["'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: Antonia@peterowen.com. British Reviews of the book.]
eginning with Collingwood's 1898 biography and continuing for at least the next sixty years, two generations of the Dodgson family demonstrated that they were prepared to use their control over the literary and personal estate of Lewis Carroll to manipulate the image that was available to the public.
Today the members of the family who manage the estate are as open and co-operative with literary historians and biographers as could be wished, but the damage of past secrecy remains. The majority of the documentation Dodgson left behind is now missing, and there has never been a comprehensive analysis of how this came about, of how the resultant vacuum has interacted with the myth, and what the results have been for scholarship. What follows is a first attempt to reconstruct a difficult and fragmentary story. It is one that goes to the heart of the odd and discursive treatment Dodgson received at the hands of his survivors and descendants. Contradictory and strange, his family's conduct suggests that, like the world around them, they were from the instant of his death obsessed with the image of 'Lewis Carroll' rather than the reality of a dead brother.
Charles Dodgson's death was not anticipated. Before the sudden onset of his fatal pneumonia he had been in excellent health. He had left his apartment in Christ Church a few weeks earlier to spend Christmas with his family in Guildford, expecting to be back at the university early in the new year. But in that cold January it wasn't a returning Charles who turned the key in the door on staircase no. 7, Tom Quad, and stumbled his way up the dark passage to the red and green study, it was his younger brother Wilfred. The funeral had been and gone, and Wilfred was there to do his duty. His brother's will appointed him as the executor to his literary and personal estate.
Six years younger than his famous brother, but with an obvious family likeness in his wavy grey hair, Wilfred was fifty-nine and a prosperous man of business. For many years he had been a land agent for the wealthy Lord Boyne and lived in some style in a pleasant house in the border country between England and Wales. He had married back in 1871 and by this time was the father of nine children. By all accounts he was a level-headed and worldly man, and it was probably these qualities that had persuaded his brother to name him and another younger brother, Edwin, as executors in favour of older, but more unstable Skeffington.
Charles had been the head of a large and dependent family — seven sisters, three brothers and their own dependents and offspring, as well as a considerable cousinage; a family that had been accustomed to look to the eldest brother for financial and moral support for nearly thirty years. He had funded countless nephews and nieces and second cousins through school, used his influence among the great and good to get them jobs, and paid unofficial pensions to the widowed or poverty stricken. The person chosen to manage the transfer of this great human responsibility, to say nothing of the literary inheritance, would be carrying a considerable burden.
Wilfred arrived in Oxford on January 28. He was alone, because the other executor, his brother Edwin, was out of the country. He spent the day looking through the dead man's possessions and stayed overnight with Dodgson's old friend and colleague, Thomas Vere Bayne. In his diary Bayne described Wilfred as "appalled at the mass of papers in his brother's rooms". And one can imagine so. For Lewis Carroll had left behind an amount of personal documentation so vast it is hard to visualise. It lay all about Wilfred in the cupboards and drawers of his rooms, filling boxes and cardboard files and pigeon-holes. Forty years of record-keeping. This is a man, let's not forget, who indexed his own diary, who kept a record of every letter sent and received for over thirty years in a register that ran to twenty four volumes (oh, if the Freudians had only known about the "letter register").
Beside the huge collections of photographs, of books and magazines and letters, there were thirteen volumes of private journal. There was also something he referred to as his "metallic diary," presumably a metal bound volume, perhaps with a lock, wherein he recorded his most absolutely personal thoughts and feelings. If Dodgson's own testimony is to be believed there were also separate works dealing with his mathematical work and various leisure pursuits. His life must have been dominated by little grey notebooks, they must have lain about the place like tribbles, appearing in unexpected locations, apparently breeding in the drawers.
But one man's compulsion is a biographer's Aladdin's cave. The result of all this fevered notekeeping was a life recorded to the utmost. History would have had cause to be grateful for his obsession. But history never got the chance. Wilfred may have been appalled at the size of his task, but he was obviously not daunted. Under his supervision, almost everything Lewis Carroll possessed that was remotely saleable was disposed of in auction within four months of his death, while the letters and papers disappeared into the care of his family, and something like eighty per cent of them were never seen again.
The disposal was unsentimental and thorough. On May 10 1898, Brooks the auctioneer of Magdalen Road, Oxford, was offering up Dodgson's most intimate personal possessions for sale in open auction. In two days the furnishings of an entire life went under the hammer. Dodgson's books, his lifetime's collection of photography, his furniture, the blankets from his bed, his "sponge-bath," his towels, the plates he ate off, the glasses he drank from, his tea pot, his little improvised boxes for paper clips, his pen, his watch, his paintings, his own inventions, like the "nyctograph" (for writing memoranda in the dark), his home-made puzzles, even his school prizes and college cap were knocked down to the highest bidder. The impression given to those who witnessed the scene was one of disturbing indifference.
He must have been a lonely being, for when he died no relations cared to take possession of his belongings, and they were disposed of by auction in Holywell Music Room",
commented one observer, Sir Charles Oman, of this odd and rather sad scene. Dodgson's colleague Frederick York Powell was sufficiently moved by the same sight to put his sense of outrage into verse, painting a memorable picture of "gambling salesmen" bargaining over "the books he read, the clothes he wore". (Shaberman, Appendix 3, Hudson, 13). In fact, Dodgson had not been a "lonely being," he had existed at the hub of a large and apparently close family. He had ten brothers and sisters and fourteen nieces and nephews to take possession of his things if they had wanted to. But they didn't. Hardly any of the family attended the auction, they took no care to preserve things that must have been precious to him — his favourite books, his personal inventions, his school prizes, his college cap. This is significant, both for what it says about Dodgson's relationship with his family at the end of his life, but also about the mindset with which that family approached the management of his estate.
On the one hand the unsentimental disposal and the swift confiscation of the paperwork, reflects the intense embarrassment the family felt at aspects of Dodgson's "unconventional" private life, particularly his associations with various women, and their understandable anxiety to avoid scandal. But beyond this, and perhaps more important, in the family's hasty discarding of the trappings of Dodgson's reality, we can perhaps see the ultimate acknowledgement of the transcendence of the myth; the clothes, the personal trifles, the school books and college caps dumped without ceremony, even while the stories and legends are being collected together in the official biography. However successful his literature, however decent and generous his life, there was a sense in which Dodgson's reality was an embarrassing encumbrance to an otherwise perfect story; a thing to be tidied away as soon as decently possible, the space it occupied turned into a memorial garden to Carroll, that must be carefully guarded, tended, weeded for posterity.
And this may shed some light on what became of so many of his personal papers.
Before the auctions disposed of his library and photographic collections, Wilfred was burning documents. There is a possibility that he may have been acting on his brother's instructions. We know from something Dodgson wrote to his long-term friend Annie Henderson (Sr.) that he had some very private letters and photographs stored in envelopes with directions for them to be "burned unopened" after his death, and there is a persistent story within the family that he went beyond this and requested his executors to destroy everything he left behind of a "personal or private nature", but this has never been verified. (Letters, I, 435) But, on whatever authority, Wilfred began a process of planned destruction. On February 10 he wrote to Brooks the auctioneer, thanking him for having some papers burned, and the suggestion is of a considerable amount to be destroyed. It is thus often assumed that Wilfred was responsible in this first conflagration for removing most of what cannot now be found, but this is probably not so. He was only the first of several family members to bring the editing powers of scissors and fire to bear on the documentation of Lewis Carroll's life. His nephew Stuart Collingwood and his daughter Menella are both implicated in later acts of destruction, and both tended to try and cover their own tracks by claiming never to have seen papers that are known to have been in their possession. Wilfred initially preserved a large part of the most important documentation. The entire diary and the letter-register, and what Stuart Collingwood described as "thousands" of letters received as well as some copies of those sent, all survived the initial purge. In the summer of 1898 this material was still extant, and Collingwood used a certain amount of it while he was writing his 'official' life of Lewis Carroll. What happened to it after that is unclear.
From Collingwood the archive seems to have returned to Wilfred, and on Wilfred's death it was guarded by his surviving sisters. When Louisa, the last of these, died in 1930 at the age of ninety, the responsibility for handling the Carroll estate passed to three of Wilfred's children: his eldest son, Charles, known as CHW, and his two daughters Menella and Violet. After CHW's death in 1941, the two women managed the estate alone until they died, Menella in 1963 and Violet three years later.
At some time over this period, a massive amount of documentation, including four volumes of the MS diary, somehow went missing, while someone used scissors and razor to mutilate what remained.
The favoured public explanation given by the family for the loss of the four diary volumes was that they had been accidentally mislaid somewhere, although no one seemed very clear about when or by whom, and different versions tended to keep appearing. The first of these was given to the author Helmut Gernsheim in about 1949. The story at this time was that the diaries had been lost while "the Dodgson nieces" had been moving house to Leamington Spa during the second world war. (Gernsheim, v). Another slightly different take on the same theme was offered by the family when an edited version of the diaries finally appeared in print in 1953. In the Preface, through the gentlemanly voice of the editor Roger Lancelyn Green, the following account was given:
Stuart Collingwood had the use of [the diaries] for his Biography... After he had used them there was, apparently, no need to keep them carefully — and they disappeared, with what else remained of the papers, for a number of years. In the course of time, the Diaries were found on a cellar floor, having fallen out of a cardboard box; and by then four of the thirteen volumes had disappeared. (Green, ed., preface).
There is no doubt that Green repeated this story in good faith, but his conclusion that "the loss of these volumes appears to be due simply to neglect", is to say the least disingenuous, and few people believe it represents a true or complete picture of events. It is likewise difficult to justify his slightly bizarre claim that the papers were lost because Lewis Carroll's "importance in the world of literature was not recognised until some time after his death" and the family saw no need to keep them. Lewis Carroll was a legend before he reached his fiftieth birthday, and it is very hard to believe that even the most sheltered of individuals would have failed to notice it; particularly as, at the same time that they were seeing "no need" to keep his papers, they were being courted by collectors of Carrolliana prepared to pay good money for anything that had once belonged to him.
But perhaps the strongest argument against the material having been accidentally lost, is that, while volumes might conceivably become accidentally mislaid, pages don't accidentally become cut out. Over the years, someone, probably more than one person, has deliberately mutilated the evidence. That much is undeniable.
The story of diaries falling out of boxes and into oblivion has to be seen as part of the bizarre saga of confusion and dissimulation that touched the history of the Carroll literary estate with melodrama. It's a history ripe with missing documents, enigmatic torn-out pages and unfinished death-bed confessions. When they turned to the handling of the Lewis Carroll estate, the decent, middle class Dodgsons became as Gothic as Uncle Silas.
There is a persistent rumour within the family that Stuart Collingwood, Dodgson's nephew and biographer, deliberately destroyed part of the diary to protect the family reputation. He certainly had all the principal documentation in his possession in 1898, and a newspaper interview he gave at the time reveals that he was engaged in analysing and "arranging" it. He had gone through nearly a "hundred thousand entries" in the letter-register, and had likewise put the "many thousands" of letters in order. He was obviously well aware of the literary and historical importance of the archive he was constructing, and something he wrote in his biography of his uncle makes it clear that he did not make public all he had found there.
Commenting on the sadness endemic in Lewis Carroll's love poetry, Collingwood allowed himself — almost it seems against his better judgment — a short and cryptic observation:
One cannot read this little volume without feeling that the shadow of some disappointment lay over Lewis Carroll's life. Such I believe to have been the case.... But those who loved him would not wish to lift the veil from these dead sanctities, nor would any purpose be served by so doing. 
This admission, from the man who was perhaps better informed than any other about the intimate secrets of Carroll's life, that there was an autobiographical element in Dodgson's love poetry, has obvious significance. Even more so, when the same man is reputed to have destroyed material that covers precisely the period in the biography, the late 1850s and early 1860s, when the poems were being written. Even more so again, perhaps, when, even after the excision of so vast amount of material, the remaining prima facie evidence for this time shows that a "shadow" of some kind indeed "lay over Lewis Carroll's life". At this time, Dodgson began to suffer great mental and spiritual anguish, and to confess an overwhelming sense of his own sin. Nowhere in the pages of the diary that remain does he make a direct statement of what was causing his inner pain, but it would not be over-speculative to suggest that the missing material was excised precisely because it contained that unequivocal information. If Collingwood did remove the now-missing portions of the diary it was almost certainly in a bid to keep "these dead sanctities", and the shadow that lay over them, from ever becoming publicly known.
This time of disturbance in Dodgson's life in the late 1850s and early 1860s, the time of his love poetry, the time of his sense of sin, the time for which the record has been most mutilated, is something we will have to come back to many times. It seems to sit at a central point in the complexity of questions surrounding his existence, his legend and his family's struggle to manipulate both.
If Collingwood was the first, he was certainly not the only family member to interfere with the documentary record. As the centenary of Lewis Carroll's birth approached public interest in his work and in his life slipped into a new and more urgent gear. People wanted to see the diaries and be told what had happened to the other papers. Murmurs began to be heard about the family's apparent secrecy.
It may have been this that decided the then custodians, Wilfred's three children, CHW, Menella and Violet, to consider editing the diary volumes for possible future publication. They certainly began preparing (still extant) typescripts, and at about the same time — between 1930 and 1934 — they began to actively mutilate the diaries in their charge.
A small piece of paper still in the Dodgson family archive and headed helpfully "Cut Pages in Diary" makes this part of the story clear. The writing is Violet Dodgson's, niece and co-guardian of the diaries with her sister, and some notes on the back indicate the dating. It was never intended to be seen by anyone outside the family. It is a brief summary of three diary entries, together with volume and page number. Two of those pages are now missing, cut out jaggedly with short-bladed scissors; the third remains, but the offending entry has been heavily crossed out so as to be virtually illegible. The notes were evidently made immediately prior to the pages being cut out, presumably as a personal (though rather eccentric) aide-memoire of the excised material.
The pages referred to on this scrap of paper are not the only ones to have been removed. A total of ten have been cut from various volumes. Two, perhaps three of these were probably cut out by Dodgson himself, since there is either no break in the page numbers, or no missing days and no gap in the text. There is probably nothing more sinister here than a sudden need for a sheet of blank notepaper, or a catastrophic ink spillage. The other seven are a different matter.
Three consecutive pages in vol. 2, and one each in volumes 4, 5, 8 and 11, have been removed because of their content. It is likely that they were not all done by the same hand, but it is unlikely that any of them were cut by Dodgson. Apart from the damning evidence of the notes about the missing pages in the hand of Violet Dodgson, gaps in the pagination, missing days, interrupted text and small amendments in different handwriting point inevitably to later interference.
In later years, Menella openly admitted that she and her sister had removed parts of the diaries. She said she had kept the missing pages, but would show them to no one. To the end of her life, she maintained this unapologetic and vigilant control over the most personal documentation of Dodgson's life. She supervised the first publication of the diaries with almost fanatical care. She prepared the typescripts herself, and not even the editor himself was allowed unrestricted access to the MS originals. She declared, with truly gothic melodrama, that the unexpurgated MS would never leave the care of the family while she remained alive.
The resultant publication of the Diaries, in two volumes in 1953, left out almost half of the material; all the painful and self-revealing prayers were omitted, together with many of the most significant references to the Liddells and other people in his life. The Preface, by the editor, Roger Lancelyn Green, not only included the "explanation" for the missing volumes quoted above, it also contained a mini-biography of the man himself that went out of its way to emphasise the blameless eventlessness of Dodgson's life. The heavily cut, even emasculated text seemed designed to bear this out. Scholars who turned to it for enlightenment inevitably received the impression that the man had indeed, as Virginia Woolf suspected, had almost "no life". And this was not accidental. It was an impression that Menella had gone to some lengths to quite deliberately foster.
She died in 1963, aged eighty-six. Gothic to the last, according to her nephew, her final words, when her voice had already almost gone, were about the missing diaries. She tried very hard to tell him something about them. But he couldn't understand, and then she died.
Her sister Violet survived her by three years, another sister lived on until 1968, but then the estate was handed over to a new generation of Dodgsons, the grandchildren of Lewis Carroll's brothers and sisters, in whom the tradition of secrecy was not so potent. After some persuasion they agreed at last to sell the MS diaries to the British Museum. The nine surviving grey notebooks, with their ageing covers still carrying neat little labels declaring them to have been bought from "W. Emberlin, Oxford" are now secured in the public domain, and there for anyone to see are the scissored and razored stumps where Collingwood, Violet and perhaps others have been busy.
One of the most noticeable things about these chopped and razored absences is their chronological relationship to the "lost" volumes of the diary, making it seem very likely that this mass of missing material is all linked in some way. All but one of the cut pages occur between the years 1855 and 1863; all four of the "lost" volumes cover periods between 1853 and 1862. Thus, with the exception of one page, all the missing material occurs in a single eleven year period.
Within this time, there is no one year for which the record is preserved intact. The diary for 1853-4 is the first of the missing four. Three pages are cut from the August of 1855 and the months of September-December for that year vanished with the second missing volume. There are pages missing from 1856 and 1857 and the last two missing diaries take care of the four years between April 1858 and May 1862. Finally, there is a single page cut from June 1863.
In total this "missing time" amounts to more than five and a half years. Over half the record for a single decade of Dodgson's life is gone. Beyond this, the diaries that cover the remaining thirty five years of his life survive intact, with the one exception mentioned before: a page cut from May 1879 that dealt with some crisis in the life of younger brother Skeffington. This does not seem like the arbitrary and disconnected editing of touchy relatives, with over-sensitive feelings and no particular agenda. The mutilators of the record confined their attentions to one relatively small area of Dodgson's life. This suggests that they knew exactly what they were doing, and why.
The anomalous, fractured decade of Dodgson's life that concentrated their minds, is also the decade cut across by the love poetry that Collingwood acknowledged to be autobiographical, and a unique period of turbid private psychological pain. This is the kind of anomaly that ought to concentrate the biographer's mind. Someone has attempted to erase a significant chunk of something from the record, and it becomes the work of biography to try and put it back. But in the current position of the Carroll-biography, as it has grown from such powerful and uncontrolled mythologising, this presents its own problems.
- "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