Midway through her adventures in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar. He stares at her in silence for some minutes before removing the hookah from his mouth:
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
Alice gradually learns to give up the idea of a wholly-knowable self. In fact, she progresses through Wonderland’s fantastical trials only when she allows for uncertainty. (“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”) The episode is a pertinent one for biographers of Lewis Carroll. They want to know the mind behind the madness. They want to excavate Carroll entirely. Ever since Stuart Collingwood (Carroll’s nephew) published the first biography of the author in 1898, there have been a host of books purporting to uncover the real Lewis Carroll. But pinning him down feels a bit like chasing the white rabbit.
Lewis Carroll is, in fact, the pseudonym for someone who seemed very unlike the creator of a mind-bending dreamscape: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent the majority of his years as a stoical lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. “Who could have guessed,” one of his students wrote, “that the dry little man … was hatching in that fertile brain of his such a miracle of fancy and fun as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?”
Dodgson strived to maintain a divide between his professional academic reputation and his literary persona as the author of nonsensical children’s books. When he occasionally received letters addressing him as Lewis Carroll, he even went to the effort of replying that he “neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym, or with the book that is not published under his own name.”
Plenty of artists like to (or have to) keep their art-making confined to after hours—think of Wallace Stevens selling insurance during the day and crafting some of the most lasting twentieth-century poetry at night, or T.S. Eliot scribbling The Waste Land between shifts at Lloyds Bank. And many also published under pseudonyms not necessarily because they had to hide their identities, but because they liked the creative freedom anonymity affords. Stendhal was only one of Marie–Henri Beyle’s many pen names, adopted to dissociate himself from his previous writings. Mary Ann Evans masculinized herself as George Eliot to ensure that her novels would be taken seriously. More recently, the anonymous Italian novelist who writes under the name Elena Ferrante explained, “I felt the burden of exposing myself to the public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.”
Carroll is different, however, in that he not only denied authorship, but he seemed to have cause for secrecy in his life. Dodgson took hundreds of photos of children (mostly female). They were the children of his colleagues and friends, photographed indoors and outdoors, sometimes clothed and sometimes nude. He repeatedly expressed his fondness for children and seems to have spent a lot of time alone with them. This has led some to believe that his relationship with Alice Liddell (the inspiration for the Alice books) wasn’t as innocent as it seemed—a theory that has marred Lewis Carroll’s reputation for some time. It’s a juicy bit of literary gossip, made juicier by the discrepancy between the playful quality of Carroll’s books and the dark “truth” about their author.
A new biography by Edward Wakeling, Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle, sets out to clear Carroll’s name. Wakeling approaches his subject through the lens of Dodgson’s acquaintances—his family, friends, Oxford associates, mathematics colleagues, fellow artists, and members of the royal family. The idea is to show Carroll in the light of these relationships, as a member of respectable society. Wakeling wants to insist, “You can tell a great deal about a person by the company he keeps.”
The sentiment ends up ringing rather naïve—as though, because this or that upstanding person thought well of Dodgson, he couldn’t have been anything less than admirable. Is it possible that history has misread his collection of photographs and his relationship with Alice? Yes. Is it possible that he was amiable but also a pedophile? Yes. In the end, the biography doesn’t offer any more certainty than competing theories. What does come across is the remarkable urgency Wakeling feels to prove that Lewis Carroll was a decent man. But why do we need our favorite writers to be good people? Surely the Alice books will be neither better, nor worse, for the moral status of their author. We’ll keep reading them regardless.