At one point in Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Morton Cohen notes that “next to the Bible and Shakespeare,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) “are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted” in the English-speaking world. He goes on to cite the number of editions, adaptations, and critical studies inspired by these tales of a young girl in a magical fantasy land and comments on the growth of societies founded for the study and enjoyment of Lewis Carroll’s writings.
This is no small accomplishment, and one might assume that the life story of so successful an author would be of some interest to readers who have been delighted by these tales. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the man behind the stories knows that Lewis Carroll never existed; rather, the adventures of Alice and the cast of strange characters were brainchildren of a stodgy Oxford professor named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who never married and who spent his entire adult life at Christ Church College, Oxford, tutoring recalcitrant young men in mathematics and pursuing his many personal interests. These included photography, poetry, puzzles, and inventions of all sorts; when Dodgson was not teaching or writing his stories for children, he worked on textbooks for students of mathematics and logic. One might on occasion find in the story of a clergyman’s son who became a mathematics professor some moments of interest, but this is hardly the stuff of which great biography is made. Nevertheless, like many other Victorian figures, Dodgson pursued a “secret life” (a term that has become almost hackneyed in the twentieth century) which has proved as fascinating as his bizarre tales of talking cats and vindictive playing cards.
Cohen, a respected scholar who has devoted much of his career to the study of Lewis Carroll and his works, claims his purpose is to “paint a total picture” of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “breaking through Victorian reticence and detecting the motives that lived behind the conventional social mask.” That is no small task, since Dodgson was in many ways a typical Victorian: private, evasive, extremely sensitive to social proprieties, and eccentric. Like many of his contemporaries, however, he was prodigious in his correspondence and private writing (he left behind nearly one hundred thousand letters and several volumes of a personal diary). Again like others in nineteenth century England, he was intensely committed to self-improvement, as evidenced by the endless list-making and self-criticism that fill his diaries—behavior that might seem neurotic in the twentieth century but was not so unusual in the preceding one. Although he did not suffer from the crisis of faith that gripped many in the wake of scientific revelations about evolution, his crises revolved around a subject even more taboo: sexual preference. The “conventional social mask” under which the Oxford don hid from the world was transparent to many who knew him, but their sense of propriety did not permit public disapprobation of the quirky habits of one who, even into his sixties, preferred the company of prepubescent girls.
Underlying Cohen’s detailed recitation of the facts of Dodgson’s life is a consistent attempt to explain, and at times justify, his subject’s penchant for the company of young women. Cohen employs a rather unusual pattern for organizing Lewis Carroll. The first chapters are largely biographical, tracing the writer’s career through childhood, adolescence, and early manhood, recording his rise to an appointment as lecturer of mathematics at Oxford and his friendship with the family of George Liddell, dean of Christ Church College, where Dodgson held his academic appointment. These chapters end with a brief account of the glorious day in 1862 when Dodgson composed extemporaneously for the Liddell sisters the tale of Alice’s underground adventures, which would form the basis for Alice in Wonderland. From that point forward, he introduces a series of chapters that discuss Dodgson’s lifelong fascination with children (especially girls), provide information on the publication and reception of Alice in Wonderland, and offer a number of possible interpretations for the story. Cohen then picks up the biographical thread again, examining the decades of the 1870’s and 1880’s, when Lewis Carroll was becoming an international figure and Charles Dodgson was producing important mathematical tracts in great number. There follow a number of chapters that once again explore important themes and relationships in Dodgson’s life, most notably his relationship with his father and his attitude toward religion. These are...
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