Thursday 25 February 2010

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf

March 2010, Haus Publishing
326 pages, Hardback
Review copy

Ease of reading: 5
Smiles: 4
Yunaleska's recommended rating: 5

Summary from Haus Publishing

Lewis Carroll, the elusive author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, has been the subject of enduring fascination for the past hundred years. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the son of a country curate, he would spend almost his entire life in the quiet, studious surroundings of Christ Church College, Oxford, shunning publicity and becoming increasingly guarded as the years went by. However, in his posthumous existence, he has been retrospectively psychoanalysed; condemned for his supposed sexual perversions and alleged addiction to opium. The destruction of many major documents about his personal life by his descendants has only magnified the mystery. Jenny Woolf’s biography, published to coincide with the release of the new Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland film, lays waste to the myths and suspicions that have obscured Carroll’s reputation by placing him firmly in the context of his own time.

My reasons for accepting a copy of this book for review are somewhat unusual. Most people choose a book because they like the look of it. I quite happily state that after reading a compendium of Lewis Carroll's work, given when I was between 11-13 years old, I thought he was really strange. Alice in Wonderland, both the book and the Disney film freaked me out, so much so I think I had a nightmare about it. Even though I got rid of the compendium, years later I couldn't escape Lewis Carroll's influence. The peculiarities of the cheshire cat played a small yet significant role in the video game Kingdom Hearts by Square Enix. Again I had more nightmares.

So when Jenny Woolf approached with the possibility of reviewing her work, instead of saying no and fleeing to the hills, I said yes. I wanted to gain an insight into the author of the creepy tales of wonderland, and the equally bizarre other works.

One of Jenny's aims was to make her book 'readable'. It definitely isn't dull. I was smiling by the third page in. Only sleep and other aspects of life made me shut the book.

I never hung around long enough to find out that his real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (I can see why he chose a pen name) or that he lived in Oxford, an area of the country which I find stunning, so long as I don't think of the ugly power plant marring the horizon.

Ferreting out random bits of information is something I'm used to in life. Jenny searched high and low for new information. The thought of Lewis Carroll having a bank account never dawned on me. Historians before Jenny didnt think of it easier, which is why she was the first to gain an insight into Lewis Carroll's financial life in a way that didn't rely on eyewitness sources which are impossible to have unbiased. An area that is touched upon at the beginning of the book is examined in depth in later chapters. There's so much detail to be gained from these bank records, details which can't be obliterated if his family didn't like them.

The reflections on his relations with his family make a compelling read. Jenny points out that although he may have had a few issues of distance with his mother, which is reflected in the absence of mothers in his work, Lewis Carrol had a pleasant family life. There was pressure on him as head of the family, a pressure which writing was almosf undoubtedly been an outlet. I've only read the Alice tales, but based on things I'm wondering if he wrote the story from a young girl's point of view so that possibly readers might not immedistely see his worries of life glaring up from the page. The other reason, explored by Jenny, is that he loved being amongst girls (in a non-corrupt way, although I had no idea that he had a reputation other than 'cause-of-nightmares' - some believed he had less than innocent intentions with his young charges)

He was extremely intelligent but Jenny shows that he lacked the capability to control and inspire students under his care at Oxford university. The colourful occasions of vandelism clearly troubled the methodical man. All was not lost for he found his place in teaching girls, who as Jenny explained were 'girls who wanted to learn' (page . A desire for knowledge makes a huge difference for receiving lectures. It was at these times, Jenny explains, that his imagination flourished.

Originally I thought Lewis Carroll was a bit of a nutcase. However, through Jenny's evaluation of his life I realise that he was extremely intelligent. Perhaps he explored his many theories about life through his writing, which was an accessible medium for his ideas to work their way into society. Furthermore, his logic problems were published for a short time in a periodical, whose answers he graded. Under the right circumstances he had the capability to engage with society. Nonetheless, his eccentric ways whih increased with age have me swinging ba k to the view that his view on the world wasn't always the most stable.

His stutter explains why he found it harder at Christ Church to communicate with the students. I was surprised to learn about his compassion when he helped care for the sick, although less surprised, after reading about his generous nature, what he did with some of his money in his bank account.

Misconceptions about Lewis Carroll possibly arose from him not fitting in the standardised view of a male by his contemporaries. Gossip is a dangerous past time. And yet as Jenny explores all aspects of his character he doesnt seem threatening. He is very aware that his actions might cause offense. Jenny points out we can't judge Lewis Carroll's behaviour using modern standards, because they simply didn't exist when he lived. I feel this is drawn on to emphasize that his interest in children, and association with young girls probably wasn't as untoward or inappropriate as it sounds.That isn't to say there weren't the odd incidents that may have tarnished their name, but there isn't solid proof to say if these incidents occurred outside people's minds.

Themes touched upon in one chapter are fully explored in another. The overlap causes a little repetition of info, yet I don't believe this is negative. It reminds the reader about what happened in earlier chapters. I don't think most would read the book in less than three sittings, it's more of a reference book.

Learning about his love of logic explains why I wasn't so keen on his work when I first read it. At university I discovered how much I don't like logic and philosophy, thanks to becoming best friends with a Philosophy student. Reading the extracts Jenny chose to highlight on logic took me back to my total confusion on logical problems. If i remember correctly, similar problems occurred in Alice. No wonder Alice held little appeal to me. As an author, Lewis Carroll's work may not be for me, but as a person, his life is fascinating. How people perceived him, the diverse expectations on him by society and his family, the almost constant internal struggles that he faced make a fascinating read.

Jenny can be found on her website, and also on her blog.


Monster of Books said...

Nice review, sounds interesting!!

Nayuleska said...

It is! I recommend it.

Live, Love, Laugh, Write! said...

That sounds like a totally fascinating read! And I've been thinking lately that I need to reread's been too long!

Unknown said...

Have you seen this site? Does Ms Woolf run it?

Nayuleska said...

Frank: Your comment is reposted here - where possible I don't link up to sites selling books (just so people can choose where they buy it) Thanks for the info.

Frank @ Tony: I'd agree in recommending the site, but as I understand it it's not Ms Woolf that runs it but Karoline Leach, author of 'In the Shadow of the Dreamchild'

It was Leach's book that started the whole new movement in Carroll studies, cutting through the myth and getting back to primary sources, and Woolf follows her pretty closely in all but a couple of areas, so if you're interested in the real Lewis Carroll it might be as well to read both.