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Taking account of Carroll

By Jenny Woolf (website)

The author of Alice in Wonderland loved quizzes and riddles. Now Lewis Carroll's bank accounts - and his financial chaos - are providing a puzzle for researchers. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland was a mysterious man. Charles Dodgson, to give him his correct name, was an Oxford mathematics don and a bachelor, he lived all his life in Christ Church College, Oxford. His large family was rather secretive and censored his diaries and other private papers, and very little personal uncensored information exists about him. So the discovery of his long-forgotten private bank account, containing intriguing new information, is an exciting matter. Here at last in black and white are simple undeniable facts about his life.

The account's survival is a huge stroke of luck. Long runs of old bank records don't usually survive closures and takeovers, and Carroll had died in 1898. But his bank, Parsons Thomson, (also known as "Oxford Old Bank") became a Barclays, and perhaps some canny executive there had foreseen the public interest there would be. One of the first surprises in the account is that Carroll was not the hard-headed businessman that his biographers have always assumed. His correspondence with his publishers, Macmillan, is often quoted as an example of his astuteness.

Debt march

"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..."

Carroll then began fixing the sale prices of his books himself to secure a larger profit, to the fury of his book trade colleagues, and earned himself a reputation as a financial wizard. Behind the scenes at Old Bank, though, it was a different story. Carroll is known to have enjoyed  arguments, and may have enjoyed winning against the system. His account actually reflected a generous, easy-going character who apparently hardly noticed how much money he had. He was in overdraft by his eighth transaction, and drifted in and out of the red for the rest of his life. His £148 overdraft in June 1863 was the approximate equivalent of £7,500 now, and that was fairly typical. He usually paid off his debts when his salary came in, but he wasn't interested in becoming rich. In fact, he quit his unloved maths lecturing job when he was about 50, after realising "Alice" could support him as well as the job could. Around that time, though, there was a startling change in his financial circumstances. Perhaps suffering from a spell of early-retirement blues, he'd agreed to become curator of Christ Church common room, something he confessed to his diary that he didn't anticipate with pleasure, 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".

Cash chaos

He then embarked on some weirdly pernickety correspondence all about his new post. It drove his colleagues mad, and the closely-written carbon copies (still to be seen in Christ Church archives) do have an uncharacteristically frantic air to them. At around the same time, hidden away in Parsons Thomson, his own finances, by startling contrast, were unravelling into a state of chaos. Between 25 September 1883 and 22 January 1885, he was constantly overdrawn, and not for small sums. His overdraft rose to more than £660 in January 1884, a sum which would then have bought a sizeable house. Was he having a mid-life crisis? What was he spending it on? The account shows he was giving huge sums to someone he had met on holiday and didn't much like - a Mr Dymes.  Several bits of correspondence relating to this matter exist in the LSE's archives. They show Dymes as a dull and Dickensian character, whining about his own misfortunes and his wife's never-materialising financial "expectations". Carroll both gave and loaned him money (which Dymes never repaid), solicited help from others on Dymes's behalf and also paid off Dymes's landlord to stop him seizing the family's furniture.

Financial recklessness

Carroll's diaries suggest he liked being with Dymes's large family - as one of 11 children himself, he loved the hustle and bustle of family life - but he had plenty of other friends with large families and didn't specially need the Dymeses. He helped some of Dymes's older daughters get work, and took them to the theatre, but never seemed to find them particularly interesting as people. It is possible to imagine other motivations. But the simplest explanation seems to be that he was a very generous man, who was careless, even reckless with his money. But the bank accounts do more than give us new information. They also cast a new light on other sources. His letters and diaries mention that he was helping Dymes, but they don't even hint at the great financial difficulties this plunged him into. A century was to pass before the account would reveal the truth. This puts the whole study of Lewis Carroll into a new perspective. It shows that his letters and diaries can't be relied upon quite as before. If he's left out important things like this, mightn't he also have left out other important things? It's a mystery to which we may never know the answer. As a lover of puzzles, reflections and riddles, Carroll would probably have enjoyed the idea of that.

The Mystery Of Lewis Carroll was broadcast on Tuesday 19 December and is available at Radio 4's Listen again page.

Jenny Woolf is the author of Lewis Carroll In His Own Account.

Jenny Woolf: www.jabberwock.co.uk
 

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/magazine/6192829.stm

Published: 2006/12/19 11:06:42 GMT

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