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Donald Thomas


A Portrait With Background

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This is a biography of two people, Lewis Carroll and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who inhabited the same body but whose personalities differed in a number of ways. Later in life Dodgson was not always happy to acknowledge himself to be Lewis Carroll to admirers of his writing, unless they happened to be prepubescent girls.

As Lewis Carroll, Dodgson produced three works of genius: the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark. All three are still widely quoted; in English literature only Shakespeare has more citations. Yet if it were not for these, Dodgson would hardly merit a footnote in a study of Oxford eccentrics in the nineteenth century. There was certainly an abundance of these, and Thomas provides plenty of stories about them. I particularly liked the don whose ambition it was to sample every imaginable kind of dish. Moles tasted unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as bluebottles, it appears.

Thomas does not provide a detailed critique of the Alice books, though he does tell the story of how Alice in Wonderland came to be written. He has more to say about this book than about Through the Looking-Glass, perhaps because he finds the first book to be the better of the two; personally, I would reverse this judgement. What does emerge clearly, however, is that Dodgson's subsequent literary output, including Sylvie and Bruno, over which he laboured so much, was infinitely inferior. Late in life he even attempted an embarrassing 'baby talk' version of Alice which is mercifully now forgotten.

In some ways Dodgson was ahead of his time in his religious views, saying that eternal damnation must be false even if—which he doubted -- there was Scriptural authority for it. He never became a priest, preferring to remain a deacon, but unlike some other churchmen of his acquaintance he enjoyed the theatre provided there was nothing remotely offensive in it. He was extremely prudish and objected to the slightest impropriety, on the stage or in real life, though his literary taste was more relaxed. Some found him stiff and withdrawn but many friends loved him dearly.

The most contentious aspect of Dodgson's character is his relationship to young girls. His activities over many years would today almost certainly result in his being arrested for paedophilia. Towards the end of his life changes in the way such things were perceived were already beginning to excite gossip about his practice of inviting girls—though always with their parents' permission—to stay with him in his hotel at Eastbourne. He was a keen amateur photographer and liked to take pictures of girls wearing few clothes or preferably none at all. But there is no suggestion of any impropriety in his behaviour to these young friends and he would have been horrified to think of such a thing.

Dodgson was a mathematician and took a delight on thinking up complicated puzzles with which to annoy his acquaintances. He used to think about such things in bed at night, apparently to keep sexual thoughts at bay. Yet his mathematical interests were old-fashioned, with an emphasis on Euclid, and he had no interest in the new kinds of mathematical thinking that were developing in Europe. Later in life his interest shifted to logic, and he tried to teach this to schoolgirls, who, not surprisingly, were difficult to interest in the subject.

Relations with publishers were different then from now. Dodgson was an astute business man and made a good income out of his writing. His books were published by Macmillan, but Dodgson himself had to accept a lot of the initial financial risk. He was obsessional about the printed qualiity of his works and rejected a print run if it was not up to standard. He treated Macmillan as a kind of ticket agency, telegraphing them to acquire theatre tickets for him when he was out of town.

The subtitle of this book gives a good indication of its scope. It offers an interesting and surprising picture of nineteenth-century Oxford at a time of transition, in addition as a sympathetic but not uncritical depiction of Dodgson. It will interest anyone who wants to know more about the author of two of the best-known, and still best-loved, works in English.

15 November 2008

%T Lewis Carroll
%S A Portrait With Background
%A Donald Thomas
%I John Murray
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 0-7195-5323-7
%P 494pp
%K biography
%O illustrated

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