Book Review: The Mystery Of Lewis Carroll

The Mystery Of Lewis Carroll: Discovering The Whimsical, Thoughtful, And Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice In Wonderland, by Jenny Woolf

This particular book, like some others I have read [1], was a gift to me from a friend of mine. Lewis Carroll is a figure who I have known for some time for his fondness in writing children’s literature and for his skill in mathematics, which ended up being a subject of discussion when I was a member of the Florida Bibliophile Society (bibliophile means, for those who are not aware, a lover of books). When I read this book, I did not know much about the biographical details of Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson), and in retrospect it may have been better to have known at least a bit more about his life because it would have made reading about his life, and the way that biographers have treated his life in the 20th century, less alarming and painfully uncomfortable for me.

This book takes an approach to the life of Lewis Carroll that is a blend of chronological and thematic. The author seeks to stay close to the evidence as it is available and also wrestles with the temptation to psychoanalyze Carroll after the fact, and try to fill in the blank spaces in his life with suppositions. There are also a few new sources, including some letters from Alice’s sister (who was apparently a very flirtatious young lady whose teenage crush on the lifelong bachelor Carroll led to a cooling of the relationship between Carroll and the family) as well as the bank records of Lewis Carroll, which show some mysterious expenses as well as a life of rather modest means on the part of Carroll, who like other writers (like Jane Austen) never made a good living as a writer despite having written a widely recognized classic in Alice In Wonderland.

The book is organized with a few large chapters, starting with a chapter that looks at Carroll’s family background and his relationship with his parents and his many siblings (he had ten, and he was the eldest son, responsible for helping to support his many spinster sisters, especially after the death of his father). Then the book looks at Carroll’s education life in private school (where there was a lot of fierce bullying that gave him a lifelong advocacy for the underdog and for abused and exploited women and children), as well as some discussion of his time at Oxford, where he became a professor of mathematics who specialized in logic and puzzles. After this come chapters on the human body and on his views of love and sex (which introduces the thorny subject of Carroll’s relationship with married women, small children, and teen girls) and on his view of children, as well as Alice (and her sister Ina) specifically. Then comes a chapter on Carroll’s interest in the supernatural and his complicated religious views (which included an untoward interest in evolution, which seemed to harm his religious faith). Then came a look at his interests in literature and storytelling, which appear to have been directed particularly at children. After a chapter on photography that shows how his career as a well-respected amateur photographer ended because of offense caused by the anger of parents of a seventeen year old girl who was a close friend of his (when he was significantly older, in his late 40’s), the author writes a personal conclusion that shows her admiration for the noble and complicated character of Lewis Carroll, followed by an appendix that speculates that the famous author and mathematician struggled with migraine headaches and possibly seizures.

I should note that this book was particularly painful for me to read in several ways. This book dwelt on several aspects of Carroll’s life that I found rather personally relevant in awkward and uncomfortable ways, many of which caused me distress to read. For one, the book commented on Carroll’s unpleasant childhood experiences with bullying and the potential of serious child abuse at the hand of his peers. Also, the book looked over and over and over again at the Carroll’s friendship with married women, children, and teenage girls, some of which attracted negative commentary (including by the parents of the girls, although the girls themselves uniformly stated, both during his life and after his death, that Carroll was himself a tender-hearted and affectionate and harmless sort of person who liked witty and mostly innocent conversation with gentle people). The fact that Carroll had to deal his entire life (along with writing after his death) with people who saw something sinister in his quirky and eccentric ways, ways that are not so different than my own, is not a pleasant matter to think about. Looking at the pains that the author takes to defend the honor and nobility of character of Carroll makes me pity any future biographer of mine, if I am so fortunate to have one. Small wonder that Carroll was so reticent about emotional matters in his own writings, and that his family was equally private.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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