["'Lewis Carroll': A Myth in the Making" has been adapted with permission of author and publisher from the opening chapter of Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild (London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1999). E-mail: Aowen@peterowen.u-net.com. British Reviews of the book.]
he Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll was published in December 1898. It was the first, and the official Life, written by his own nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood. It was to remain the only full biography for some thirty-four years.
Stuart Collingwood was the son of Dodgson's younger sister Mary. He attended Christ Church as an undergraduate and certainly saw a reasonable amount of his uncle at that time and after. In writing his biography he had access to all the private papers and all thirteen volumes of Dodgson's private diary, begun in 1853, and kept regularly until his death. All this ought to have made his book an unimpeachable first authority. The reality is rather different.
The Dodgsons were an intensely reticent family, even set against an age of reticence. They clearly saw it as their duty to protect their famous relative from too much public enquiry. Collingwood had some literary aspirations, but a turgid prose style. He was probably also to an extent controlled by his watchful aunts — all six of them — devout, Christian ladies, careful for their late brother's reputation. That the book thus produced was bland, superficial and laudatory can therefore be considered no great surprise. It was also about giving the public the Lewis Carroll they wanted; it might be bland, but it also strove to be popular. This was after all Collingwood's big break. He had nurtured literary aspirations for some time, and this was his chance to establish himself in the world of letters. We can be sure that he wanted it to be a success.
All these considerations meant that there was no incentive to dig around for feet of clay, or even for too much hard fact. Attractive anecdote strung together with eulogy would do well enough. And that is what the Life and Letters gave the book-buying public of Christmas 1898.
In all its 400 and more pages there was very little of what could be termed biography, in the modern understanding of the word. Readers were told about the child Charles Dodgson making a toy train in the garden of his father's Rectory, and performing magic tricks, wearing an old dressing gown and a wig. Charming anecdote and informative in its way, but a long way from exhaustive analysis. The book passed over Dodgson's adolescence in three lines, only assuring its readership that it was marked by a "calm dignity which saved him from [the usual] absurdities". As to Carroll the man, it was affirmed, in line with popular expectation, that he lived the life of a near-saint; always calm, Godly, uncomplaining and charitable; "no outward circumstance could upset the tranquillity of his mind", because he "resembled the Stoic philosophers".
Unfailingly moral, avoiding all coarseness and impiety, he "always rose at the same early hour" and was "very abstemious always", taking nothing for lunch "but a glass of wine and a biscuit". Collingwood sweetened this spartan portrait with a light dusting of personal eccentricity. Thus there was Lewis Carroll as "the most precise and exact of old bachelors" — who never wore an overcoat, whatever the weather, who "professed an aversion [to boys] amounting almost to terror", made a rule of "never accepting invitations out to dine" and "always" wore a tall hat. (46, 109, 265-71, 335, 389-90).
This last is a good example of how our imagery tends to do as it's told. Dodgson may well "always" have worn a tall hat, a large number of gentlemen of his class and time did the same. But this almost universal habit of Victorian gentry, adopted by everyone from Wilde to Gladstone, is here made to do service as a badge of some indefinable fustiness, as if it was an axiom of Dodgson's character that he would "always" wear a tall hat, even in bed, even in the bath, even, presumably, if he had been born a century later, in Brixton.
But Collingwood's most significant and long-term contribution to Carrollian studies must be his two chapters on the "child-friends". Gathered in pride of place and a froth of petticoats at the end of the book, the last seventy-two pages were entirely devoted to Dodgson's various relationships with them. And when we contrast this with Collingwood's complete failure to develop any other aspect of Dodgson's social life beyond a cursory outline (his long-standing friendships with Rossetti, Millais, Arthur Hughes and other leading artists of the day were summed up in a single paragraph on page 102), it becomes apparent that Collingwood's first objective here is less likely to be the illumination of his uncle's heart and soul and more likely to be the creation of an image. "Lewis Carroll" was already seen as belonging to the little ones. His legend had already been expressed exclusively in such terms while Dodgson still lived; indeed Dodgson himself had helped perpetuate this image, by his own conscious adoption of the Carroll-image: it was the aspect of his life that Victorian people, in the grip of their societal obsessions about child-nature, most wanted to be told about. In devoting a sixth of his book to the subject Collingwood was feeding an existing appetite, and the extent to which he was writing for an audience can be seen in the care he took to ensure his story of the "child-friends" accorded with the public expectation rather than the private facts.
His fulsome, rather sentimental style in these chapters is in sharp contrast to the rest of the book. He enthused over what he considered the beauty and purity of these associations, describing them as "that most beautiful side of Lewis Carroll's nature". He quoted extensively from gentle, jokey, affectionate letters to many different girls.
What he did not do was give any definite idea of how old any of these "children" might have been. But the general tenor of his commentary gave the impression that they were mostly very young. In fact at one point he specifically stated that "in a large proportion of cases, the [child-friendships] ended with the end of childhood". He quoted a single exception to this, the association with one Kathleen Eschwege, which he described as "the sort of friendship [i.e. with a mature woman] he always longed for and so often failed to secure". The implication was clear — adult female friendships formed almost no part of the life of this self-denying bachelor. (360, 367, 413).
This was a frank misrepresentation, and we cannot doubt that Collingwood was fully aware of this. Dodgson's women friends had been a source of gossip in Oxford for thirty years. Collingwood's own mother had written a worried letter to Dodgson about the situation in 1893. Collingwood himself had attended Oxford in the late 1880s, when rumours were flying. Almost certainly, he could have told the truth, but it is not difficult to see why he chose not to.
Stories of Lewis Carroll's holidays by the sea with unchaperoned women would have done nothing for his popularity in decent middle class Victorian society, where the bulk of Collingwood's readership were to be found. It was simply not what people wanted to hear about the author of Alice. And the Dodgson family were understandably very uncomfortable with the gossip such episodes had caused, and were anxious to put an end to it. To admit the truth, to admit in print that "Lewis Carroll" had dined and holidayed tete à tete with young ladies, stayed overnight in the homes of widows, or married women while their husbands were away, would have been tantamount to admitting that he may have been a fornicator, or even an adulterer. This simply would not do.
The way in which the family chose to deal with it, was a very Victorian answer to a moral problem. As we shall see further on, Victorian sexual morality was almost a mirror image of our own. Although child pornography and paedophilia existed, they had not infiltrated the consciousness of the Moral Majority. The axiom of the time was that a girl became sexualised at the age of fourteen. After that age she was capable of attracting sexual desire and attention; before that age such a thing was deemed impossible in decent society. It followed as a result, that while a bachelor who openly consorted with girls of fourteen, sixteen, twenty or more, would be suspected of sexual intent or activity, a bachelor who confined his attentions to girls below the magic age, would be generally perceived as "innocent".
It was this that lay behind the naive attempts of Lewis Carroll's family to present all his many and varied female friends as having been under the vital age of fourteen. The extent to which it was a manipulation can be seen in the fact that, even among Collingwood's presumably carefully selected sample, nearly half the quoted letters were to girls over this age, and over a quarter were to women aged eighteen or more. Even at its very source, the idea of Dodgson's exclusive attachment to pre-pubescent children simply had no substance.
Collingwood used no evidence to support this or any other of his contentions. In the spirit of the time, to do so would have been almost ungentlemanly. And his book, in the manner of so much Victorian biography, was never intended to be any kind of 'reality'. He had known his uncle well, and would have been fully aware that he was never the paragon of abstemiousness and early-rising and frugality that was presented for public consumption. Collingwood knew — as the evidence now shows us — that Uncle Charles was famous among his friends for getting up very late sometimes; that he could be moody and unreasonable, selfish and opinionated, and over-exBd in an argument. He knew Uncle Charles lived an artistic life that sometimes touched the very edges of respectability, that he had enjoyed many very unorthodox friendships, and he probably knew more about those friendships than any modern biographer possibly could. He knew that no-one who was truly "abstemious" takes a predominantly liquid lunch every day. But he wasn't writing about Uncle Charles; he was writing about "Lewis Carroll," and he was telling the story everyone wanted to hear.
The first edition of his book sold out within a month. By the end of 1899 a fourth was in print. It was what its middle-class Victorian readership wanted: comfortable, cosily eccentric, satisfyingly unworldly, and it provided the hard-core for every subsequent biography for the next hundred years. It soon gained charismatic support in its most important contentions with the appearance of a little book entitled invitingly The Story of Lewis Carroll, by the Real Alice in Wonderland.
Published a few months after Collingwood in 1899, this was written, not by Alice Liddell, who was in most people's eyes the only "real" Alice there could ever be, but by one Isa Bowman, an actress. Her title was based on the fact that she had once — thanks to Dodgson's influence — played Alice on stage. Her book was a memoir of her relationship with her "uncle" and benefactor.
In contrast to Collingwood's rather elephantine style, Bowman's book was an engaging and emotional account of a "little girl's" experiences chez Lewis Carroll that was full of plausibility. In quick sure strokes she drew a picture of a charming, eccentric and passionate man. If some of her depictions look suspiciously as if they have been acquired in a musty job-lot of characteristics labelled "Eccentric Genius," (he cannot simply have a pair of grey and black gloves, he must, as with his tall hat, wear them "always; " he cannot just visit a dentist, but has to do so "almost daily"), yet she managed to convey the details of her life with him, with a warmth and immediacy entirely lacking in the official biography.
The firelit winter evenings she spent with him, when, looking into his eyes, she felt filled with "love and reverence"; his moment of fury over a silly sketch she drew of him, the sketch thrown wildly into the fire and then a passionate embrace of forgiveness; the train journeys and seaside holidays, the walks to Beachy Head and the rock cakes for tea; holding hands, watching the golden sunsets on the cliff top, when on one occasion she saw tears in his eyes. He lives with startling vividness in some of her lightning sketches. And yet, different as her account is from Collingwood's in style and dramatic flair, certain important things unite them. They are both, evidently, influenced by their time and the public expectation of what their subject ought to be. And they are both — albeit for slightly different reasons — keen to feed that expectation rather than present unequivocal truth.
This is particularly so with regard to Dodgson's relationships with the opposite sex. Collingwood presented these as being confined entirely to pre-pubescent children. Bowman helped cement this idea in the public mind by presenting herself as just such a pre-pubescent child. Her book is fulsome on the matter of the "little girl and the grave professor", who shrank from contact with adults and only lost his stammer in the company of children. In fact at one point — describing their falling out and "passionate" reconciliation — she specifically says that she was "no more than ten or eleven years old". (Interviews and Recollections, 89-102.)
This is certainly remarkable, for Isa Bowman was thirteen before she even met Dodgson. By the time he was paying for her acting lessons and taking her on holiday with him she was in her middle teens; when she last shared his lodgings at Eastbourne she was approaching twenty. Her charming image of "the little girl and the grave professor" is therefore a deliberate misrepresentation. It wasn't a little child walking hand in hand with him across Christ Church Meadow; it wasn't a little child he kissed in "passionate" forgiveness. Whatever took place between the two of them, whatever the truth behind the vivid pictures of firelit evenings and sunset walks, whatever emotional, romantic or sexual forces there were at work, they were at work between a middle-aged man and a young woman, way beyond the age of perceived sexual availability.
This is a relationship that would not have been well-received by the general reading public of 1899. By this time, Bowman was a successful and famous actress, and she owed her fame in large measure to a man who to unsympathetic eyes might have looked suspiciously like a "protector." Whatever the truth of their relationship, even if she did spend every night under his roof alone in her own bed; even if he did pay for her clothes, her elocution and singing lessons, help build her career, out of no other motive than a belief in her talent, she would have had a tough time persuading anyone else to believe it. The circumstances would have damned her. Even her name for him — 'uncle' — which had one meaning when used by a child, would have had quite another in the context of her real age. 'Uncle' was the Victorian euphemism for an older, richer, lover. To the outside world the story of their true relationship would have read like an admission that this was exactly what he had been.
Given the conventions of the time, it is easy to understand why she chose to bend the truth a little in her memoir, court easy popularity and make herself one of Lewis Carroll's already famous "little girls." She probably intended to do no more than protect her reputation; in fact, in combination with Collingwood she helped to disseminate an enduring and vastly powerful fiction.
These two works — Bowman and Collingwood — confirmed by and confirming the great swell of popular mythology, set the seal on how 'Lewis Carroll' would be remembered. They took a real life and cleansed it of its shadows, its contradictions, its mysteries, its adulthood. What was left behind might have been desperately incomplete, almost caricature, but it was what people wanted to be told, and it made for easy soundbite classification.
It is not surprising that, as the years passed, memoirs proliferated of old-maidish figures in tall hats and grey and black gloves being eccentric and querulous or being charming to "little girls" on the beach. Many were probably apocryphal, or at least borrowed heavily from the popular sources, but that didn't matter very much. Perhaps such images had their place in the Carroll biography. But the trouble was there was almost nothing else. There were the discordant voices, like that of his old friend Bea Hatch reminding the public that some of his "child-friends" were actually "married women with children of their own", and Anne Thackeray, whose curious relationship with Dodgson has been itself a casualty of the myth, begging that his kindness to "old children" should not be forgotten. But few seemed to hear and no one wanted to remember. (Interviews and Recollections, 102, Hudson, 8)
Even some of those who had known him well seemed to succumb to the magnetism of collective belief. His "old friend" the actress Ellen Terry had been broad-minded enough to entertain a large — and possibly confusing — number of Dodgson's women friends at the theatre. "Perhaps you'll enlighten me as to who this young lady is", she observed on one occasion, and after being informed that she'd been introduced to this particular seventeen-year-old girl twice before that day, exclaimed acidly — "what a stupid mistake! But I thought Mr. Dodgson had two young ladies with him". (Letters, I, 479)
Notwithstanding this little aside, she let him persuade her to give his "darling Isa" elocution lessons, and helped many more of his aspiring actress girlfriends. But in her autobiography — written only a few years after Dodgson's death — she recorded none of this. Instead she remembered children, and with incredibly uncharacteristic coyness confided that her "dear Mr Dodgson" was as "fond of me as he could be of anyone over ten years old". It was frank invention, and she obviously knew it. But why did she bother for a single throwaway line? Did she have things of her own to conceal about him? or had she honestly started to remember the man that way? (Interviews and Recollections, 240).
The implication is of something very powerful and very odd in operation around the preservation of this man's memory. Terry's much-quoted observation was no more than a soundbite based on a clich´e; that wasn't even true. But she herself may have been already unaware of it.
As the new century began, the myth of the "child-friends," as posterity saw them, as they had never in fact been, towered over every other aspect of Dodgson's existence. Every former little girl who had ever known him, however slightly, wanted to put their name down as one of the elect; to tell their own tale of magic and sweetness, to win their own little piece of immortality, as the vestals of a new religion. Those who had known him slightly claimed to have known him well, those who had met him once on a train, or thought they might have done, or wished they had, turned this one meeting into a focal point in their lives, and reliable column inches in newspapers, adding their voices to the clamorous laudation of Saint Lewis. As the years went by, and the various memoirists got ever more distant from their memories, the more saturated with myth they became; the more uniform, one-dimensional and unhistorical their portraits of their hero grew.
Quite typical of this is the memoir of Ruth Gamlen, written in 1953, when she was about 70. In 1892, she became, briefly, one of the "child-friends," and her parents were invited to dine with Dodgson who had Isa Bowman staying with him at the time. In vivid detail the elderly Ruth remembered her parents' description of the shy "12 year old" child they had met at dinner, and her own later encounters with the "little girl" who was Dodgson's companion. (Interviews and Recollections, 160). Engaging and convincing — except that in 1892 Isa was 18 years old and undeniably a grown woman. Her stay with Dodgson caused another flurry of talk in the city, as Ruth herself recalled. But Ruth "knew" that Lewis Carroll dealt only in children, therefore and obediently, she remembered a "child."
In addition to this well-intentioned but basically deluded "memoirising," simple-minded biography broke Carroll's life and genius down to a mechanistic and one-dimensional cause and effect, with a "little girl" as the muse for every different act of creation, a "little girl" as the cause of his pain and 'little girls' as the only source of his joy. Meanwhile, the hard evidence that might have helped to redress the balance remained at once circumvented and out of reach. And those who knew best about the man as he had really been - his own family and the "real" Alice's family, the Liddells — preserved their silence and left the story-telling to those with least to say.
While Alice came out of copyright and into different editions all over the world; while it was turned into an early movie (1903) and who knows how many pastiches and satires, Lewis Carroll's ten siblings lived quietly, saying nothing, and died, one after the other. Alice Liddell didn't break her silence until 1932, and then with obvious reluctance, recording (or, more correctly, allowing her son to record), one lukewarm little memoir of the "golden afternoon", in the manner that was expected of her.
No one who had known him in domestic intimacy was prepared to share those memories with a biographer, and so almost everything important remained in darkness. Only one of his own generation — his sister Henrietta — left any personal memories of him at all, and this was half a page about his kindness to animals. The rest was silence and was to remain so for many many years. Collingwood's official biography was the family's first and last word. Real scholarship, in the form of research and analysis, had not begun, there was almost no perceived need for it to begin. The Carroll biography was no more than the literary branch of the legend, populated for the most part, by believers and fantasists.
One of the most influential of this number was Langford Reed, the author of the second full biography to appear. Reed described himself as a writer of Nonsense, and was apparently attracted to the contemplation of Lewis Carroll by a powerful, and slightly scary, sense of fellow-feeling. In the grip of this and other passions he wrote The Life of Lewis Carroll. It appeared in print in the spring of 1932 to celebrate the centenary of Dodgson's birth.
Reed took his bare outline of biographical fact from Collingwood. In fairness, there was little else he could do. He tried talking to the Dodgson family, but they were as instinctively suspicious of him as they would be of every biographer that came after. They were tight-lipped and made sure he "left as ignorant as he came". (Letter from Menella Dodgson to Falconer Madan). Evidently they had their own agenda, but it made Reed's position as a biographer almost untenable. Had he wanted to make a new, thorough analysis of Dodgson's life, he would have been prevented by the family's caginess. But in fact this was almost certainly never Reed's intention. What he wanted to do, what he succeeded in doing was paying homage at a shrine.
Reed may have been writing in the twentieth century, but in his near-apotheosis of Lewis Carroll as the misty-eyed seeker after purity, he was closer to being the last Victorian chronicler of the legend. He used largely unsourced "recollections" to emphasise the qualities he considered apposite to the image, and he effortlessly outdid his predecessor, Collingwood, in his portrait of extraordinary and attenuated virtue laced with the philanthropy, eccentricity and general barminess already so familiar.
He filled his book with charming but essentially unrevealing stories of the man himself spilling change from his pocket all over someone's hall floor; his entering the house where he believed a children's party to be in progress, on all fours and growling like a bear, only to discover he is at the wrong address; his absent-minded failure to recognise his own dinner guest of the night before; his vanishing from College for two days, only to be discovered tending a Christ Church servant who was dying of typhoid. Most of these "recollections" were given without source or pedigree and many are probably apocryphal. They have a slightly hollow ring to them; the cracked tone of a biographer with a deadline and no material.
There was some original theory, but this was constructed as outcrops of the myth, not on any firm biographical basis. For example, Reed decided that Dodgson suffered from a split personality, because he felt that the imagery of unworldly dreamer and mathematical disciplinarian were impossible to reconcile in a single personality:
Mr Carroll, boyish, whimsical, eager, reciprocal, sociable, fond of recognition and intensely human; and Professor Dodgson, serious, donnish, mature, shy, aloof, egotistic, easily-offended and displaying very little interest in other adult people, including Mr Carroll, with whom he invariably disclaimed relationship. [Reed, 127]
He found confirmation for this brightly-hued conjecture in the fact that his subject did not always use the same coloured ink. Reed believed that this was significant; he opined that all the letters signed "Lewis Carroll" were written in purple, while the "Dodgson" correspondence was in black. The fact that this was not true had no perceptible impact either on Reed's conviction, or on others' determination to believe him. On this authority, no less, a "split personality" became a part of the myth and the respected biographical tradition.
In fact, Reed's book was immensely influential in many ways. His stories of dropping change and nursing dying servants are still routinely quoted in the best academic circles. But, as with Collingwood, it was on the eternally significant and defining topic of the "child-friends" that Reed made his most lasting mark. Here his portrait was the Victorian dream of purity taken to its utmost, almost elegiac, as if he knew that the lifetime for such ideas was almost ended.
What drove him, who can say? But he was evidently a driven man. With a rigidly-controlled passion his book turned Collingwood's implications in shades of grey into stark, black and white certainties. He insisted — where Collingwood had only implied — that chaste friendships with virginal female children were the only emotional outlets in Dodgson's life. He categorically stated — where Collingwood had only suggested — that all such friendships ended when the girls reached fourteen. And, with breathtaking certitude, he went on to assure his readership that Dodgson:
deliberately discouraged... friendship with grown girls he had known as children, in the conviction that such association could only injure the memory of the idealistic comradeship he had exchanged with them before they had acquired any adult worldliness or sophistication.
He drew support for this point of view by citing the experience of one ex-child-friend, Mary Brown, as evidence of how determinedly Dodgson avoided this dangerous pulchritude. According to Reed, when she began to grow threateningly pneumatic, Mary was still keen to continue her friendship with Dodgson, but he would have none of it, and the poor girl was only successful "as far as correspondence was concerned". Dodgson would not see her any more. And this, Reed told his audience, was typical. Whenever any mature child friend attempted to "keep the flame of friendship alive" Dodgson chose to "exchange correspondence with them on the subject of their spiritual welfare, [rather] than to renew their former intimacy". According to Reed, who intended to be taken seriously — and was — Lewis Carroll preferred to deal with all females over a certain age by letter only. [Reed, 90-93]
Reed's use of Mary Brown was disingenuous to the point of deception. It was true enough that she and Dodgson never met after she grew up. She lived over three hundred miles away in Scotland. Unsurprisingly therefore, they did have an "entirely correspondence-based" friendship. But in this Mary Brown was unique amongst the tens, if not hundreds, of women that brightened Dodgson's life. She was an exception, not a rule. But Reed's conclusion, based on her unrepresentative experience and his own fertile imagination, was presented loudly and unequivocally: Lewis Carroll was a man who obsessed about small children; whose "interest ... usually ceased" when they reached puberty; who was almost phobic in his avoidance of adult female society.
This portrait, starker than Collingwood's, with its added note of fastidious physical distaste for adult womanhood, is the first draft of the image that we still find today in popular tradition and scholarly biography. It is unquestionably a fiction, but because it emerged into a biography that had always dealt primarily in fiction, in which no tradition of academic rigour existed, and because it lent support to a myth that evidently had deep emotional significance for many people, it quickly gained uncritical acceptance. And when the sea-change in the Lewis Carroll legend arrived within a year of Reed's publication, it was the meaning of it all that was challenged, the fact of his exclusive fixation on pre-pubescent children was accepted wholesale.
- "Lewis Carroll": A Myth in the Making
- The Early Biographies of Lewis Carroll
- Tony Goldschmidt and the Freudian Influence
- The Dodgson Family and Their Legacy
- Modern Biography and Lewis Carroll, 1969-98
Last modified 2000