Michael Bakewell – Lewis Carroll: A Biography

In this new biography Michael Bakewell explores the highly complex and often contradictory character of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who was as strange and singular a ‘fabulous monster’ as any of the creations of his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. Dodgson has the reputation of being a stamming recluse, who spent his whole life within the confines of Christ Church, Oxford, but he was an astute, exacting and highly professional man of business where the publication and marketing of his own work was concerned, an inveterate theatre-goer, a tireless pamphleteer on such topics as vivisection and proportional representation, and a highly skilled and imaginative photographer who used his camera to bring him into contact with the great Victorians he particularly wanted to get to know.
According to Bakewell, everything that Dodgson was, everything that he became, stemmed from his Rectory childhood, from which he never escaped. To adults he was an elderly child, to children one of themselves. His constant need for the company and love of little girls was the joy and the tragedy of his life, and the story of his child-friendships is the backbone of this fascinating book examining in detail his love for Alice Liddell, for the child-actress Isa Bowman, for the angel-faced Enid Stevens and for dozens of others.

I always find it hard to critique a biography, it’s either well researched and documented or it’s not. So that leaves one to ¬†look at the angle the writer uses to approach his subject and how he handles it, how successful the approach is and whether a biography is readable for a lay person, i.e. not so technical and dry that you get mystified and thirsty by just opening the book. I found Bakewell’s biography of Lewis Carroll very readable and never so focused on discussions of the literary merits of Carroll’s work that someone not versed in those theories wouldn’t understand. Instead Bakewell focuses on how Charles Lutwidge Dodgson became Lewis Carroll. He sketches a dichotomy in Dodgson’s character, on the one hand an eternal child, on the other a shrewd business man and a social activist. And he takes an unflinching look at Dodgson’s dubious interest in little girls.

The book left me profoundly disturbed, or rather Dodgson did. I found some (if not most) of his interactions with the girls inappropriate, though I have to say that being a mum to a little girl didn’t help Dodgson’s case at all. If someone approached my daughter in that manner they’d be walloped into next week. So one can hardly say I’m an unbiased judge. Still, the way Dodgson ignored parents’ rules regarding contact with their children, whether visiting the Liddell children despite Mrs Liddell forbidding it or the way he always tried to push parents to take his photography of their girls further towards nudity, was completely disturbing and, in my opinion, made Dodgson completely untrustworthy. However, I admired Bakewell’s ability to discuss Carroll’s little girl friends, without either excusing or condemning his behaviour. While I never got the impression that the author condoned Dodgson’s behaviour, he never explicitly states that the behaviour is wrong. He manages to stay impartial or at least give an objective account of what he’s found.

Setting Dodgson’s proclivities aside, an aspect of his life I found fascinating was his career as an Oxford Fellow. The look at Victorian Oxford and its academic practices and society was captivating. Completely different from the contemporary university setting I’m used to, it made me wonder whether this manner of academia was typical of Oxbridge universities or whether universities in my native Netherlands were governed in a similar manner. What is definitely clear from Bakewell’s work though, is how well-suited this environment was for a dreamer and eternal child like Dodgson. In a way, he never had to grow up as long as he remained at Christ Church. He had a fixed set of responsibilities and a lot of time to do as he pleased. The only hitch in Dodgson’s perfect retreat, was the expectation that at some point, he would have to take Orders and be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He never got farther than the rank of Deacon, both because he was afraid because of preaching because of his stammer and he didn’t want to give up the sinful pleasures of a civilian life, such as going to the theatre. On top of that, he’d begun to have doubts about the strength of his faith. Bakewell manages to show us Dodgson’s inner struggle on this subject and give us a window into his troubled conscience.

The book is an illuminating and interesting biography, which highlights more than just Carroll’s predilection for little girls. Its look at Victorian academic life and the glimpses it provides of Victorian publishing are very interesting, but in the end Lewis Carroll: A Biography left me conflicted about its subject. And that might be Bakewell’s biggest achievement with this book, providing such a balanced view that it’s left up to the reader to make up her mind about Lewis Carroll. As an example of a well-written biography, this is a work that can take pride of place. For those of you interested in the creator of Alice in Wonderland, this book is a great starting point to discover who Lewis Carroll was.