A passion for little women

Has Lewis Carroll, mathematician and child-fancier, been nailed at last? Miranda Seymour takes his side; Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Morton N Cohen, Macmillan, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Dear Professor Cohen,

After twenty years of devotion to my work, you must be aware of how little pleasure it affords me to see my pseudonym broadcast to the world. "Lewis Carroll'' was the name by which I chose to separate the fanciful works I wrote for the pleasure of children from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford. You know how I have suffered on the occasions when my "anonym'' has been penetrated by determined lion-hunters. Perhaps I should be grateful that you refer to me by my own name, Charles, throughout your long - your over-long - work.

I have read your book attentively. From you, as the editor of my letters and author of several studies of my writings and photography, I would have hoped for less idle speculation and more consideration for my own views. It is not all bad - you are, on some occasions, pleasingly astute - but I am afraid that I smiled at your claim to have shown "the man entire''.

I will endeavour to proceed in chronological order, a method which you do not appear to relish. You commence by describing, quite rightly, my happy, productive adolescence, my fondness for my siblings and my parents, my pleasure in contriving word-games, playlets and ballads for the family's entertainment. You mention the bullying which I endured as a schoolboy. I am gratified by your references to my precocity as a mathematcian. And yet, towards the middle of the book, you stand the beginning on its head. You make only a passing reference to the shock I suffered when my dear mother died, two days after I entered Oxford. You banish that happy adolescence and present my father as a monster, destined to become a tyrant in Wonderland. What, pray, are the mysterious calamities of my youth to which you obscurely refer? And why do you refuse to accept that the death of my poor father, when I was thirty-six, was "the deepest sorrow I have known in life?'' Did you think me insincere when I wrote that?

Having ample time nowadays to study my published letters, I am struck by the similarity between my father's vivid and even violent imagination and my own. While sharing your scorn for those who have perceived the Alice books as sadistic, I am surprised that you have not suggested that my literary style was greatly affected by my father's writing. True, his letters to me are largely unavailable, but even one might have disclosed this to a thoughtful reader.

You are agreeably shrewd and considerate in your discussions of my attachment to children; I am glad that you have not dwelt entirely on my affection for little girls. You are right to draw attention to my love of Blake's Songs of Innocence. My feelings were, as I have written elsewhere, sweet and wholesome. When I photographed children in their natural state, or invited them to dine in my rooms, I did so only after obtaining their parents' permission. You know my scorn for Mrs Grundy. Sadly, there were several mothers who cared more for convention than for the education and love which were all I ever wanted to bestow. "All that matters is what we do for others''; you will recall where I wrote that, I feel sure. I am at a loss to understand why you regard my occasional friendships with young women in their mid-twenties as analogous to my avuncular affection for children of eight or nine. I was never entirely serious, as you find me, when I described myself as "desperate'' over the news of a former child-friend's marriage. No matter! We had better approach the subject of the Liddells. You rightly indicate that dear Alice was not always a lovable child. I understand now how strongly she resembled her snobbish, overbearing mother; I had not fully appreciated that at the time. You seek explanations for the estrangement. It was, as you have guessed, her mother's doing.

Certainly, Mrs Liddell looked for someone above a poor lecturer for her daughter - a prince, indeed! It may have been that I offended her by some jesting reference to a marriage between us, the kind of joke which is made to flatter and entertain a little girl. Mrs Liddell had no sense of humour about marriage prospects for her daughters. She regarded me, and all the Dodgsons, as socially inferior.You describe me, correctly, as a shy man and allude to the stammer from which all my family suffered. It would have pleased me if you could have indicated the trouble I took to cure myself and to procure assistance for fellow-sufferers; Mr Rivers, whose son did so much to ease the trauma of shell-shocked poets such as Sassoon and Graves after my time, might have been more generously mentioned. By enabling me to speak with more confidence, he greatly eased my life.There are respects in which you baffle me. You over-praise my little burlesques and parodies. You are prepared to accept the opinions of others - all most flattering - on my contribution to algebra and determinants. You have delighted me with the way in which you, even more than the excellent Martin Gardner, have penetrated the allusions to college life in the Alice books. I do, however wonder why, when you are so sure that I am describing the real Alice's spoilt ways and social aspirations through her Looking- Glass journey, you also believe "Alice'' to be a portrait of myself? You may persuade your readers of this, but you do not convince me!You are not the first to have a low opinion of the Sylvie and Bruno books. They were intended to be entertaining and educational; it seems that they have fallen short of that aspiration. My humour was, perhaps, a little heavy- handed. You know how much I used to fear that the children for whom I devised jokes and conundrums were puzzled and bored by my endeavours to combine instruction with pleasure. But the Snark! May I refresh your memory about the extraordinary way in which you wrote about the poem? You compare it to a symphony or mass. You then invite your readers to memorise the refrain, while comparing the sound of the words "Snark'' and "boojum,'' and conclude: "Together they encompass an extreme range of contradictions we face with life and death. That is why the Snark was a Boojum, you see.'' That, Professor Cohen, is among the most nonsensical observations on the poem I have yet been compelled to read. It is a poem about the search for happiness, as I have often written. Nothing more.How ironic to discover that I hastened my death so unwittingly by using the new asbestos fires in my rooms! But I would not have chosen to prolong my existence by many years. The love of an old bachelor for little children had made me something of a laughing-stock. It was growing hard for me to find new child-friends and I was never omni vorous, like a pig. I always liked to pick and choose.

Sincerely yours,

Charles Dodgson