Competing for glory in the Carrollingian Caucus-race

Peter Parker assesses two new contenders in the Lewis Carroll biography stakes
Click to follow
Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Michael Bakewell, Heinemann, pounds 20 Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background by Donald Thomas, John Murray, pounds 25

There was no 'One, two, three and away!' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over." The world of Lewis Carroll biography sometimes seems like Wonderland's Caucus-race: here, hard on the heels of Morton Cohen's long-awaited, would-be-definitive biography come two more stout volumes which attempt to unravel the complex life and personality of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Both, however, are published too late to take account of Karoline Leach's claim that a scrap of paper she discovered in Guildford Library explains Dodgson's break with the Liddells in June 1863 (he was thought to be courting Alice's elder sister, Ina).

Part of the reason that Carroll studies continue to flourish is that, like the Alice books themselves, Dodgson's life is open to an almost infinite variety of interpretations. The puzzle which first attracted biographers was how a shy, stammering mathematics don in holy orders should have written two of English literature's most bizarre and subversive children's books. A more depressing puzzle is how, having produced these books, Dodgson could become such a bore - priggish, sentimental and conservative even by the standards of the Victorian church. One solution, suggested by Dodgson's own careful demarcation between "the Reverend C.L. Dodgson", author of Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, and "Lewis Carroll", author of The Hunting of the Snark, is that he had two distinct personalities. Although Dodgson occasionally admitted to being Lewis Carroll when this was advantageous (as in the pursuit of "child-friends"), letters arriving at Christ Church addressed to his alter ego went unanswered. What happened when the prim and pious Dr Jekyll-Dodgson collaborated with the anarchic Mr Hyde-Carroll may be seen in the mess that is Sylvie and Bruno.

What these biographies make clear is that Dodgson and Carroll co-existed, simultaneously if uncomfortably, within one person, but that Dodgson eventually triumphed. His life might be presented as a classic Freudian struggle between the ego (Dodgson) and the id (Carroll), and there is much evidence to suggest that Dodgson himself was aware of the need to "modify" his more primitive, Carrollingian instincts.

Was Dodgson's conscience troubled by the small girls he befriended and sometimes photographed, both in and out of their clothes? Thomas insists that Dodgson was a genuine innocent, not "a lonely prig tormented by secret sensualism nor a soul enthralled and horrified by images of children as sexually desirable". Perhaps only someone genuinely innocent could write to the parent of a prospective photographic model: "I should like to know exactly the minimum of dress I may take her in, and I will strictly observe the limits. I hope that, at any rate, we may go as far as a pair of bathing drawers, though for my part I should much prefer doing without them". He added that he would also like to photograph the child's 13-year-old sister naked, but "feared that there was no use suggesting it". As Michael Bakewell comments: "There is something rather disturbing about the way Dodgson tried to press his demands further and further", and the children's mother not unnaturally took fright.

Even more disturbing is a photograph of Evelyn Hatch, which Bakewell reproduces without comment. Naked, her body turned towards the camera, the child lies on her side, her hands behind her head, and stares out at us, in a pose clumsily reminiscent of Goya's Maja. Unlike Goya's adult model, however, she looks distinctly uneasy; the fact that she later recalled her friendship with Dodgson with pleasure does not neutralise this disquieting image.

Thomas may well be right to insist that Dodgson's photographic eye was a great deal more innocent than our own, but both he and Bakewell acknowledge that Dodgson's pursuit of child models led him into dangerous territory, and eventually led him to abandon photography altogether. Dodgson was evidently assailed by doubts during the long Victorian nights, and in 1893 he published Pillow Problems, a volume of puzzles intended to divert the insomniac from troubling thoughts, including (as he artlessly explained) "unholy thoughts, which torture with their hateful presence the fancy that would fain be pure".

As his early letters and the Alice books show, there was a time when Dodgson had no compunction about terrorising children. Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole and passage through the looking-glass lead her into genuinely frightening other worlds. But then, there were two Wonderlands. Carroll's was an uncertain and irrational place populated by eccentrics and overseen by despotic monarchs; Dodgson's, alas, was a commonplace Victorian fairyland, where dear little children romped in innocent nudity. Carroll's vision is genuinely unsettling, Dodgson's merely creepy.

Bakewell has written a clear, straightforward life, which is eminently readable and frequently enlivened by a dry humour ("Only Christina Rossetti would have described the Dormouse as sparkling"). As its subtitle suggests, Thomas's more ambitious book places Dodgson in a social and historical context - sometimes alarmingly so (there's a substantial entry in the index for Krafft-Ebbing). It includes a great deal of fascinating marginalia, but suffers from repetition and an occasional loss of focus. Both books tend to use the same stories, though occasionally with a different emphasis. Alice Raikes's often repeated claim, for example, that a game with mirrors she played with Dodgson inspired Through the Looking-Glass, is accepted by Thomas, but dismissed by Bakewell as part of "the mythologising process" that has dogged Carroll biographies. The snobbish, social-climbing Liddells are not much liked by anyone, though neither biographer is as hard on the adult Alice as Morton Cohen was, and the central mystery of Dodgson's relations with this family remains. Leach's "evidence" about Ina is far from conclusive, bracketed as it is with another rumour, certainly untruer, that Dodgson was using Alice as a means of courting the children's unprepossessing governess.

The censoring and destruction of diaries and letters irresistibly suggests that the Dodgson family had something to hide. Given the exaggerated sense of propriety that ruled Dodgson's own later life, however, it is also possible that his heirs were simply being overcautious.