Monday, March 1, 2010

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for sending me a copy of this book to read and review. I have to admit that beyond knowing that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician of some sort whose name was really Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, I knew very little about the man until I read it. Dodgson was born January 27, 1832 and died January 14, 1898.

Woolf's biography does a great job of filling in the general details of Carroll's life and the period he lived in, and then spends time delving more deeply into some of the more interesting and mysterious facets of his life. Because Carroll left journals, a great deal is known about some parts of his life. Unfortunately, some of his journals were either lost or destroyed, so there are some large holes missing from his history. Also, the journals we have seem to have been written in a way that largely left out his most personal thoughts and feelings. So many things that we wonder about Carroll can only be answered with vague and incomplete information. Luckily there are some things about which we have good information.

In this book, Jenny Woolf covers such topics as: Carroll's childhood and family life, his life and employment as a Don at Oxford, his interest in the human body, love and sex, storytelling, children, religion, the supernatural, and his hobby as a photographer. There is also a chapter on Alice Liddel which clarifies his relationship with her, and a chapter which discusses Carroll's finances. Woolf uncovered a completely new wealth of information about Lewis Carroll by tracking down his bank records.

The book is written very bravely. Instead of glossing over aspects of his personality which may not be that flattering to Carroll, Woolf presents what we know about him and points out how the information fits in its historical context. The result makes the reader feel like they get to know Carroll better, warts and all.

Carroll came from a large family and was the eldest male child. He became a deacon at Christ Church, Oxford, but never advanced to priesthood. The reasons behind this are many, but mostly it seemed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. He was very creative and children (and some adults) found him to be very entertaining. As the eldest male in his family, he took over the family finances when his father died, and was responsible for making sure his siblings were taken care of. Later in life Carroll was thought by many to be difficult and overly pious, and yet some got to know his deeply creative, imaginative and playful side.

One topic about Carroll's life that has received a lot of attention and speculation has been his sexuality and whether or not he liked little girls a bit too much. This is the same sort of speculation that another famous author, J.M. Barrie, the man who wrote Peter Pan, has been subjected to. Woolf does a good job of shining a sensible light on the subject, encourages readers to view the facts in their proper context, and dispels some myths. Something that would seem rather alarming to us now wouldn't seem so strange in the culture of Victorian England at the time Carroll lived.

In light of all this, I find it fascinating that Lewis Carroll had some maybe too-friendly relationships with grown women, which were considered inappropriate during his time, and that there was some scandal during his time.

Another topic in this biography that I found very interesting was a discussion of how central Alice Liddell was to the writing of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It seems like although Carroll was certainly fond of Liddell, he was also fond of many other children, and maybe history has made a little too much of it. For example, the character in the book, who had long, light hair, doesn't really match what Liddell looked like.

I don't want to reveal any spoilers, so I can't say much about the final chapter in the book, in which Woolf examines his financial records, but I will say that it is very interesting.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about Carroll will find The Mystery of Lewis Carroll a fascinating read. A person can only wonder what would have become of this amazing man if he had lived in a different time under different circumstances. Jenny Woolf has done a great job of presenting the information in an organized format, and her writing is clear and a delight to read. I would recommend this biography to anyone who would like to know more about Lewis Carroll.

Get The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf on Amazon.

Previously: New Book on Lewis Carroll

* * *

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very cool. An interesting website about the 'mythic' Carroll here:

Some of the graphics look weirdly Burtonesque