The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf – book review

"The Mystery of Lewis Caroll" by Jenny Woolf.
“The Mystery of Lewis Caroll” by Jenny Woolf.

The full title of this book—The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland—should give readers an idea of the general tone found within its pages. In the absence of concrete facts, many biographies of Carroll have leaned toward the cheaply sensationalistic since the early 20th century.

Biographer Jenny Woolf has taken on the difficult task of attempting to reconstruct the man who was Lewis Carroll from what little remains of his life documents—his personal diaries and other effects were heavily censored or “lost” by his family after his death. For the most part she produces a fair and honest portrait of a still somewhat mysterious man, highly fussy and moralistic (especially in his later years), but also happy to flout Victorian middle-class convention.

Let’s just get right to the question everyone seems to want answered: was Carroll a pedophile? Woolf thinks not. The Victorians, not yet hampered by the works of Freud, considered images of children to be signs of innocence, and further considered images of children in states of undress as angelic. Carroll always asked express written permission of every parent to take photographs of their children, and indicated specifically whether they would be clothed or unclothed. The children who were photographed by Carroll had nothing but admiration for him as adults; no one indicated any signs of improper behavior on his part when he took their portraits.

And if Carroll’s own family, so concerned with propriety that they censored and destroyed much of his private documents after his death, did not destroy or attempt to hide his photographs of nude children, it could only have been for one reason: that Victorians, Carroll included, did not view these photographs as we do, through a lens of possible exploitation and pornography. It is not that such things didn’t exist in 19th century England—they did—but Carroll and others of his circle and his era did not consider child nudes to be in the same category as pornography.

There are, and probably will always remain, some mysteries about Lewis Carroll. Woolf suggests in The Mystery of Lewis Carroll that four of the diaries Carroll kept in his twenties which have, like the Snark, softly and silently vanished away, may have recorded the details of a disastrous love affair with an unknown married woman—an event over which Carroll agonized most of the rest of his life. Woolf also dives into Carroll’s bank account records—among the few documents which remained entirely intact and unexpurgated by his family—to discover where and how he spent much of his money in order to obtain a more complete picture of the man.

Interestingly, Carroll did not want to be known as “the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland“, and would often pretend that he, the Rev. Dodgson, knew nothing about the matter; acquaintances would have to tease the truth out of him. In like manner, Woolf has had to tease out much of the truths about Carroll the person, rather than Carroll the author.

While her text is merely workmanlike (the snippets of Carroll’s prose and poetry fairly sparkle by comparison), Woolf’s clever deductions and use of previously untapped sources of information make this an interesting read. That The Mystery of Lewis Carroll shows clear affection for its subject and does its best to avoid lurid speculation, especially when so many others have chosen to judge a 19th century man by 21st century morals, is particularly noteworthy.

Release Date: February 2, 2010 (USA)
ISBN: 9780312612986 (0312612982)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Language: English

MySF Rating: Three point five stars
Family Friendliness: 65%


Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (minor accepted use of alcohol, discussion of Victorian drug use)
Language: 0
Sexuality: 2 (discussion of possible adultery and pedophilia)
Violence: 0

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