The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf reviewed

Understanding the author of Alice in Wonderland

The elusive author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, has been a subject of enduring fascination for the past hundred years. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the son of a country curate, he would spend almost his entire life in the quiet, studious surroundings of Christ Church College, Oxford, shunning publicity and becoming increasingly guarded as the years went by. However, in his posthumous existence, he has been retrospectively psychoanalysed, condemned for his supposed sexual perversions and alleged addiction to opium. The destruction of many major documents about his personal life by his descendants has only magnified the mystery.

In The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, Jenny Woolf hopes to lay waste to the myths and suspicions that surround the author by placing him firmly in the context of his own time. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born into a world where slavery was still legal, cholera was rife in cities, Roman Catholics were barred from Parliament, and tiny children were being worked to death in factories. He attended Rugby public school where violence and sexual abuse were to be expected and tolerated. In 1857 he became a fellow at Oxford University, allowing him to stay at the college for the rest of his life. This however had conditions,one that he should remain celibate, the other that he become an ordained minister of the Church of England. All of these experiences were instrumental in forming the man whom the world would come to know as Lewis Carroll.

For the average reader, one who has not read the works of Langford Read, Robin Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Florence Becker Lennon or Edward Wakeling, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll will provide great insight into the life and works of Lewis Carroll. For those who have read some or all of the above tiles, this new biography will help shed even further light on the retiring author with the help of new, unearthed information and through recently gained access to his bank accounts ledger.

Woolf’s biography begins with Carroll’s childhood before moving onto his love of mathematics, a rather dry area which she battles bravely to make interesting. Fans of Douglas Adams and the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books will be intrigued with Carroll’s seeming obsession with the number 42 – is this why Adams decided to make the answer to life, the universe and everything 42? This chapter also shows that Carroll was an author that plays – in his literature – as much with numbers as he did with words.

As the book enters the middle phase it concentrates more on Carroll’s relationships with children, particularly young girls and young women. There can be no denying that much of this makes for uncomfortable reading as it is wrong when judged by today’s standards but here Woolf shows that although Carroll’s behaviour did raise eyebrows at the time, he lived life by a strict, self-regulated moral code and his friendships with, and his photographing of young girls and young-women was always done with the parents consent.

Ms Woolf is certainly in the pro-Carroll corner and although she attempts very conscientiously to present a balanced view she wants one of her favourite authors to emerge as healthily as possible from this biography. But it is when she quotes from Florence Becker Lennon’s 1947 Lewis Carroll biography that a description that best fits Carroll is shown. Florence Becker Lennon described Carroll as “a damaged person who has been raised with sexual repressions that deprived him of happiness and obliged him to live inside an abnormal emotional ‘box’.” This is possibly a little harsh, and also fails to mention his many fine points but, based on the picture painted of the author by Woolf’s biography it is an analysis that rings true.

This book will not give great insight into the Alice in Wonderland books, they will give great insight into the author who wrote the works. As the book concludes it chooses his financial dealings in his lifetime to give the final and undistorted image of the author. The bank account ledgers examined are still pretty much intact (when compared to his diaries and letters) and the picture they paint of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is one of a man that should be held in high esteem. He was a generous man, always willing to help financially and spiritually. After the death of his father he took on the responsibility of organising and providing for the other 10 members of his family when they needed it. He was also an unstinting giver to charity and helped friends in their times of need.

Woolf’s research and reading of other Carroll biographies is extensive and this comes together provide a very comprehensive and fascinating overview of the author that gave the world Alice. This highly recommended biography will allow the reader to learn much of Carroll and the times into which he was born.

Jenny Woolf has been a freelance journalist for UK national newspapers and was a consulting editor of the American travel magazine Islands. She continued to work for British and foreign publications and for the BBC, for whom she made a Radio 4 programme about Lewis Carroll in 2006. She has had a lifelong interest in Lewis Carroll and is the author of Lewis Carroll In his Own Account (2005).

Born in 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent his early life in the north of England (at Daresbury, Cheshire and in Croft, Yorkshire). He spent his adult life in Oxford and died at Guildford in 1898. Besides the Alice books, he wrote many others including poems, pamphlets and articles. He was a skilled mathematician, logician and pioneering photographer and he invented a wealth of games and puzzles which are of great interest today. Through his range of talents he has acquired great respect and has a large following.

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf reviewed”

  1. In your rundown of the Carroll books you don’t mention ‘In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, the Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll.’ but surely this was the first book to try and ‘set the record straight’? Personally I think they are both hopelessly revisionistic. ‘Nice’ people can still be pedophiles.

  2. Hermione: But where is the evidence? That’s the point in Jenny Woolf’s book–there isn’t any. He had never been accused in his lifetime, and even after his death, nobody–including the young girls he had photographed–came forward to suggest that he has harmed them in any way. Quite the contrary, many looked back on him with fondness. While that does not constitute evidence that he was not a pedophile, it weighs in favor of those like Jenny who defend him against a persistent but unproven accusation.

  3. Hermione is right. Karoline Leach first posited this ten years ago. Revised edition of In the Shadow of the Dreamchild came out last year.

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