With the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland close by, this scholarly study of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, universally known by his pen-name Lewis Carroll, is certainly timely.
Its author Edward Wakeling, editor of Dodgson’s diaries, knows more than anyone else about this brilliant, quirky character and puts his knowledge to good effect. In the process all later slurs against a man and author, popular and much respected in his time, are magisterially swatted. Nude photographs of small girls? These amounted to only 30 studies out of 30,000. An accompanying aversion to boys of any age? There are plenty of photographs of them too. Awkward with adults and only at home with children? He had a wide circle of friends and mixed on equal terms with the famous figures of his day. Impossible to work with? John Tenniel, his greatest illustrator, remained a life-long friend.
To continue to pillory Dodgson for no more than enjoying the company of small children says more about prurient mean-mindedness and ignorance than it does about the author of the best fantasy story ever written. The oldest son in a family of 11, Dodgson was a kind and constantly inventive brother. Accepting membership of Christ Church College Oxford meant that he was then expected to take holy orders and remain celibate. Deprived therefore of having his own family he used all the many entertainment skills he had once perfected at home to amuse other children instead. Wakeling’s book bulges with tributes paid to Dodgson by adults who remembered how much fun he had brought into their lives when young and who stayed friends with him ever after. There are suggestions that he disapproved of the stern approach Queen Victoria took towards her own children, with Alice’s adversary, the ruthless Queen of Hearts, an echo of the sovereign who Dodgson described, after having met her at Oxford, as “plain” and “dumpy”.
Wakeling’s book is not always easy reading, quoting at length Dodgson’s letters not just to friends, children and publishers but also to the various mathematicians, logicians, photographers and other professionals he knew during his life. But it is important to place this supreme ironist in context, with some later waspish comments clearly not meant to be taken seriously. Here and elsewhere, for anyone who wants to know what this complicated genius was like, this current work of reference does it all and is unlikely to be surpassed.
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