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Who Was the Real Lewis Carroll?

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Midway through her adventures in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar. He stares at her in silence for some minutes before removing the hookah from his mouth: 

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
“I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” 

Alice gradually learns to give up the idea of a wholly-knowable self. In fact, she progresses through Wonderland’s fantastical trials only when she allows for uncertainty. (“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”) The episode is a pertinent one for biographers of Lewis Carroll. They want to know the mind behind the madness. They want to excavate Carroll entirely. Ever since Stuart Collingwood (Carroll’s nephew) published the first biography of the author in 1898, there have been a host of books purporting to uncover the real Lewis Carroll. But pinning him down feels a bit like chasing the white rabbit.

Lewis Carroll is, in fact, the pseudonym for someone who seemed very unlike the creator of a mind-bending dreamscape: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent the majority of his years as a stoical lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. “Who could have guessed,” one of his students wrote, “that the dry little man … was hatching in that fertile brain of his such a miracle of fancy and fun as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?” 

Dodgson strived to maintain a divide between his professional academic reputation and his literary persona as the author of nonsensical children’s books. When he occasionally received letters addressing him as Lewis Carroll, he even went to the effort of replying that he “neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym, or with the book that is not published under his own name.”

Plenty of artists like to (or have to) keep their art-making confined to after hours—think of Wallace Stevens selling insurance during the day and crafting some of the most lasting twentieth-century poetry at night, or T.S. Eliot scribbling The Waste Land between shifts at Lloyds Bank. And many also published under pseudonyms not necessarily because they had to hide their identities, but because they liked the creative freedom anonymity affords. Stendhal was only one of Marie–Henri Beyle’s many pen names, adopted to dissociate himself from his previous writings. Mary Ann Evans masculinized herself as George Eliot to ensure that her novels would be taken seriously. More recently, the anonymous Italian novelist who writes under the name Elena Ferrante explained, “I felt the burden of exposing myself to the public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.”  

Carroll is different, however, in that he not only denied authorship, but he seemed to have cause for secrecy in his life. Dodgson took hundreds of photos of children (mostly female). They were the children of his colleagues and friends, photographed indoors and outdoors, sometimes clothed and sometimes nude. He repeatedly expressed his fondness for children and seems to have spent a lot of time alone with them. This has led some to believe that his relationship with Alice Liddell (the inspiration for the Alice books) wasn’t as innocent as it seemed—a theory that has marred Lewis Carroll’s reputation for some time. It’s a juicy bit of literary gossip, made juicier by the discrepancy between the playful quality of Carroll’s books and the dark “truth” about their author. 

A new biography by Edward Wakeling, Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle, sets out to clear Carroll’s name. Wakeling approaches his subject through the lens of Dodgson’s acquaintances—his family, friends, Oxford associates, mathematics colleagues, fellow artists, and members of the royal family. The idea is to show Carroll in the light of these relationships, as a member of respectable society. Wakeling wants to insist, “You can tell a great deal about a person by the company he keeps.” 

The sentiment ends up ringing rather naïve—as though, because this or that upstanding person thought well of Dodgson, he couldn’t have been anything less than admirable. Is it possible that history has misread his collection of photographs and his relationship with Alice? Yes. Is it possible that he was amiable but also a pedophile? Yes. In the end, the biography doesn’t offer any more certainty than competing theories. What does come across is the remarkable urgency Wakeling feels to prove that Lewis Carroll was a decent man. But why do we need our favorite writers to be good people? Surely the Alice books will be neither better, nor worse, for the moral status of their author. We’ll keep reading them regardless.

So who was Lewis Carroll? Does it matter?  Here is Alice Liddell’s view.

On a summer day in 1862, Alice and her sisters followed Charles Dodgson across the idyllic quadrangles of Christ Church toward the River Isis. They carried picnic baskets; they sang rhyming tunes; they intended to spend the whole afternoon drifting on the water in blissful idleness. At the rowboat, the girls initiated a competition over who got to sit next to “the great mathematician,” the man who “possessed such an intricate mind, we are told, that he could by perfectly faultless logic prove that a man is not a man!”  Settling down, they begged for a story. Dodgson rowed the boat and began fabricating an account of Alice’s dream. Sometimes, to the great dismay of the girls, he pretended to fall asleep.

Alice Liddell recounted this afternoon in her old age when she was asked to talk about her memories of Lewis Carroll. (Wakeling includes an excerpt from the manuscript in the biography.) In Alice’s memory, Dodgson was a “fairy godfather,” a fount of wondrous stories. Her account lends credence to the belief that Dodgson’s relationship with Alice was indeed innocent. (Or, at least, his proclivities, if they existed, went unexpressed.) At the end of one similar outing, Alice begged Dodgson to write the story down for her. So began the writing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Dodgson presented the finished notebook to Alice as a Christmas gift two years later.

Though Dodgson seemed to keep his academic life separate from his storytelling, there is an interesting correlation between his tales for children and his mathematical work: both involve figuring out the game, the laws by which things work. His stories weren’t just nonsense; they played with the multiple meanings of words, with perspective and interpretation, and with the rules of logic. Dodgson was fascinated by mathematical puzzles—he discovered, for instance, a formula to calculate in your head the day of the week for any date—and had a special interest in how logical thinking develops. Wakeling argues that this is, in part, why he loved interacting with children. (Another woman who knew him as a child recalled, “You never thought of him as a middle-aged man… because I think he did become the same age as the children he was talking to.”) Dodgson’s interest in logic, games, and children’s intellectual development coalesced in his mathematical text, Game of Logic.

But even if his fascination with children’s whimsical and inquisitive minds explains all the time he spent with them, what of the photographs? Dodgson was an amateur photographer. He set up his own studio in his rooms at Oxford where he photographed hundreds of children—but he also photographed his colleagues and famous artists in Victorian England (including, for instance, Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The children are in fact naked in only a small portion of the photographs, and Wakeling explains that these nude “studies” of children were an aesthetic convention of the time, a celebration of innocence. We shouldn’t view the photographs with twenty-first century eyes, he argues: Dodgson doesn’t deserve the criticism leveled against him. 

Does Wakeling’s logic stick? Was Dodgson just a victim of anachronistic thinking, applied to the mores of an earlier era? In Victorian high society, it was fashionable to have children photographed posing as though they were angels. The theory seems to have been trumped up, based on a handful of images at a time when literary historians were eager to disclose authors’ “true” sexual identities. Then again, Dodgson made some questionable quips: When a friend brought his son to visit, Dodgson wrote, “He thought I doted on all children. But I’m not omnivorous!—like a pig. I pick and choose.” This is probably a joke. Could it be something more? We’ll never know.  

This biography does offer a real contribution to the Carroll scholarship, though: It presents new letters, excerpts from rare manuscripts, and Dodgson’s surviving diary. “Having spent more than fifteen years editing his diaries,” Wakeling writes, “I have a sense of what this man would do and what he would not do, of what he believed in and what he did not.” But how much of a person falls between the gaps of what a biography can capture? And when is it ever possible to say with certainty what someone would do, especially in the most private aspects of his life?

Wakeling’s biography is the product of his decades-long attempt to know Alice’s author absolutely. It’s a sympathetic enterprise: We long to understand the mind from which a great work of art originates. But it’s an enterprise that clashes with the principles of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction that Carroll cultivated in his own writing. We can hear Lewis Carroll’s voice in his letters; we can glimpse his personality through the perspectives of others; we can even factor in that he found Queen Victoria “plain” and “dumpy” (a model for the Red Queen, perhaps?). But like the caterpillar, we’re still left wondering, “Who are you?”