Thomas Hinde – Lewis Carroll: Looking-Glass Letters

‘The proper definition of “Man” is an animal that writes letters.’

A fascinating insight into the life of Lewis Carroll and the story behind such classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, through Carroll’s own letters and diaries.

In his Lewis Carroll: Looking-Glass Letters, Thomas Hinde gives a nice summation of Lewis Carroll’s life, though far less in depth than the Bakewell biography. As such this isn’t a work that should be read as the definitive source of information on Lewis Carroll, then again, that isn’t what the book sets out to do. Instead the book gives us glimpses of the complicated man that was Lewis Carroll, through letters and diary entries. While it does give us a window into Carroll’s inner life, at the end of the book Carroll is still a mystery and the reader as only encountered the tiniest fraction of the facets to the man’s personality.

A plus of the book is the large number of illustrations, not just drawings but also paintings and photographs. They provide further background to locations described in the book, gives some of the people mentioned faces and shows us what photography, the medium closed to Carroll’s heart next to writing, looked like in the late nineteenth century. We also see the different iterations of the Alice illustrations, both by Carroll himself and the official illustrator, John Tenniel.

The letters and diary fragments are certainly interesting, if at times a little random. While the letters in the sections regarding his early school life and his academic career are mostly relevant and to the point, the letters and fragments included in the later sections are sometimes not as relevant to the subject, or the point they are meant to illustrate isn’t really clear. This is a shame as it can be a little distractive from the narrative flow, if you can speak of such in a work of non-fiction.

In my opinion, while the author takes no overt stance on the matter, the issue of Carroll’s little girl friendsis treated in an ambivalent manner. On the one hand the tone of the Carroll letters to little girls is mostly avuncular, on the other hand when the matter of Carroll’s nude photography is discussed, the author posits that Lewis must have derived some pleasure from it. While this is no more explicit than any of Bakewell’s remarks, the contrast of the author’s remarks and the selected letters, to me, is rather marked.

In all, it’s an entertaining read, which serves as a look into Carroll’s inner world and as a nice addition to the information I found in the Bakewell biography. However, if you’re really looking to learn about Lewis Carroll, I’d recommend reading the Bakewell.

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