Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen (1995)
It has taken me a long time to read this biography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). At times I nearly stopped reading it as Cohen makes so many assumptions and speculates seemingly with little evidence to support his interpretation of the facts. His account of Charles Dodgson’s life is basically chronological, but because he also looks at different aspects of Charles’s life it is a bit repetitive. As biographies go this is not one of the most straightforward or readable. It’s extremely detailed and at nearly 600 pages it is not a quick read.
I'm reading Hermione Lee's Body Parts: essays in life-writing and she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf on the reductive effects of biography, which I think, is very apt. Woolf compares the writing of biography to the examination of species under a microscope and considers that we arrange what we see about a person and read into their sayings all kinds of meaning that they never thought of. Because of the mass of material available this means that Cohen has inevitably had to select what to include and what to omit and there many places in his biography where he has hypothesised and interpreted the events in Charles Dodgson's life. For me there are too many questions that Cohen asks and suggest answers which he uses to pyschoanalyse Dodgson's personality. The parts of the book that I liked best are those about the production of the Alice books, Charles's interest in photography, his beliefs, and love of games, puzzles and inventions.
Cohen recounts the story of how Charles came to write the Alice books. In 1862, he and his friend Duckworth were rowing on the river at Nuneham with the three Liddell sisters, Ina, Alice and Edith. Charles told them the story of Alice down the rabbit hole and Alice liked it so much that she pestered him to write it down for her. It was two and half years later that he completed his manuscript, illustrated with his own drawings. The book was eventually published in 1865, with the well-known illustrations by Tenniel.
I was interested to read how Charles went about writing:
"Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down - sometimes when out on a lonely winter walk, when I have had to stop, and with half-frozen fingers jot down a few words which should keep the new-born idea from perishing ... I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up ... Alice and Looking-Glass are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came out of themselves. Poor they may have been; but at least they were the best I had to offer."
He was ordained as Deacon in 1862 but never took full orders as a priest. He was deeply religious, but took a moderate and tolerant view of others’ beliefs. He was not a “High Churchman”, was repelled by ritualism, did not believe in eternal punishment, and refused to exclude non-Christians from salvation. Side by side with his religious beliefs Charles was also interested in psychical research and was a charter member of the Society for Psychical Research along with Conan Doyle, Gladstone, A J Balfour, Frederic Leighton, Ruskin and many more. He took a particular interest in ghost stories and ghost pictures, spiritualism, thought transmission and supernatural phenomena. He was also a keen photographer and theatregoer and was acquainted with the Terry family.
Charles had many other interests. He loved games, puzzles and gadgets and was very inventive. He invented amongst other ingenious objects, a chessboard to use when travelling; a Nyctograph for taking notes under the covers at night – this was in the days before the college rooms at Oxford had electricity; a variety of word games and games of logic, a game of circular billiards, a rule for finding the day of the week for any date; new rules for elimination for tennis tournaments; new systems of parliamentary representation; a device for helping a bedridden invalid to read a book placed sideways; a new sort of postal money order; and many other things. He was an accomplished conjurer and a collector of toys, games and puzzles and mechanical and technological inventions as well as music boxes, fountain pens and pencil sharpeners.
When he heard that Charles Babbage had invented a new calculating machine in 1867 he met Babbage, who showed him over his workshops. Charles then bought a calculating machine and in 1877 an “electric pen”, recently invented and patented by Edison. In 1888 he bought an early model of the “Hammond Type-Writer” which he used to write letters and entertain his child visitors. In 1890 he went to the London exhibition of “Edison’s Phonograph”, which he thought was “a marvellous invention”. When he heard the “private audience part”, he recorded that
“Listening through tubes, with the nozzle to one’s ear, is far better and more articulate than with the funnel: also the music is much sweeter. It is a pity that we are not fifty years further on in the world’s history, so as to get this wonderful invention in its perfect form. It is now in its infancy – the new wonder of the day, just as I remember Photography was about 1850.”
Much of the book is taken up with Charles’s writings as Lewis Carroll, his relationship with the Liddell family and his friendship with many children, apparently mainly young girls. The relationship between Charles and the Liddells has been the subject of some controversy and there is a mystery surrounding the disagreement that led to a breakdown of the friendship. Cohen analyses and speculates for many pages on this and on the implications of Charles’s friendship with young girls. I didn’t like it, nor did I like the chapters on Charles’s interest in child photography. Morton quotes from a letter Charles wrote to his sister in1893, in reply to her letter about the gossip she had heard:
“You, and your husband have, I think, been very fortunate to know so little by experience … of the wicked recklessness with which people repeat things to the disadvantage of others, without a though as to whether they have grounds for asserting what they say. I have met with a good deal of utter misrepresentation of that kind.”
He went on to explain that he applied two tests when having a particular “girl-friend” as a guest. These were first his own conscience, whether he felt it to be entirely innocent and right, in the sight of God and secondly, whether he had the full approval of the friend’s parents for what he did. He continued: “Anybody who is spoken about at all, is sure to be spoken against by somebody: and any action, however innocent in itself, is liable, and not at all unlikely, to be blamed by somebody. If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much!” Enough said, I think.
Charles Dodgson had enormous energy, worked extremely hard in all he did, was concerned and engaged in many of the topical and political issues of his times, was deeply and sincerely religious and produced the Alice books, that have been widely praised and acclaimed since they were first published. He had a great many friends and his generosity was boundless, both to his family and to others wherever he saw a need. He loved giving presents (unbirthday presents, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass), and gave away many copies of his books to children’s hospitals, mechanics institutes and village reading rooms. He was known and welcomed for his gift for making people laugh. Morton Cohen writes: “Humor and its concomitant laughter are surely minor miracles, overflowings of a mysterious inner force, momentary flourishes like lightning or a rainbow. They come from where we know not where and last but a fleeting second. Charles was one of those rare artists who could create those flashes, and did, to divert and amuse others.”
This book has increased my interest in Charles Dodgson. Other writers have written biographies, giving a different interpretation of his life from Cohen’s. In particular I would like to read In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach – see also the website The Carroll Myth.