Gillian Avery on a revisionist account of Lewis Carroll's life
With three full-length biographies of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson Lewis Carroll since 1995 and last year's excellent Alice Companion summarising most aspects of the man and the Alice books, yet another account might seem superfluous. But this is a revisionist history, aimed at demolishing our mistaken impressions - "a collation of powerful but baseless myths" built up over the course of a century, starting with the pious 1898 biography by Dodgson's nephew, Stuart Collingwood.
Restrained by his six aunts from revealing anything they considered indecorous, Collingwood presented a benign and beloved figure absorbed in child-friendships. The child-friends themselves rushed to record their memories, omitting to mention any association with him when they were adults.
But Karoline Leach has to concede that Dodgson himself began the "St Lewis, patron of childhood" legend in early middle age, taking on the persona of an eccentric and whimsical old buffer with a hobby of collecting children and teaching schoolgirls logic.
Freudians started on him in the 1930s, and Florence Becker Lennon's Lewis Carroll (1945) depicted him as an emotionally retarded paedophile with no adult love-life. Alexander Taylor's The White Knight (1952) first put forward the theory that Dodgson had been in love with the child Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford. This last in particular, Leach claims, has been built upon by all subsequent writers. "At present almost every aspect of his life is processed through the Alice machine and comes out Alice-shaped."
While rejecting Alice as Dodgson's great emotional experience, the present book treats him as Liddell-shaped, and interprets his life through this family, giving them more space than any of the other biographies, bar Anne Clarke's The Real Alice.
A new Dodgson emerges in the early chapters: a sociable man of the world, an inveterate theatregoer who also enjoyed bohemian company and erotic books, and who in later life scandalised the Mrs Grundies of his time by entertaining unchaperoned young women, both married and single.
More than that, he was a red-blooded man who had a guilty secret. It is here that Leach becomes touched with the madness that tends to affect those who seek to decode the strange mass of contradictions that go to make up DodgsonCarroll.
Up to this point her arguments, if strident, have some foundation, and the picture of the young man - lazy, self-indulgent and bored by academic life - is convincing. But when she comes to the Liddells she is overtaken by the "fevered, fantasy-ridden" way of thinking that she denounces in other Carrollians. She would have us believe that the guilty secret was an adulterous relationship with Dean Liddell's wife. This is as likely as Mrs Liddell and Ruskin (another frequenter of the deanery) being lovers. Dodgson's own cool diary entries about the lady, and the gently nostalgic letter recalling early years with the family that he wrote to her in 1891, when the Liddells were about to leave Oxford, give a different impression.
But Leach has constructed an elaborate scenario out of deductions made from a poem about a seductress, written during the Liddell years, and George Richmond's memory of Dean Liddell being moved to tears by Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden". (The ending, where the hero comes back from the dead to find his wife remarried and his children with another father, would naturally have reminded the dean that he too had been supplanted.) Although the author's main thesis is unlikely to convince many, this is a lively and readable book. But, ironically, the character of DodgsonCarroll that emerges, despite all the protestations to the contrary, is of a man without masculinity - rather in the pattern of his contemporary, Augustus Hare - with whom even the most prudent young matrons felt perfectly safe to consort.