In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll

In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll

by Karoline Leach

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In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll by Karoline Leach

A revolutionary and much-acclaimed study of the work and motives of the Alice In Wonderland author

This is the most significant biographical work on the author of Alice In Wonderland to be published in recent years, and this new edition marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Karoline Leach’s study contends that Carroll was far from being emotionally—and sexually—obsessed with female children and his "muse" Alice Liddell. She tells the strange story of how the false image of Carroll came into being and how he adored—and was adored by—women of all ages and enjoyed adult relationships that woud have scandalized the Victorian age in which he lived. The author gained access to unpublished evidence from the family archive, as well as letters and diaries, that led her to uncover Carroll’s secret passion for another member of "Alice’s" family. In The Shadow of The Dreamchild is a radical re-evaluation of the life and work of one of England’s most mysterious literary figures, and the revised edition expands on Leach’s important research.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720618594
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Edition description: Third edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Karoline Leach has written for the theater since the early 1990s, with her play The Mysterious Mr. Love being staged to critical acclaim in the West End's Comedy Theatre in 1997.

Read an Excerpt

In the Shadow of the Dreamchild

The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll

By Karoline Leach

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2009 Karoline Leach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1859-4


A Necessary Otherness

The path of the biographer is beset with pitfalls ... for him suppressio veri is almost necessarily suggestio falsi ...

– Stuart Dodgson Collingwood

'Lewis Carroll' was conceived as a pseudonym for a young and aspiring Oxford mathematics lecturer as he took his first steps into the literary career he had always wanted. His first publication was a dull little poem called 'Solitude' that showed little promise of genius. Nevertheless, by the time the lecturer died he had indeed become very successful at his chosen profession and 'Carroll', his convenient nom de plume, had morphed into something his creator could never have envisaged: a receptacle for human hope and aspiration, guilt and pain; a symbol of something as indefinable as the story the lecturer had created in his name. The fiction of 'Carroll' and the fiction of Alice had become the two parts of a bizarre and unique symbiosis; penetrating one another, merging until the boundaries of their identities are no longer clear. At the centre of the Carroll image lies 'Alice' and at the centre of 'Alice' lies the image of Carroll; a haunting presence in the story, a shifting dreamy impression of golden afternoons, fustiness, mystery, oars dripping in sunrippling water. The name 'Lewis Carroll', an invention, the conceit of a man who liked to play with words and symbols, had become in itself a word-symbol, a semi-tangible rendering of a subliminal idea.

Even while Dodgson was very much alive, for his contemporaries, the Victorians, caught as they were on the cusp of a new age, 'Lewis Carroll' seems to have begun to mean a readiness to believe – in wonderland, fairytales, innocence, sainthood, the vision of a fading golden age of certitude when it had seemed possible for humanity to transcend the human condition. When people evoked 'Carroll' it was always in these terms of unearthliness and antiquity, even while the man who was 'Carroll' was possibly less antique than the people using him as a vehicle for nostalgia. His image was never of the 'now' or of the wholly real world, even when the man who was nominally that 'Carroll' was no more than fifty years old and very much a man of his time.

But, although he did not in any way create the image, Dodgson was no mere passive recipient. In fact, he seems to have been one of the first to perceive the growth of the myth surrounding 'Carroll', and with what might seem typical contrariness he both deplored and manipulated it. On occasions he seemed to do everything he could to challenge the public expectation of 'Carroll'; flaunting his adult lady-friends ('Carroll' was already supposed, as an axiom, to involve himself solely with children) as if inviting the shattering of the illusion or angrily returning mail sent to his home address as 'Lewis Carroll'; at others he would seem to play the part as his society had scripted it, with absolute conviction if not almost ironic emphasis. Part of the reason for this response may lie in the fact that 'Carroll' began to be famous at a time in Dodgson's life when he was most filled with self-doubt and a sense of personal sin, most motivated to reinvent himself in a better, worthier form. The image of the patron saint of children offered itself at precisely the right time to offer him a means of that reinvention, although it seems a part of him continued to resent this rebaptism and to assert periodically the right of 'unreformed' Dodgson to exist and shock people by befriending ladies. Purity was exactly what the Victorians wanted to connect with Carroll, and purity was precisely what it (intermittently) suited Dodgson to have associated with himself. As if in a novel by Nabokov, by a kind of mutual agreement, he and his society began creating their mutually beneficial story of 'Carroll' where self-referencing and irony blended into heart-rending sincerity and out again and performance could become life.

Before I am accused of levelling a sacred image, let us be clear that his affection for children was undoubtedly genuine and spontaneous – and indeed a very attractive aspect of his personality. Long before 'Carroll' existed Dodgson enjoyed their company and was gifted by nature to be an ideal older brother (which, of course, he was), inspiring games, telling stories, revelling in the adoration and enthusiasm of his young followers. But, as the image of 'Carroll' began to develop and as Dodgson's self-perception went through its unnamed crisis that seemed to strip him of his sense of self-worth, so his relationship with 'the child' ceased to be simply a spontaneous expression of an aspect of himself and began to be self-aware, exaggerated and, inevitably, somewhat insincere. It became an emanation of the curious and now much misunderstood Victorian obsession with childhood innocence, that identified immaturity with inviolability in a way impossible for us now. It morphed from Alice, the spontaneous little loudmouth, into Sylvie, the stiffly self-conscious 'angel'. He began to play the very fashionable part of child-worshipper, with a strange mix of deep religious fervour and frank irony. He invented the term 'child-friend' to typify his perceived social interaction but misused it with almost malicious intent. He worshipped 'the child' as an article of faith and at the same time exploited it as a means of concealment for his own unconventional, potentially scandalous, relationships with women. It was inextricably bound up with his wish to rediscover himself as an innocent man, and – on a different level – his more cynical wish for others to see him as innocent. In this sense, the mature Charles Dodgson's love for the child was always – in part – a construction.

Still, by the 1890s when Dodgson was in his early sixties, the 'reality' of this image was already an axiom, and magazine articles celebrated 'a genuine lover of children', 'as tenderly attached to his mathematical studies as he is to children', inhabiting 'an El Dorado of innocent delights'. In keeping with the vaguely religious and Christ-like undertone of his mythology, 'Carroll' was, from the outset, required to appear chaste (even now, when widely perceived as a deviant, he is defined absolutely as a non-practising, essentially innocent and virginal deviant). An abstinence from sexual activity, or even the potential for sexual activity, is apparently the first requirement of his mythology, and it is an indication of the power this requirement already exerted that while Charles Dodgson was openly befriending grown-up women, and was the subject of gossip for doing so, his alter ego was still perceived to be a wholly innocent 'dreamer of children'. The two conflicting images coexisted but never touched, as if they really were about two entirely different people, and, like the 'cut pages in diary' document, the inconsistency became somehow invisible or unimportant.

However complicit he may have been in using the prevalent fictions to his own advantage, the myth was not of Dodgson's making. It existed beyond his control, and it effortlessly survived him. When Dodgson died in the new year of 1898 'Carroll' continued much as before with barely a blip. To the irresistible process that had seized him the death was hardly more than the shedding of a skin.

The first real act in the creation of the myth of 'Lewis Carroll' was an act of destruction. In February 1898, just a few weeks after Dodgson's unexpected death, his younger brother Wilfred paid E.J. Brooks, auctioneer, of Magdalen Street, Oxford, to carry away and burn an unspecified quantity of his personal papers. What remained of his letters, diaries and other private writing would disappear into the family archive, where it would remain all but unseen and entirely inaccessible to biographers for some seventy years, while even more of its content would continue to be mysteriously shed and mislaid.

It was in the space of this strange lacuna that 'Lewis Carroll', as we know him, was born. His name had been created, many years before, by the man whose face he wore. But the soul of 'Carroll', as it presently is known, owes more to this absence than to any other single thing.

Dodgson's death was not anticipated. Before the sudden onset of his fatal pneumonia he had been in excellent health. He had left his apartment in Christ Church a few weeks earlier to spend Christmas with his family in Guildford, expecting to be back at the university early in the new year. But in that cold January it wasn't a returning Charles who turned the key in the door on staircase no. 7, Tom Quad, and stumbled his way up the dark passage to the red-and-green study. It was Wilfred. The funeral had been and gone, and Wilfred was there to do his duty. His brother's will appointed him as the executor to his literary and personal estate.

Six years younger than his famous brother, but with an obvious family likeness in his wavy grey hair, Wilfred was fifty-nine and a prosperous man of business. For many years he had been a land agent for the wealthy Lord Boyne and lived in some style in a pleasant house in the border country between England and Wales. He had married back in 1871 and by this time was the father of nine children. By all accounts he was a level-headed and worldly man, and it was probably these qualities that had persuaded his brother to name him and another younger brother, Edwin, as executors instead of the older but more unstable Skeffington.

Charles had been the head of a large and dependent family – seven sisters, three brothers and their own dependents and offspring, as well as a considerable number of cousins; a family that had been accustomed to look to the eldest brother for financial and moral support for nearly thirty years. He had funded countless nephews and nieces and second cousins through school, used his influence among the great and good to get them jobs and paid unofficial pensions to the widowed or poverty-stricken. The person chosen to manage the transfer of this great human responsibility, to say nothing of the literary inheritance, would carry a considerable burden.

Wilfred arrived in Oxford on 28 January. He was alone, because the other executor, his brother Edwin, was out of the country. He spent the day looking through the dead man's possessions and stayed overnight with Dodgson's old friend and colleague Thomas Vere Bayne. In his diary Bayne described Wilfred as 'appalled at the mass of papers in his brother's rooms'. And one can imagine so. For Lewis Carroll had left behind an amount of personal documentation so vast it is hard to visualize. It lay all about Wilfred in the cupboards and drawers of his rooms, filling boxes and cardboard files and pigeon-holes. Forty years of record-keeping. This is a man, let us not forget, who indexed his own diary, who kept a record of every letter sent and received for over thirty years in a register that ran to twenty-four volumes (if the Freudians had only known about the 'letter register').

Beside the huge collections of photographs, of books and magazines and letters, there were thirteen volumes of private journal. There was also something he referred to as his 'metallic diary', presumably a metal-bound volume, perhaps with a lock, wherein he recorded his most absolutely personal thoughts and feelings. If Dodgson's own testimony is to be believed there were also separate works dealing with his mathematical work and various leisure pursuits. His life must have been dominated by little grey notebooks. They must have lain about the place like tribbles, appearing in unexpected locations, apparently breeding in the drawers. But one man's compulsion is a biographer's Aladdin's cave. The result of all this fevered note-keeping was a life recorded to the utmost. History would have had cause to be grateful for his obsession. But history never got the chance. Wilfred may have been appalled at the size of his task, but he was obviously not daunted. After the burning came the auction, in which almost everything Charles had possessed that was remotely saleable was disposed of. Finally the remaining letters and papers disappeared into the care of his family, and something like 80 per cent of them were never seen again. The archive was guarded jealously by generations of Dodgsons. No biographer or researcher was to be permitted any real access to it for some sixty years.

We shall return to the puzzle of how and why this was so later; for now we need to know only that the lacuna was there: an acute absence of data; a biographical scotoma into which all real possibility of understanding the man vanished without trace.

Meanwhile the obituaries of January 1898 set a tone of respectful eulogy on a Christian life decently lived. It is not surprising that they had nothing to say about its more controversial aspects. This was nineteenth-century England, which did not have quite our modern appetite for the 'outing' of the guilty. But amnesia about the reality of Dodgson's life extended beyond what was required by the most punctilious discretion into something far stranger.

Over the years immediately following his death many people who had known Dodgson left their impressions of him. These were almost uniformly sincere tributes from those who had admired, respected or loved him. But even the most affectionate of them seemed unable to forget it was 'Lewis Carroll' they were conjuring, and in pursuit of him not only did they choose to disregard those aspects that might have appeared morally ambiguous, they began a process of selective remembering, concentrating on the special, the magical, the unworldly or childlike aspects of Dodgson's character to the exclusion of the ordinary, the everyday, the 'normal' or the worldly.

What he could never be was an adult, human male. And most things that demonstrated his sexual identity, his adulthood, were swiftly lost from the tradition, while hyperbole converted his eccentricities into near grotesqueries, his complexities into simplistic absolutes. He had to be sealed off from the ordinary, preserved for posterity, half in the cloister, half in fairyland. It was a process expedited, perhaps legitimized, by the first work of biography to appear after his death.

The first, and still the only 'official', biography of Lewis Carroll appeared within eleven months of his death. Written by his own nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll was published in December 1898 and was to remain the only full biography for some forty-seven years.

Collingwood was the son of Dodgson's younger sister Mary. He attended Christ Church as an undergraduate and certainly saw a reasonable amount of his uncle at that time and after. In writing his biography he had access to all the private papers and all thirteen volumes of Dodgson's private diary (including four volumes that are now missing) begun around 1853 and kept regularly until his death. At first glance it might seem that all this ought to have made his book an unimpeachable first authority. The reality is not quite that simple.

The Dodgsons were an intensely reticent and an intensely religious family, even set against an age of reticence and religious fervour. They were High Church and rather narrow Anglicans, and, unsurprisingly, after his death their primary concern in all their handling of 'Lewis Carroll's' estate and literary inheritance tended to be to protect their famous relative, and indeed themselves, from any dismaying aspects of his life becoming publicly known.

To this we must add the fact that Victorian biography was not much like its modern counterpart. It was not intended to be about reflecting reality, digging for detail or revealing psychological insights; it was primarily performing a similarfunction to an official portrait by Holbein or Reynolds, in which the subject would be represented as reflecting all the virtues appropriate to his class and time, and, as with such paintings, these official biographies, whether they were notionally of Millais, Ruskin, Leighton, Gladstone or indeed Carroll, tended to end up resembling each other more than any idiosyncratic reality of the individual concerned.

Yet another factor was that Collingwood was writing about a man who had already become widely mythologized even before his death, as we have seen. The poem published in Punch on 29 January 1898, just fifteen days after the corporeal Charles Dodgson had taken his last breath, shows how firmly fixed in the public perception were certain key elements of what became developed as the myth of 'Lewis Carroll':

Lover of children! Fellow-heir with those
Of whom the imperishable kingdom is! ...
The heart you wore beneath your pedant's cloak
Only to children's hearts you gave away:
Yet unaware in half the world you woke
The slumbering charm of childhood's day.


Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach. Copyright © 2009 Karoline Leach. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Charles Dodgson: A Biographical Sketch,
Part I – Painting the Roses: The Making of a Myth,
1 A Necessary Otherness,
2 The Freudians and the Apologists,
3 The Myth and the Millennium,
Part II – Restoration: Aspects of a Lost Reality,
4 Photographing Angels,
5 The Faculty,
6 After the Verdict: A Summary of the Evidence,
7 'Mistery of Pain',
8 The Broad and the High,
9 The Unreal Alice,
10 Bitter Memory,
11 'A Prisoner in His Cell',
Appendix I: Anne Thackeray,
Appendix II: Dodgson's Love Poetry, 1859–68,
Appendix III: The 'Cut Pages in Diary' Document,

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