["'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.]
ver the last thirty years, and with the release of long-withheld documentation, a belated but identifiable Carroll-scholarship has at last begun to emerge. Amateurs and professionals have begun collecting and publishing important documentation. They have produced thorough and carefully annotated collections of Dodgson's letters, his most obscure political and mathematical pamphlets, the memoirs of those who knew him. His diaries are finally being prepared for unexpurgated publication. In this regard things have changed vastly from the years of evidential famine.
It is now possible to know far more about the details of Lewis Carroll's life, his intimate thoughts, and his personal relationships than Langford Reed or Florence Becker Lennon, or all the other founding fathers, ever did. His letters illuminate the curious, close and intense relationships he enjoyed with women, and the scandals that dogged these friendships. His diary records this too, as well as his highly developed social skills, his curiously layered and slightly secretive existence, and as we have seen, it shows his life haunted for a few short years by an unexplained guilt, confided in periodic and agonised prayers.
If Charlotte Brontë's or Conan Doyle's long-secreted journal had only recently come to light, it would have created biographical and literary sensation, with authors rushing into print with their analyses, updating their work and their theories to take account of this avalanche of new material. There would have been fiercely-contended opposing views about the significance of the missing material, the cause of his pain. But, celebrated as Brontë and Doyle are, they are neither of them legends. Brontë has not been submerged beneath a mythology surrounding "Currer Bell." Doyle is not an icon for anything.
The release of Dodgson's unexpurgated diary reveals more clearly than anything else, how much "Carroll" exists as an aspiration, beyond historical analysis, and how much his biography has been created in subservience to that aspiration. For, rather than provoking debate and immediate re-analysis, the emergence of Dodgson's own, unedited private voice, his own unedited private view of himself, went almost completely unnoticed. In a little ceremony, the nine remaining volumes were received from the family by a representative of the British Museum. They were individually wrapped in thick soft paper, bound with tape and stored carefully away. And there they stayed, more or less undisturbed and more or less unremarked, while for several years, biographers continued to write about Carroll as if the diaries did not exist.
Nearly thirty years, and two major biographies would go by before any significant notice was taken of the material at all.
"Little girls ... were the only sexual object he allowed himself", wrote the distinguished French scholar Jean Gattegno in 1974, five years after the diary that would have given the lie to this became available. (96) None of the many influential and widely-quoted articles of his that I have read make any reference to this new and invaluable source document, and it seems entirely possible that in his long-draw out bid to establish Dodgson's paedophilic credentials, he never consulted it.
In this, he was not alone. In 1976 Derek Hudson re-issued his 1954 biography. It was seven years since the diaries had entered the public arena, and in most disciplines it would have been expected that Hudson would have used it to revise and update his material, particularly as one of his reasons for re-issuing his work was to "put in order and reassert the facts of Lewis Carroll's life". But, although he wrote a new five-page preface, he did not mention the MS diaries at all. Nor did he re-write his text in any way to take account of what they revealed of Dodgson's previously inaccessible life. It was as if it simply did not occur to him that this might have any bearing on anything he had to say. He was content with his portrait of Carroll as the gentle pre-Freudian of Reed and Collingwood, "the earnest mathematician who never grew to full maturity", and saw no need to look further. (xi, 308).
His, and Gattegno's, blatant disregard of the primary source document in favour of his own and other people's imagination, is less oversight and ineptitude than it is a frank statement that, for this author at least, the reality of Carroll existed beyond documentary proof. This is biography more as an article of faith than as historical analysis. It reminds us of the quasi-religiosity that has always underscored the Carroll mythology.
Anne Clark, writing her biography three years later, ventured only a little further. She evidently consulted the MS diaries, but her review was not searching. She noted the absence of one of the ten cut pages, and devoted a small space to considering it. But in most ways her book represented, as Hudson's had before, an attempt to recapture the Victorian image of Carroll as saint, in which the reality of Dodgson, in his diary or elsewhere, was largely an irrelevance.
Her book told the very recognisable and traditional story of an essentially naive and gifted man, who lived apart from the common run of life in 'a private world which he barricaded effectively against the outside world in general'. (201) Like Collingwood and Reed, she conveyed a life untouched by normal human shadows and therefore all but featureless, uncontaminated even by the one unambiguous shred of humanity he had ever been accorded - his nascent deviancy. Although she briefly acknowledged some part of his interest in women and mature female bodies, although she professed an absolute conviction that the child Alice Liddell had been the love of Dodgson's life, her conviction of his ultimate untouchability made it impossible for her to enter into any analysis of her own observations.
Her paradigm allowed of no possibility of Carroll as other than personified by his renunciation. She could not address the question of his potential sexuality without abandoning that paradigm, so she dealt with the complex issues she herself had raised - about the nature of his relationships with women, about what kind of a man might feel able to propose marriage to an 11 year old girl - by ignoring them. This well-intentioned, almost devotional portrait could accommodate little of the spikier realities of Dodgson the diarist, and therefore, Clark was forced by her own internal logic, to disregard almost everything of importance.
In its absolute conviction, in its continuous presentation of quite baseless supposition as fact, Clark's work was at once intensely honest and highly manipulative, looking backward to the Victorian age that had canonised Carroll, and forward to the strangely driven biography of the future. Even more than Hudson's, hers was the "life" to demonstrate the extent to which biography would continue to be entangled in the widespread need to believe in 'Carroll', even in the face of the evidence for Dodgson.
After her book was published, Dodgson's extensive and mutilated MS diaries fell back into almost complete neglect. The biography continued to be fascinated with the phenomenon of Carroll, and books continued to be published, but the document that would, in different circumstances, have been the principal reference for all biographers, drifted into a gentle hinterland of forgetfulness. For the entirety of the next 15 years, I have been able to trace only one published analysis of this source document, and this was all but defeated by its own estrangement from the barest facts.
In 1982, to mark the 150th anniversary of Dodgson's birth, Morton Cohen contributed a prestigious article to The Times entitled "Who Censored Lewis Carroll?" Illustrated with photographs of Dodgson and his niece Menella, it asked "what happened to the missing volumes?", "...whose hand wielded the razor that cut the pages?" (The Times, 23 Jan. 1982). In forceful words, Cohen told his readers, he had found six pages to be missing from Dodgson's diary, and very carefully gave the dates. He suggested Menella as the most likely culprit, and even ventured a suggestion of what might have been written on the excised portions.
But all this deep analysis was essentially flawed by the fact that four of the six pages described as missing by Cohen, were not missing at all, and even further marred by the fact that he had not detected eight of the ten genuine cuts. This error rate, in excess of 80%, is certainly high, and might raise questions about whether Cohen had felt the need to do any basic research before writing such a high profile and influential piece. But I think the most significant factor must be that in the 16 years that have elapsed since, no one has commented on Cohen's error, or published any correction, or further analysis of the MS diaries, or indeed any other prima facie documentation.
Today, the MS is still largely unassimilated. Even though it is being prepared for publication, it remains data in the raw. Few writers on Carroll consult it. No major analysis of its mangled content has ever been attempted. The published volumes provide almost no analysis of the material they reproduce, and contain an uncomfortably high rate of editorial error. In 1996, when I began this book, there had still been nothing as basic as a comprehensive count of the missing pages. When I tried to find out exactly what had been cut and from where, I realised that no one - including the person preparing the document for publication - actually knew. In the end I had to go to the British Library and count for myself. The result, published for the first time, some 29 years after the MS was made public, can be seen above.
Meanwhile, biography has continued to tell the familiar story.
Dodgson was fussy and easily offended, old-maidish ... shy, withdrawn, over-sensitive...
wrote Michael Bakewell, in his 1996 biography, as if to make it beyond doubt that nothing had changed.
Little girls became the air he breathed and without them he would feel himself withering away ... Like Ruskin he seems to have been alarmed by the sexual reality of mature women.
and of course
Puberty inevitably brought the majority of Dodgson's child-friendships to an end.
Donald Thomas, another '96 biographer, was similarly convinced.
...there was no question that he had become a recluse or that his happiest hours were spent in the company of 'little misses' ... rather than in adult conversation.
Thomas, whose extensive and sympathetic understanding of the complexities of Victorian society, made him sensitive to the way in which Dodgson's mode of life brushed the fringes of respectability, took the step of acknowledging how many of Dodgson's child-friends were anything but children:
The Hatch sisters and Gertrude Chataway were in their twenties. Of the others, almost all were in their teens ... To the end of his life he asked, even importuned, existing child-friends, some of them well past the awkward age, to stay with him in Eastbourne...
but could not bring himself to draw the conclusions inevitable upon this fact. Instead he ended by contradicting his own discovery, the thrust of his own narrative, to surrender Dodgson's reputation once again to his little girls. Bakewell's biography hovered on the edge of awareness in just the same way. Acknowledging at one point that his subject was "far from being the shy, retiring don of legend", he went on to forget this himself throughout the bulk of his own narrative, and to use almost identical words to confirm that Dodgson was, after all "the shy stammering photographer don", who "never grew up ... [and] utterly depended upon the company and the affection of little girls". Repeatedly, his biography invited consideration of how curious it was that Carroll, who was known to dislike women and society should have been discovered to have spent so much of his time with both, but only dismissed such episodes, whatever their frequency and duration, as "uncharacteristic". It did not occur to him that there was anything of a logical paradox involved in a man being perceived to spend the majority of his own life behaving "uncharacteristically". (Bakewell, xv-xvii, 92, 149, 207 & passim; Thomas, 251, 256, 288).
Perhaps the most extreme form of this reluctance, on the part of Carroll-biographers, to take possession of the results of their own scholarship is to be found in what is most certainly the best biography to have been produced to date.
Morton Cohen's massive 500-page study was an entirely different prospect to any that had gone before. Cohen was familiar with the evidence (even if a little uncertain about the missing diary material), in a way that surpassed any previous biographer, and his book undoubtedly went further than anyone had yet attempted in a conscious effort to deal with the accretion of legend surrounding the Carroll image. He brought good and much-needed analysis to several areas. He reassessed in a significant and revealing way, the nature of Dodgson's relationship with his father. He allowed the man to emerge from the nursery sufficiently to take possession of some part of his maturity, his pain and his pleasure. He observed something of the "complex human being", "gifted and sensitive" and with "a wide-ranging and far-reaching appreciation of the human condition", and the extent to which Dodgson himself manipulated his own image. He observed a man who was rarely disingenuously naive, who "occasionally ... played the role of the withdrawn, private person" but "despite his own characterisation ... was not by nature a recluse or a hermit". But it is as though Cohen himself remained unaware of how radically his research was dis-assembling the conventional structure, and unable therefore to re-assemble it into a coherent whole. His book acknowledged the extent of Dodgson's adult life and adult interests, the autobiography of a love-poetry that finds its inspiration in a passion for a woman's beauty and power; it identified the misleading quality inherent in Dodgson's term "child-friends," and allowed the fact that so many of these girls were never children. But Cohen did not seem to know what to do with his own evidence. His summary of Dodgson as a man "with differing sexual appetites", with emotions "focus[ed] on children, not adults", who lived a life filled with rejection and loneliness and "suppressed and diverted sexual energies", seems to assert itself in conflict with his own judgment. In pursuit of securing this affirmation, Cohen was forced sometimes to draw conclusions that were in direct opposition to his own exhaustive research.
A single page towards the end of his book, illustrates the entire dichotomy of his work in microcosm. Here he commented extensively on the ambiguity surrounding Dodgson's married women-friends, and disclosed the fact that at different times of his life, the man had confessed to his favourite age for "child-friends" as being "about 17", or "twenty or twenty-five". But, having thus illustrated the complex reality of Dodgson's interest in the opposite sex, he could, only a few lines on from these observations, describe the same man's life, without any apparent sense of inconsistency, as being defined by his dependence on the companionship of children, and the "repeated rejections and inevitable coolings created as the girls grew up". (Cohen, xxi, 193, 460, 462)
It is as if he sensed in some primal way that Carroll ought not to be stripped of those ultimate indicators of his separation from reality; his strangeness and his chastity. He surrendered his own considerable and impressive scholarship to the preservation of legend.
This instinctive and apparently irresistible impulse, brought a kind of crazy symmetry to the beginning and the end of the century of Carrollianism. To reinforce the image of Dodgson that he apparently felt impelled to put across, Cohen devoted an entire and damning chapter to the "child-friends," emotively entitled "The Pursuit of Innocents", and illustrated with many quotes from correspondence with and about the supposed nymphets. In his curious determination to portray Dodgson as a rigidly controlled sexual deviant, Cohen didn't mention that approximately half of the 'children' named in the indictment - eighteen out of forty examples - were over the age of fourteen at the time of the encounters described, and nearly a quarter of them were over twenty. Almost exactly a century earlier Collingwood did the same thing in the same way, only for different reasons. A hundred years on and nothing had changed but the implied meaning of it all. Collingwood gave the world Carroll as saint. Cohen has given us Carroll as a symbol for the amoral mysticism of the late twentieth century, with deviancy as the price and the stigmata of his distorted sanctity.
* * * *
When it becomes clear that so much of Dodgson's biography was fiction from the beginning, it is, eminently, unjustifiable to disregard evidence that tells a radically different story. Can it be right, for example, to dismiss the novelist Anne Thackeray's intense little memoir of the man she knew because it is so different from 'Lewis Carroll'? Her portrait of Dodgson, as George Hexham, the young photographer from "Christ's College Cambridge", who flirts shamelessly with women and hates poetry with morals, is as vivid in its way and far more acutely observed than any story of Isa Bowman's. It remains unknown because it is biographical heresy. But, Thackeray remembered him well, and pleaded with posterity not to forget Dodgson in the midst of Carroll. If biography is to have any value it has to try and meet that challenge. It has to ask the question — if myth and tradition did not dictate the relative importance accorded to the evidence, what would be made of this tangled, secretive, sometimes scandalous life?
If, in the following pages, I try to find some answers, I take no special credit for this. A large part of the scholarship on which this book is based was done by others, who, for whatever reason, have never taken their work the last and most vital step of the way. The biography of Dodgson has been researched by the best of the biographers referred to above. My contribution is hardly more than to recognise the significance of what they have done.
- "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