Alice, or The Art of Survival

Lewis Carroll: A Biography

by Morton N. Cohen
Knopf, 577 pp., $35.00

The Complete Sylvie and Bruno

by Lewis Carroll, iillustrated by Renée Flower
Mercury House, 394 pp., $30.00

“His face presented the peculiarity of having two very different profiles; the shape of the eyes and the corners of the mouth did not tally. He sometimes hesitated in his speech (your true raconteur’s trick this, is it not?) and I fancied he would often deliberately use it to heighten expectancy by delaying the point of his stories. How many he told, and how well he told them!”

The Reverend C.L. Dodgson, whose invented pen name was Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was certainly a man with two profiles, if not more. The reminiscences of those who knew him, neatly assembled and edited by his biographer,1 give a more vivid and contradictory impression of him than a modern biographical analysis can manage to do. Take the question of that stammer. Some who knew him, like Mrs. Shute, the wife of one of his colleagues at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of the above passage, maintain that it was no more than an effective device for telling stories, a tic that its owner made adroit use of. Others, like the Bishop of Oxford in Dodgson’s time, insist that it was a serious and embarrassing handicap which prevented its devout owner from proceeding to full orders and becoming a priest. He escaped conducting services if at all possible, although he would preach sermons, over which he took immense pains, “avoiding the words which tripped him up in speech.” And with these sermons he always “held his audience.”

The Bishop, who called his recollections of Lewis Carroll at Oxford “stories true and false,” professed to be in no doubt about the reasons for his liking little girls. “They were in a true sense part of his ‘work.”‘ A charitable ecclesiastic of the time might have made the same sort of comment about Mr. Gladstone’s enthusiasm for prostitutes. Both profiles offer the same paradox: in Carroll’s case, as in Gladstone’s and in that of many other Victorians, “work” and pleasure may well have gone together. One fact too often attested to but nevertheless in doubt is that Lewis Carroll, or the Reverend C.L. Dodgson, never stammered at all when he talked to little girls.

Big girls, like Mrs. Shute, he could be fond of, too. He took her for immense walks round about Oxford, standing with face averted as she crossed a stile, but extending a hand to help her over. (“In those days a woman had skirts and feet—no legs; and L. C. was the pink of propriety.”) He “confessed” (she was writing her recollections in 1932) that he had no interest in boys, or grown-up females, as models—“having the ‘bad taste,”‘ as he told her, “to find more beauty in the undeveloped than the mature form.” He drew very badly, but since she was an artist, with a studio, she was of great help to him, not least in finding good models—“I was always delighted when I got hold of a child…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.