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Lewis Carroll’s ‘Dreamchild?


ISSUE:  Summer 2000
In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll. By Karoline Leach. Peter Owen/Dufour. $35.95.

Some books, like David Friedrich Strauss’ The Life of Jesus, forever change the direction of scholarly inquiry. Just as Strauss attempted to reveal the historical Jesus behind the gospel formulations and the deposits of centuries of faith and tradition, so Karoline Leach attempts to find the historical Charles L. Dodgson behind, as she would have it, the Lewis Carroll myth. It is impossible to say whether the Rev. Charles Dodgson would have been more upset by the comparison of his newest biographer’s work with that of Strauss (Dodgson having been a very devout and conservative Christian and ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church) or with the surprising conclusions Leach reaches, or rather suggests, about his love life.

Leach’s heretical thesis, which scandalizes and enrages orthodox Carrollians, is that C.L. Dodgson was primarily interested not in little girls but in sexually mature women. And if that were not blasphemous enough, she further argues, albeit considerably less convincingly, that the main object of the Rev. Dodgson’s affections was none other than Lorina Liddell, nee Reeve, wife of the Dean of Christ Church and mother of the real Alice, the inspiration for Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the “dreamchild” of Leach’s title.

Although Leach’s book is no biography in the conventional sense, she does begin with the basic facts: “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832. He died on 14 January 1898. “Lewis Carroll” was born on 1 March 1856 and is still very much alive.” Ever since the first occurrence in print of Dodgson’s famous pseudonym, the historical record has become confused. The primary sources to which one would normally turn are a problem: Dodgson’s family burned many of his personal papers in Oxford after his death and the manuscript of his diaries was made available to no one outside the immediate family for more than half a century. The main source for his life, until the rather recent efforts to publish the unexpurgated diaries and the appearance of such thorough biographical studies as Morton Cohen’s recent book, informed by decades spent assembling and editing Carroll’s correspondence, was the official family biography written in the Victorian hagiographic tradition by Carroll’s nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood. This latter work, Leach argues, fixed and popularized the notion of Lewis Carroll as an eternal child, the Oxford don comfortable only in the company of female children, a mathematician untouched by life’s more normal male-female relations. True, Collingwood did have access to the original diaries and perhaps much other material, but the last two chapters of his biography were solely his own invention, Leach believes.

Leach argues that Dodgson was more interested in sex than calculus from the time of his undergraduate mathematical reading vacation at Whitby in 1854. To make a possible case here she relies on a highly biographical reading, a technique she employs several times in this work, of both the poem and short story Dodgson wrote at that time and contributed to the Whitby Gazette. In the former, the hero falls in love with a cook named Matilda, in the latter the barmaid Sukie. Pace Leach, there is little to suggest that art imitated life here anymore than it did in the rabbit hole of Wonderland. Dodgson, like most of his generation, was for too class-conscious for any such dalliance.

A major contribution of this book, however, is to focus attention on the fact that many of Dodgson’s “child friends” were hardly children by any standard. She examines these “friendships,” from that with the actress Isa Bowman, who was above the age of consent when she first met Dodgson, to Gertrude Chataway who was still seeing Dodgson when, at the age of 27, she was invited to spend a week with him at Eastbourne. Some of the facts about the ages of his “young” friends are not new, but Leach’s emphasis on what is at least an emotional if not necessarily sexual involvement with young women does constitute a difficult-to-counter revisionist reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll. To support her thesis of an affair between Charles Dodgson and Lorina Liddell, Leach presents an almost stereotypical view of the great Greek scholar who, in her view, had little interest in his attractive wife. Based on some of the Liddell correspondence to which she had access, she posits a homosexual relationship between Liddell and his friend Arthur Stanley of University College. And if the Greek-English Lexicon, on the compilation of which he spent most of his adult life, was his second love, then Lorina must come third in this curious view. Leach strangely overlooks Liddell’s own romantic lyrics, such as his 1844 elegy, in which he exclaims:

Seven years are flown since first I seemed
To know thee as thou art;
Since first the flame arose that soon
Burnt hot within my heart.

Here one would have expected the kind of biographical excursus Leach makes when treating Carroll’s own lyrics. But no. Does she really think that Liddell’s long and intimate acquaintance with Greek lyric poets led to some kind of amatory inhibition? Four children would seem to argue otherwise.

Alice as “dreamchild” is another tenet of the Carrollian faith which Leach tries to contest. The direct evidence for Carroll’s infatuation with young Alice Liddell being so strong that it led to a proposal of marriage is thin. In his 17 October 1866 journal Dodgson writes: “On Sunday Uncle S. dined with me. . . . we had a good deal of conversation about Wilfrid [one of Dodgson’s brothers] and about A.L.—it is a very anxious subject.” Opinion has been that the initials A.L. must refer to Alice Liddell. The second source is a rumor quoted by Lord Salisbury in a letter of 1878 to the effect that Dodgson had asked for the real Alice’s hand and, being refused, had “gone out of his mind.” Salisbury’s comment is dismissed as a mere rumor made a decade and a half after the “fact,” and yet Leach is quite willing to give credence to other rumors of about the same time regarding Dodgson’s escapades with young women. Furthermore, she simply disbelieves Stuart Collingwood’s comment in a letter to Violet Dodgson (another of Carroll’s nieces):

Whereas, in regard to the Liddells, it was Alice who was undoubtedly his pet, and it was his intense love for her (though she was only a child) which pulled the trigger and released his genius. Indeed it is quite likely that Alice’s marriage to Hargreaves may have seemed the greatest tragedy of his life.

Certainly a break in relations leading to an estrangement between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family occurred in 1863. The most authoritative documentation for what caused the riff would have been the pages of Dodgson’s journal for 27—29 June of that year, pages mysteriously missing from the notebook. While working in the Dodgson family archives, however, Leach did discover a hitherto neglected note in the hand of Violet which she claims summarizes the now missing pages:

L.C. learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess—He is also supposed [unreadable text] to be courting Ina.

This is quite important to the construction of Leach’s thesis. She strikes out on a path first, I believe, suggested by Raphael Shaberman in his privately printed 1982 pamphlet on the suggestion of a relationship between Dodgson and Mrs. Liddell. She interprets the name “Ina” to refer not to Alice’s sister Lorina but rather to Alice’s mother, the wife of Dean Liddell, Lorina Liddell. Carroll’s photographing of the Liddell children, especially Alice, his entertaining of them, his many visits to the Deanery, all become a sort of cover for an affair with Lorina. In order to substantiate this interpretation it becomes necessary for Leach to enlist numerous “child friends,” biographers, and family members in a conspiracy to hide Carroll’s affair with Mrs. Liddell and then later with other not so young girls. Conspiracy theories often begin with an anomaly or uncertainty or two which are pushed beyond credulity in the service of unmasking some fiendish deception. They simply go too far and Leach, alas, is here no exception.

There are a few other troubling aspects of the book for which Leach’s editors bear some responsibility. Speculation offered in one chapter becomes solid evidence later on (e.g., the Lorina thesis, having been raised as a possibility, is treated as fact). Material drawn from Dodgson’s journals and elsewhere is not always footnoted (e. g. , the discussion of what Dean Liddell and Dodgson said to one another regarding the important matter of his remaining at Christ Church in his studentship without proceeding to take Holy Orders). Finally, footnotes fail to adequately document important charges (e.g., that Carroll had a large collection of “nudities”) or offer confusing attribution (e.g., in citing “one biographer” in her text, the footnote lists three).

Like the protagonist of her play (“The Mysterious Mr. Love”), Leach knows what she is after and what she wants. For her, that is a total revision of the long-standing popular myth of Lewis Carroll. This is an extremely well-written book of powerful, though not always persuasive argumentation. Nabokov once commented on the possibilities of literary biography as “a kind of double paper-chase: first the biographer pursues his quarry through letters and diaries, and across bogs of conjecture and then a rival authority pursues the muddy biographer.” If Ms. Leach comes through the bogs of conjecture bespattered with the mud, that is inevitable when one tries to dig deeply.

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