Michael Dirda reviews the biography "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll," by Jenny Woolf

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 21, 2010; BW02


Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland

By Jenny Woolf

St. Martin's.

326 pp. $27.99

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was nearly titled "Alice's Hour in Elfland" and its author -- a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford -- almost called himself Edgar U.C. Westhill. It's hard to decide which of these would have been worse. Once she tumbles down the rabbit-hole, Alice encounters many strange creatures and, according to the sinister Cheshire Cat, all of them are "mad," but none of them are elves. Happily, too, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson rejected that stodgy anagram and instead Latinized Charles to Carolus and Lutwidge to Louis, then fiddled a bit to produce the now immortal penname: Lewis Carroll.

"Alice in Wonderland" (1865), as it is commonly abbreviated, and its darker, even more brilliant sequel, "Through the Looking Glass" (1871), are the two most translated works of English literature after the plays of Shakespeare. And well they should be. By avoiding didacticism and sentimentality, these playful, dreamlike books inaugurated modern children's literature. As readers the world over know, they are charming and fantastical, a bit frightening in places and, most of all, deeply enigmatic. Are they pure nonsense? Satires of Victorian eminences? A child's-eye view of grown-up behavior? Or Freudian displacements of their author's troubled sexuality?

More than anything else, though, Lewis Carroll's masterpieces are concerned with logic and language, with the overall slipperiness of words and the instability of their meanings. "Important -- unimportant -- important -- unimportant," murmurs the King of Hearts at Alice's trial, "as if he were trying which word sounded best." To know "Alice in Wonderland" only as a Disney cartoon or through the Gothic vision of Tim Burton -- as appealing as each is, in its own way -- is to allow visual spectacle to overwhelm much of the semantic complexity and verbal deliciousness of the books themselves.

That said, when people argue about the meaning of the two Alice fantasies, they eventually come back to "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll," to borrow the title of Jenny Woolf's engaging biography. That mystery mainly involves sex. The celibate Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was extremely fond of little girls, his so-called "child-friends." He wrote witty letters to them, entertained them in his rooms with games and mechanical toys, rowed with them on the Isis River, took their photographs. In fact, he became 19th-century England's greatest photographer of children. As such, he would sometimes -- but only after first patiently winning their mother's consent -- pose 6- or 8-year-olds naked. Four such pictures survive.

No reputable scholar has suggested that Dodgson was an active pedophile or sexual predator. Indeed, he was vigilant in living up to the strictest moral standards and scrupulous in protecting the reputation of his child-friends, all of whom revered his memory as grown women. Still, he was instinctively shy and often uncomfortable among adults, in part because he suffered from a stammer and was deaf in one ear, and he generally kept his private life private. After his death, his heirs destroyed many of his papers and notebooks, thus increasing the suspicion that there were things to hide.

Like what? You pays your money and you takes your choice. Biographer Morton N. Cohen believes that the lost documents would show that the ultra-sensitive Dodgson was simply troubled by the usual sexual dreams and "sinful" impulses of youth. Karoline Leach argues, in her controversial "In the Shadow of the Dreamchild" (1999), that Dodgson engaged in an adulterous affair with the mother of Alice Liddell, the little girl to whom he first recounted the stories of Wonderland. More traditional scholars speculate that Dodgson might have asked to marry Alice Liddell when she was older, leading her protective parents to close their door to him. In the evocative film "Dreamchild," playwright Dennis Potter shows us an Alice who was in love with Dodgson.

From examining some early poems, Woolf concludes that the young Dodgson might have been involved with a woman, possibly married (though probably not Alice's mother), and that the affair ended badly. She also suspects -- from a close reading of some letters written in old age -- that Alice's older sister, Lorina, provided the real reason for the break with the Liddells. Lorina, who was tall, well developed and could pass as an adult at age 14, may have grown seriously infatuated with the youthful-looking don in his late 20s. Once he was aware of this awkward situation, the honorable (and apparently uninterested) Dodgson stayed away from the Liddells, and everyone kept quiet about the reason.

That's Woolf's guess, of course. But she makes a reasonable case for it, given what evidence remains, which is admittedly paltry. Throughout "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll," she always makes scrupulously clear what is fact and what is speculation. As a Lewis Carroll scholar, she has been hitherto best known for discovering and analyzing the writer's bank statements, which plainly lay out just how generous Dodgson was in assigning much of his income -- surprisingly modest, even after the success of the Alice books -- to charitable organizations, many for the succor of distressed women and wayward girls.

In "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll" Woolf eschews the minutiae and factual richness of Cohen's magisterial biography of 1995. Her aim is to present a convincing portrait, and she writes with affection as well as admiration for the man revealed by her research. Above all, she urges modern readers to remember that Victorian mores differed radically from our own. People were deeply sentimental about angelic little girls -- think of Dickens's Little Nell -- and classic virtues such as chastity, strict self-control and a concern with salvation were honored rather than thought unhealthy or embarrassing.

To avoid a tightly chronological straitjacket, Woolf organizes her chapters thematically, each of them addressing some important aspect of Dodgson as man and writer: his childhood and family (he had 10 siblings), life at Oxford, his religious convictions and fascination with the supernatural (he was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research), his poetry and storytelling, and so forth. She sensibly passes quickly over his mathematical investigations, but I would have welcomed a few more pages on that tantalizing long poem "The Hunting of the Snark" and the late fantasy "Sylvie and Bruno," a two-volume hodgepodge of fairy romance, poetry, philosophical reflection, tedium, saccharine cutesiness and a bizarre experimentalism involving three levels of reality. So far as I can tell, only the French seem to like the book, but everything about it, except for Bruno's twee baby talk, sounds appealingly modern, not to say -- dread word -- postmodern.

Dodgson grew ever more fussy and puritanical as he aged, but he never lost his passion for games, for the theater and for the child-friends who allowed him to express love without the complications of sex. That love also led to the creation of the Mad Hatter and the Jabberwock, to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Snark (who was a Boojum) and to my own favorite, the Red King, who apparently dreams our world into existence. Happily, his dream-world includes not only you and me, but also the beloved masterpieces of Lewis Carroll.

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