By Chris Evers
In August 1868, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, took a lease on a house called ‘The Chestnuts’ in Guildford, close by the town’s castle. His seven sisters were about to be made homeless. Their father, the Rector of Croft-on-Tees in Yorkshire, had died, and Croft Rectory, which the Dodgson family had lived in for twenty five years (the National Portrait Gallery has a photograph of the family in front of the house), went with the job.
So Fanny, Elizabeth, Caroline, Mary, Louisa, Margaret, Henrietta, as well as Aunt Lucy, their mother’s sister, who’d moved in with them after Mrs Dodgson’’s death in 1851, needed a new home. The sisters had always lived in the north of England. Why Guildford? Why didn’t they move to Oxford, where Charles lived and made his living? Apart from the convenience of living close to their brother, if marriage was an ambition of any of the sisters, then they might have met potential husbands in his circle of Oxford friends (albeit, not among his Christ Church colleagues, who were forbidden to marry). In her book, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Anne Clark speculates that perhaps Charles ‘felt that close proximity might have ruptured the sense of privacy and personal freedom that he had come to value so much’. I think there might be something in that. But in any case, the University had little to do with women at that time. It’s not hard to imagine the spluttering that might have occurred if Charles had invited the eight women for tea at his rooms.
So Guildford it was. The following year Mary married the Reverend Charles Collingwood and moved out. Charles visited The Chestnuts regularly and stayed for lengthy periods during the academic holidays. He worked on Through the Looking-Glass during his stays, and this work is commemorated in Jeanne Argent’s sculpture in the Castle Grounds, at the back of the house. And while walking in the hills near Guildford he was visited with the line ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see’. That moment led eventually to the composition of the long, beautifully weird poem, The Hunting of the Snark, of which that sentence is the concluding line. ‘I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now,’ Charles wrote years later.
In December 1897 Charles came to the Chestnuts as usual for the Christmas holidays. In January 1898 he became ill with the flu, which led to pneumonia. He died on the 14th of January, aged 65, and was buried in Guildford’s Mount Cemetery.
None of the sisters apart from Mary ever married. I’ve been told that some of them are also buried in the Mount, but when I went to check this at the Guildford Museum (which, incidentally, has several Dodgson family items on display) the staff were fully occupied with schoolchildren. Up at the Mount Cemetery, Charles’ grave is signposted, and so too is Aunt Lucy’s. I couldn’t find any traces of the sisters but many of the stones and plots are decrepit. I wonder how their lives were after Charles died, and if they lived out the rest of their days in the Chestnuts, and whether Alice Liddell’s sons ever visited them to ask about the man who immortalised their mother.
Ever drifting down the stream-
Lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is it but a dream?
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)
Images (top to bottom): The Chestnuts, Guildford, Surrey; Through the Looking-Glass sculpture; Grave of Lucy Lutwidge, Mount Cemetery; Grave of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Mount Cemetery. All images © Chris Evers 2014.