[The following material is based on the author's book Lewis Carroll in His Own Account published by Jabberwock Press, London. ISBN 0954941608. Readers might wish to look at her website, which also contains Ms. Woolf's Lewis Carroll blog.]
iography has always been a somewhat imprecise art, and this is particularly true in the case of Rev. C.L. Dodgson. Many people suspect that "Lewis Carroll" was not quite as he seemed. His famous "Alice" was, and still is, memorable and unique, yet her creator was thought to be hopelessly bland. He shunned all personal publicity, and not one of his seven sisters, three brothers, or countless cousins, aunts and uncles, ever discussed him with outsiders. His many surviving letters can be lively, even charming, but these give few insights into his private life. Documents that might, perhaps, be more revealing, have been carefully vetted — in some cases mutilated — by family members.
The result has been that biographies of Dodgson tend to be confusing and inconsistent, endeavouring to squash the reverend Oxford don into a straitjacket of what the biographers suppose to be the true facts about his life — even though these facts may rest on a censored and incomplete basis.
However, for over a hundred years there has been, hidden in an archive, another, and totally uncensored source of information about C.L. Dodgson. It is his personal bank account. Unread and forgotten for over 100 years, it contains information which is entirely new to scholars. Now transcribed and interpreted for the first time, it is the only major uncensored Dodgson document known to exist, and it has offered some intriguing insights into his life — as well as raising more questions about it.
Dodgson banked with Parsons Thomson (also known as "Old Bank") at 92 High Street Oxford. After being taken over, Parsons Thomson eventually became a branch of the giant Barclays Bank. Its records ended up in Barclay's group archive centre near Manchester, a veritable Aladdin's cave of financial history, containing material ranging from vintage computer terminals to eighteenth-century overdraft requests.
At first, the mass of figures and names contained between the crumbling covers of the giant ledgers appears overwhelming and hard to interpret. But as they gradually link with letters, diaries and other records, a slice of Dodgson's life begins to emerge with another dimension added to certain already-known facts. More excitingly, there is also entirely new information to be discovered, some of it startling. For the first time, we are seeing a side of him which has not been shown to the public.
Dodgson's reputation has always been that of a fussy obsessive, picking at detail in a way which could send others frantic. As the actress Isa Bowman recalled, Dodgson before a railway journey would "exactly calculate the amount of money that must be spent, and, in different partitions of the two purses that he carried, arrange the various sums that would be necessary for cabs, porters, newspapers, refreshments and the other expenses of a journey. . ."
Then there was his correspondence with Macmillan's, beginning in 1875, after he'd analysed the "Alice" accounts. "On every thousand copies sold" he complained, "your profit is £20.16s 8d, mine is £56.5s 0d, and the bookseller's £70.16s.8d. This seems to me altogether unfair . . ." After bombarding Macmillan with letters, Dodgson finally began fixing the sale prices of his books himself in order to secure a larger profit, thereby earning himself the deep enmity of all booksellers, and enhancing his reputation for financial sharpness.
Behind the scenes at Parsons Thomson's, though, it was a different story. When he didn't have a battle to fight, or an elaborate and interesting plan involving railway journeys, Dodgson couldn't be bothered to notice how much was in his account from month to month, let alone consider the odd ten, twenty — or fifty, or a hundred — pounds. He began running into overdraft almost from the start.
By the eighth transaction, his bank account was in the red, and subsequently slid in and out of overdraft in a way which certainly wasn't customary amongst the good citizens of Oxford.
Using a rough rule of fifty modern pounds equalling one Victorian pound, Dodgson's £148 overdraft in June 1863 was the approximate equivalent of £7,500 now, and that was fairly typical. For many years, these overdrafts were sufficiently low to be paid off as soon as he received his half-yearly pay from Christ Church. After "Alice" began producing income, the annual revenues, which quickly reached several hundred pounds a year, also helped his solvency.
This suddenly changed, though, in the early 1880s, when Dodgson was around fifty. Perhaps he was more unsettled than he'd expected to be after quitting his unloved lecturing job — and the income that went with it. He had felt pressed to take on the post of Curator of Christ Church Common Room, confessing in his diary that he did it "with no light heart . . . [but] It will take me out of myself a little, and so may be a real good. My life was tending to become too much that of a selfish recluse."
A glance at the carbon copies of his Common Room correspondence suggests a mind that was far from easy. The content of his Common Room letters is excruciatingly pernickety, in extraordinary contrast to the lack of precision in his own financial affairs. Between 25th September 1883 and 22nd January 1885, he was constantly overdrawn, and not for small sums. His overdraft rose to over £666 in January 1884, a sum which would (if only it had been a credit) bought a sizeable house at the time. Even his entire annual income from Macmillan was not able to pay it off, and the only possible strategy was to reduce it to manageable proportions. This is what he did, although it is clear from the annotations on the ledger that the bank had to write to him about it, and the interest payable was substantial.
None of the surviving diaries or correspondence even hint at this serious financial crisis, let alone suggest what Dodgson might have thought about it. This must raise serious questions about how much those documents can be relied upon as a source of information about other aspects of his life. Perhaps their silence on major matters is partly to blame for the popular idea that Lewis Carroll is supposed to have lived such an extraordinarily boring life!
Last modified 8 August 2008