|Charles L. Dodgson|
Is it just me, or do we all share the same difficulty in explaining to our friends that we like Carroll without getting strange looks in our direction? No matter how hard I try, I always seem to fail in stating my point… It’s very frustrating! For some reason, it seems to be impossible to talk about the author of the "Alice" books with a dispassionate tone, he always manages to stir deep emotions in people – for better and worse.
Apart from the whole 'did he or did he not take drugs when he wrote the "Alice" books' – that's another conundrum altogether! – I find it ironic that it was Carroll who started the controversy around himself we so desperately try to explain now. He was walking on the edge of propriety in his society by hanging around grown women, sometimes married women. Those associations put him and the women in question in great danger of being shunned by polite society and Dodgson was well aware of this. He tried to improve his reputation by associating with children, sending a message to his detractors that he represented no threat to his women friends; that, in fact, he had denied his sexuality by associating with sexless creatures (children). Even the women called themselves children – Isa Bowman is an example of that – so they could avoid scandal. It seems that Dodgson always lived on the edge… but he was controversial then. His family members made sure that hardly any women would be associated with his name and when his nephew wrote his biography, he devoted a lot of time talking about his uncle’s ‘child-friends’. Subsequent biographers were denied Dodgson’s papers and diaries and they just copied one another… until Cohen. He had access to a lot more information, but he was a 20th century man, looking at Dodgson’s life through 20th century eyes – which reflects in his work. Still, I commend his body of work on Carroll, I think it’s vital, but I believe he failed to connect all the dots – for example, like neglecting to realise that many letters were addressed to women, not children.
The work of Hugues Lebailly in 1998 (“Charles Dodgson And The Victorian Cult Of The Child”) helped clear a lot of misunderstandings surrounding Dodgson and the Victorian society. Of course, today no one can imagine a world where pictures of nude children are considered ‘art’, much less appear on Christmas cards.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Karoline Leach’s biography (1999), but it goes to her credit that she was able to look at things from a fresh perspective. She basically said ‘Look, we always had a certain image of Carroll, passed down from one biographer to another, but that image is false. We need to examine all the facts again.’ And she did! And she came up with her own theory (which I don’t necessarily agree with).
Jenny Woolf’s latest biography follows some of Karoline’s points and she builds another theory about Dodgson that makes more sense to me. Plus, the fact that she discovered Dodgson’s bank account intact is really remarkable. Apparently, he was very reckless with his money, even though his surviving diaries and letters never even hint at that fact, making Dodgson’ life just as elusive now as it has always been.
The more I read about him, the more complex the man becomes.
I just wished people looked for information, instead of passing snap judgements at him. It's so degradingly rude!