Reverend Dodgson and the dean's daughter

Lewis Carroll - Lewis Carroll - Lewis Carroll
February 7, 1997

Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's is a figure that does not easily accommodate itself to the prejudices of our age. It cohabited uneasily with those of its own. Many have tried to explain how a reclusive, querulous and reactionary mathematics don succeeded in writing two of the most popular and enduring children's books in the English language. A further question, asked with increasing insistence in a period which in its innocence of Greek mistakes child abuse for paedophilia, is how we can reconcile Dodgson's stern unbending morality with his relationships with a long succession of prepubescent girls? Many have sensed that the two enigmas are related.

Donald Thomas, in his perceptive and original account, nails his colours to the mast at an early stage: "Despite the wish of his successors to unearth some hidden vice, the evidence is not that he was a lonely prig tormented by secret sensualism nor a soul enthralled and horrified by images of children as sexually desirable. Had he been, he would be much less interesting." Thomas avoids the easy essentialism that would postulate a monolithic "Victorian" age and proceed to judge it by the superior insights of today. He insists that Dodgson's era was one of immense intellectual and social change. Most of these changes he resisted - did he suspect that he would, in a sense, become their victim? This biography directs our attention to the contingent realities of Dodgson's world, its growing awareness of psychopathology as exemplified in the studies of Krafft-Ebing, the journalistic crusades of W. T. Stead against endemic child prostitution and a new candour that characterised the relatively unbuttoned fin de si cle. Just as the secure, undisturbed tenor of Dodgson's life in Christ Church had been swept aside by modern reformism, a new intellectual climate threatened the innocence of Dodgson's private wonderland. Perhaps the Alice books present a valedictory for this Edenic stage of his psyche. Certainly the diaries and letters betray an increasing sense that his motive in forming relationships with young females might be open to misinterpretation.

Thomas convincingly argues that Dodgson could not have been unaware of new currents in contemporary self-understanding. On his frequent visits to London, his photographic interests brought him into contact with raffish London bohemia. He formed friendships with members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood such as Arthur Hughes and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His love of the theatre led him to the company of actors and actresses, including a friendship with Ellen Terry.

Despite Thomas's forensic and persuasive study, the enigma of Dodgson, like the smile of the Cheshire cat, remains. But this is as Thomas would have it, pointing out that "to explain the existence let alone the nature (of the Alice books) is tempting but perilous. Most literary critics of whatever persuasions who peer into the narratives see little more than their own faces peering out again." He also cautions against "posterity recasting him in our own tawdry image".

I fear that both warnings were published too late to be heeded by Morton Cohen who has written what it is tempting to describe as "Macmillan's revenge". (Dodgson's perfectionism made his publisher's life a misery.) Cohen does indeed "recast" Dodgson into a paragon of all the modern virtues. On the flimsiest of evidence, he transforms Dodgson's father into a tyrannical Victorian paterfamilias of whom the younger Dodgson lived in dread. He infers that the archdeacon must have been intolerant of his son's lapse from his own high church ecclesiology, dismayed by his failure to proceed from deacon's orders to the priesthood and was perhaps uneasy about his association with young girls. Having suggested such a scenario earlier in the book, Cohen then assumes it to be true. This enables him to read the Alice books as a parable of liberated youth subverting Victorian adult tyranny. He hears, in their more sadistic verses ("Speak roughly to your little boy/And beat him when he sneezes") or in the Queen of Hearts's taste for execution, an echo of the distant voice of the Archdeacon.

Were all this true, it seems most unlikely that towards the end of his own life, Dodgson would have confided to a female friend that his father's death was "the greatest blow that has ever fallen on my life". The difference in churchmanship between father and son would have been scarcely discernible during the former's lifetime. Neither was remotely interested in the "pomp and ritual" of the later phase of the Oxford Movement, though Cohen unaccountably implies that the archdeacon was. Moreover, the young Dodgson was to enjoy a lifelong friendship with Henry Parry Liddon whose views were far more advanced than those of his father. Cohen probably mistakes the vehement language of Oxford tract warfare for deep personal animosities.

The conjecture of a sundering of relationship between the archdeacon and his son and its use in elucidating the Alice books is further undermined by Cohen's insecure grasp of 19th-century ecclesiastical history. Edward Bouverie Pusey would have been astonished to learn that he considered the Church of England to be part of the Church of Rome. John Keble never broke away from the Church of England, as Cohen alleges, and the canons of Christ Church cathedral would have considered their consecrating the Bishop of Oxford to be an impossibility.

The prose of this biography is unbearably cliched and occasionally confused. We cannot be reminded about the onset of old age without being told (twice): "he felt keenly time's winged chariot at his heel" (rather than the Marvellian "back"). Ireland is, of course, "The Emerald Isle". In an otherwise informative section on Dodgson's photography we read: "He was by no means alone in his new-found interest" and four lines later: "It was not by any means an era of easy, instant photography." The same paragraph concludes: "wet-colodion was no misnomer". This kind of leaden writing is sometimes enlivened by an unintended comic effect: "During the winter, while the Liddell parents were away, he met the children and their governess frequently in various combinations." But at moments of high seriousness, the style becomes "music hall alliterative". "The great paradox of the life of this paragon, this prodigy of wit and laughter, is that he carried in his breast a heavy, brooding, solemn, sullen burden." Dodgson, who was thus addressed by even his most intimate (male) friends, is invariably called "Charles" by Cohen.

Michael Bakewell's biography is particularly good at leading its reader through the arcana of college and university life in Dodgson's time. He reminds us that Dodgson was one of the last to obtain his studentship (fellowship in non-Christ Church and modern parlance) under the old system of patronage. The Christ Church of the 1850s was in a state of picturesque decay presided over by the colourful Dean Gaisford who memorably commended the study of Greek that "not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument". Such background contributes to an understanding of Dodgson's numerous satires, parodies and polemics, mostly directed against the reformers.

Dodgson lived to become an Oxford legend. He was, in the words of Michael Sadler, steward of the common room: "The most prolific malcontent ... ever on the qui vive for negligence on the part of the college servants or minor inconveniences affecting his own comfortable life." Sadler was to receive, according to Bakewell, a steady stream of letters. "He complained that too much milk had been sent up with his breakfast: was he to be charged for it? He had specifically 'negatived' cauliflower because it was always badly cooked. Why had it been included in a meal sent up to his room, and was he to be charged for that? There was a dangerous 'effluvium' arising from under the Scout's Room ... Could not someone take a broom to the pools of water which habitually formed at 'Tom' Gate ... " Sadler seems not to have appreciated the "prodigy of wit and laughter".

Unlike Cohen, Bakewell depicts Dodgson's childhood, with the exception of his years at post-Arnold Rugby, as idyllic. Leisure hours at the rectory in Daresbury, Cheshire and later at Croft near Darlington were filled with games, logic puzzles, amateur dramatics and conjuring tricks, mostly organised by Dodgson for the entertainment of his seven sisters and three brothers. This distinctively Dodgsonian repertoire, used at a later date to amuse "girl friends" was augmented by a series of "house" magazines that contain Dodgson's precocious juvenilia. Much of this closely anticipates his adult writing. Bakewell makes the point that it was probably this indulgent (by the standards of the day) background that predisposed Dodgson to idealise childhood. His writing and photography can be seen as an attempt to memorialise and relive the past. Dreaming is another way in which fragments of the past are disinterred and often transmogrified. A number of his photographs are of girls pretending to be asleep. In a review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in the journal, The Athenaeum, the book is described as "a dream with all its loops and ties and loose threads and entanglements and inconsistencies and passages which lead to nothing ...". The strange menagerie of characters that inhabits the Alice books, contains teasingly oblique caricatures of personalities that Alice Liddell, as daughter of the dean, would have encountered in the quadrangles of Christ Church, just as the parodic verses would probably have been familiar to her in their original form. At a deep level, these books also mourn the transience of adult-child relationships. Time stands still at the Mad Tea Party as it does for the Red Queen. The books capture the last moments that Dodgson was able to share with the real Alice. As he was to write in the dedicatory verse of Through the Looking Glass: "No thought of me shall find a place In thy young life's hereafter -"I trust there will be future editions of this enjoyable book and that its author will take that opportunity to correct the error that A. C. Benson was ever Archbishop of Canterbury. This honour was bestowed upon E. W. Benson. A. C. (his son) was the famous master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the author of "Land of Hope and Glory".

Martin Gardner, author of The Annotated Alice claims that Dodgson is "one of England's greatest and most enigmatic writers." He is probably, and with the obvious exception of Shakespeare, the most widely quoted. His prose in the Alice books has a clarity and simplicity that makes them strangely undated and still accessible to many younger readers. The verses are memorable and appealing even to those with no knowledge of the originals they were intended to parody. The puns and other verbal games unpatronisingly introduce young readers into a world of adult sophistication. However, it has to be said that Dodgson's contemporary celebrity rests entirely on the slender foundation of just two books. Without them, one imagines, he would survive only as a footnote to 19th-century literature. His long nonsense poem, "The Hunting of the Snark", would continue to be anthologised, while his other published verse would be understandably forgotten. Even the most partisan Carrollians exhibit no enthusiasm for the sentimental and confused Sylvie and Bruno books. As a photographer he was a gifted amateur, although Tennyson probably intended a literary "put-down" when he remarked: "Where I dream poetry, Dodgson must dream photographs." His numerous books and pamphlets on Euclidian mathematics and symbolic logic are regarded within their disciplines as historical curiosities, despite their mention in Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics. As a clergyman he never proceeded beyond the order of deacon and then rarely exercised himself in that ministry. He was widely regarded as an uninspiring tutor, his diaries and letters evidence a positive distaste for this task. Yet how instinctively one agrees with Donald Thomas's verdict: "A man who bequeathed to the world three such treasures as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and 'The Hunting of the Snark' may be forgiven anything."

Ronald Warwick teaches postcolonial literature at Brunel University College.

Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with a Background

Author - Donald Thomas
ISBN - 0 7195 53237
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 404

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