describes why he made certain decisions in his life. We have not indicated to whom the letters were written as it did not seem particularly relevant.

Letter 1.

From Rugby School (1849)

Yesterday evening I was walking out with a friend of mine who attends as mathematical pupil Mr [Raymond Brewster] Smythies the second mathematical master; we went up to Mr Smythies' house, as he wanted to speak to him, and he asked us to stop and have a glass of wine and some figs. He seems as devoted to his duty as Mr [Robert Bickersteth] Mayor, and asked me with a smile of delight, "Well Dodgson I suppose you're getting well on with your mathematics?" He is very clever at them, though not equal to Mr Mayor, as indeed few men are, Papa excepted. ... I have read the first number of Dickens' new tale, "Davy Copperfield." It purports to be his life, and begins with his birth and childhood; it seems a poor plot, but some of the characters and scenes are good. One of the persons that amused me was a Mrs Gummidge, a wretched melancholy person, who is always crying, happen what will, and whenever the fire smokes, or other trifling accident occurs, makes the remark with great bitterness, and many tears, that she is a "lone lorn creetur, and everything goes contrairy with her." I have not yet been able to get the second volume Macaulay's "England" to read. I have seen it however and one passage struck me when seven bishops had signed the invitation to the pretender, and King James sent for Bishop Compton (who was one of the seven) and asked him "whether he or any of his ecclesiastical brethren had anything to do with it?" He replied, after a moment's thought "I am fully persuaded your majesty, that there is not one of my brethren who is not as innocent in the matter as myself." This was certainly no actual lie, but certainly, as Macaulay says, it was very little different from one.

Letter 2.

6 March 1851

I am not so anxious as usual to begin my personal history, as the first thing I have to record is a very sad incident, namely my missing morning chapel; before however you condemn me, you must hear how accidental it was. For some days now I have been in the habit of - I will not say getting up, but of being called at 14\large\frac{1}{4}\normalsize past 6, and generally managing to be down soon after 7. In the present instance I had been up the night before till about 12\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize past 12, and consequently when I was called I fell asleep again, and was thunderstruck to find on waking that it was 10 minutes past 8. I have had no imposition, nor heard anything about it. It is rather vexatious to have happened so soon, as I had intended never to be late.

This afternoon I was sitting in my room when I heard a sudden shrieking of dogs, as if fighting: I rushed to the window, but the fight, if any, was over, having lasted for about the space of 3 seconds, and every thing and every body was flying from the scene of combat: six dogs went headlong down the steps, which lead into the quad, yelling at the very top of their voices; six sticks came flying after them, and after that came their six masters, all running their hardest, and all in different directions. For a little time none of the dogs knew which way to go, so they went darting about, tumbling over each other, screaming, and getting hit by the sticks, and their masters did the same only they screamed in a different manner: at last 3 dogs got away and ran straight home, screaming as they went, 2 others were hunted up and down the quad by their masters, I suppose with the intention of beating them, but were never sufficiently caught for that purpose, and the sixth went home with its master, but even it screamed all the way.

Letter 3.

5 July 1851

On Friday at 10 o'clock I went with Aunt Charlotte to the Exhibition [the Great Exhibition which opened on 1 May 1851], to be joined afterwards by Aunts Henrietta, Margaret, and Aunt Raikes. The building is within 10 minutes walk of Alfred Place, by means of some curious little short cuts through stable yards, etc.

I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is of bewilderment. It looks like a sort of fairyland. As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls. carpets, etc., with long avenues of statues, fountains, canopies, etc., etc., etc. The first thing to be seen on entering is the Crystal Fountain, a most elegant one about 30 feet high at a rough guess, composed entirely of glass and pouring down jets of water from basin to basin: this is in the middle of the centre nave and from it you can look down to either end, and up both transepts. The centre of the nave mostly consists of a long line of colossal statues, some most magnificent. The one considered the finest, I believe, is the Amazon and Tiger. She is sitting on horseback, and a tiger has fastened on the neck of the horse in front. You have to go to one side to see her face, and the other to see the horse's. The horse's face is really wonderful, expressing terror and pain so exactly, that you almost expect to hear it scream. She is leaning back to strike at the tiger with a spear, and her expression is of steady determination without the least fear. A pair of statues of a dog and child struck me as being exceedingly good. In one the child is being attacked by a serpent, and the dog standing over to defend it. The child is crying with fear, and making I think an exceedingly ugly face. In the other the dog has conquered: the body of the serpent is lying at one side, and the head, most thoroughly bitten off, at the other. The dog seems to have quite chewed the neck of the serpent to make sure. The child is leaning over and playing with the dog, which is really smiling with pleasure and satisfaction. Then there is an enormous one of Godfrey of Bouillon, with the horse a great deal larger than an elephant; however I cannot describe to you 1100\large\frac{1}{100}\normalsize of what I saw. The view down from the galleries is very striking. The different compartments on the ground floor are divided by carpets, shawls, etc., and you look down into one after another as you go along. There is a medieval compartment beautifully fitted up, and a suite of Austrian rooms, furnished, floored, etc., exactly as in Austria, the floors inlaid with different woods and very slippery, and the furniture wonderfully carved. There are some very ingenious pieces of mechanism. A tree (in the French Compartment) with birds chirping and hopping from branch to branch exactly like life. The bird jumps across, turns round on the other branch, so as to face back again, settles its head and neck, and then in a few moments jumps back again. A bird standing at the foot of the tree trying to eat a beetle is rather a failure (I am blotting dreadfully); the beetle is lying very conveniently before it, but it never succeeds in getting its head more than a quarter of an inch down. and that in uncomfortable little jerks, as if it was choking. I have to go to the Royal Academy so must stop: as the subject is quite inexhaustible, there is no hope of ever coming to a regular finish.

Letter 4.

9 December 1852

You shall have the announcement of the last piece of good fortune this wonderful term has had in store for me, that is, a 1st class in Mathematics. Whether I shall add to this any honours at collections I cannot at present say, but I should think it very unlikely, as I have only today to get up the work in The Acts of the Apostles, 2 Greek Plays, and the Satires of Horace and I feel myself almost totally unable to read at all: I am beginning to suffer from the reaction of reading for Moderations.

I heard this morning from Uncle Skeffington, telling me that he should expect me on Friday, to stay till Tuesday or Wednesday, when I am to migrate to Putney. It will be a most delightful trip for me, if only considered as an interval of rest. You will have very little of my company this Xmas, as we return on the 15th of January.

I am getting quite tired of being congratulated on various subjects: there seems to be no end of it. If I had shot the Dean, I could hardly have had more said about it.

Letter 5.

13 December 1854.

Enclosed you will find a list, which I expect you to rejoice over considerably: it will take me more than a day to believe it, I expect - I feel at present very like a child with a new toy, but I daresay I shall be tired of it soon, and wish to be Pope of Rome next. Those in the list who were of the Whitby party [see note] are, Fowler, Ranken, Almond, and Wingfield. I have just given my Scout a bottle of wine to drink to my First. We shall be made Bachelors on Monday: I think I may be able to come home on the Tuesday, but I am not sure yet, and will write again about it. If you have not yet sent the London order will you get 'The Life of R Haydon' for me? That is, unless it happens to be in the Ripon Library. I hope that Papa did not conclude it was a 2nd by not hearing on Wednesday morning. I have just been to Mr Price to see how I did in the papers, and the result will I hope be gratifying to you. The following were the sums total of the marks for each in the 1st class, as nearly as I can remember:
Dodgson ....... 279
Bosanquet ...... 261
Cookson ........ 254
Fowler ........... 225
Ranken ........... 213
He also said he never remembered so good a set of men in. All this is very satisfactory. I must also add (this is a very boastful letter) that I ought to get the Senior Scholarship next term. Bosanquet will not try, as he is leaving Oxford, and the only man, besides the present First, to try, is one who got a 2nd last time. One thing more I will add, to crown all, and that is - I find I am the next 1st class Mathematics student to Faussett (with the exception of Kitchin, who has given up Mathematics) so that I stand next (as Bosanquet is going to leave) for the Lectureship. And now I think that is enough news for one post.

Note. Several students, including Dodgson, spent the summer vacation at Whitby studying mathematics with Professor Bartholomew Price.

Letter 6.

31 January 1855

One pupil has begun his work with me, and I will give you a description how the lecture is conducted. It is the most important point, you know, that the tutor should be dignified and at a distance from the pupil, and that the pupil should be as much as possible degraded - otherwise you know, they are not humble enough. So I sit at the further end of the room; outside the door (which is shut) sits the scout; outside the outer door (also shut) sits the sub-scout: half-way downstairs sits the sub-sub-scout; and down in the yard sits the pupil.

The questions are shouted from one to the other, and the answers come back in the same way - it is rather confusing till you are well used to it. The lecture goes on something like this.
Tutor. "What is twice three?"
Scout. "What's a rice tree?"
Sub-Scout. "When is ice free?"
Sub-sub-Scout. "What's a nice fee?"
Pupil (timidly). "Half a guinea!"
Sub-sub-Scout. "Can't forge any!"
Sub-Scout. "Ho for Jinny!"
Scout. "Don't be a ninny!"
Tutor (looks offended, but tries another question). "Divide a hundred by twelve!"
Scout. "Provide wonderful bells!"
Sub-Scout. "Go ride under it yourself!"
Sub-sub-Scout. "Deride the dunder-headed elf!"
Pupil (surprised). "Who do you mean?"
Sub-sub-Scout. "Doings between!"
Sub-Scout. "Blue is the screen!"
Scout. "Soup-tureen!"
And so the lecture proceeds. Such is Life.

Letter 7.

10 September 1885

I am puzzled by your phrase "my university career." I didn't know you were going to be a member of a University, but thought it was some Theological College you were trying for.

Meanwhile, I will tell you a few facts about myself, which may be useful to you. When I was about 19, the Studentships at Christ Church were in the gift of the Dean and Chapter - each Canon having a turn: and Dr Pusey, having a turn, sent for me, and told me he would like to nominate me, but had made a rule to nominate only those who were going to take Holy Orders. I told him that was my intention. and he nominated me. That was a sort of "condition," no doubt: but I am quite sure, if I had told him, when the time came to be ordained, that I had changed my mind, he would not have considered it as in any way a breach of contract.

When I reached the age for taking Deacon's Orders, I found myself established as the Mathematical Lecturer, and with no sort of inclination to give it up and take parochial work: and I had grave doubts whether it would not be my duty not to take Orders. I took advice on this point (Bishop Wilberforce was one that I applied to), and came to the conclusion that, so far from educational work (even Mathematics) being unfit occupation for a clergyman, it was distinctly a good thing that many of our educators should be men in Holy Orders.

And a further doubt occurred. I could not feel sure that I should ever wish to take Priest's, Orders. And I asked Dr Liddon [see note] whether he thought I should be justified in taking Deacon's Orders as a sort of experiment, which would enable me to try how the occupations of a clergyman suited me, and then decide whether I would take full Orders. He said "most certainly" - and that a Deacon is in a totally different position from a Priest: and much more free to regard himself as practically a layman. So I took Deacon's Orders in that spirit. And now, for several reasons, I have given up all idea of taking full Orders, and regard myself (though occasionally doing small clerical acts, such as helping at the Holy Communion) as practically a layman.

Note. Henry Parry Liddon was one of Dodgson's close associates and friends at Christ Church. They travelled together to France. Germany, and Russia on the only journey Dodgson made abroad. A brilliant preacher, Liddon went on to be Canon and Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

Last Updated January 2021