- Was the Snark a Boojum? One Hundred Years of Lewis Carroll Biographies
"There is nothing outside of the text. "—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
"I only wish I had such eyes to be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!"—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Virginia Woolf once claimed that Lewis Carroll "had no life" ("Lewis Carroll" 254). Yet Carroll—who was actually a fussy, sedentary Oxford don named Charles Dodgson—has inspired numerous "Lives," making him one of the most biographied Victorian authors. In the decades following his death, popular magazines and newspapers published dozens of short recollections and reminiscences, many written by former "child-friends" such as Ethel Arnold, Ethel Rowell, and Beatrice Hatch.1 The illustrators Henry Holiday and Harry Furniss memorialized and pilloried Carroll, respectively, in their professional memoirs.2 Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carroll's "Alice," published a short memoir in 1932, the centenary of his birth, at the urging of her son Carryl, titled "Alice's Recollections of Carrollian Days," and Carroll's niece, Violet Dodgson, one of the family members [End Page 229] suspected of mutilating his diary, published her own strategically vague recollections in 1951.3
In addition to a plethora of short memoirs and reminiscences, nine full-length Carroll biographies were published between 1898, the year of his death, and 1995, the year of Morton Cohen's much anticipated Lewis Carroll: A Biography.4 Carroll's nephew Stuart Collingwood rushed The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll into print in 1898, promoted by prepublication excerpts in The Strand Magazine. Shortly thereafter Isa Bowman published a self-promoting memoir of her friendship with Carroll, The Story of Lewis Carroll, Told by the Real Alice in Wonderland (Bowman had played Alice on stage). Other early attempts both to capture and capitalize on Carroll's life include Belle Moses's biographical treacle-well, Lewis Carroll in Wonderland and at Home: The Story of His Life (1910), and the humorist Langford Reed's largely anecdotal and apocryphal The Life of Lewis Carroll (1932), both of which exemplify Robert Skideskey's characterization of much early twentieth-century biography as "a mixture of hobby and hackwork" (1). More recent and scholarly attempts to research and analyze Carroll's life include Florence Becker Lennon's psychological study, Victoria Through the Looking-Glass (1947), Derek Hudson's more historicized Lewis Carroll (1954, 1976), and Cohen's long-researched project to write a comprehensive and definitive analysis of Carroll's life and work, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1995).
In his biography Cohen notes that Carroll "has provoked curiosity at all times, and literary historians and psychologists have tried to discern what made him tick. But their efforts have resulted largely in contradictory assessments. No consensus has emerged. Lewis Carroll remains an enigma, a complex human being who has so far defied comprehension" (Cohen, Biography xxi). Though Cohen's is to date the most successful study to "paint a total picture, . . . a portrait of the man entire" (Biography xv), the few years since the 1995 release of Cohen's meticulously detailed and sympathetic work have seen the publication of four new Carroll biographies: Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background, by Donald Thomas; Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Michael Bakewell; Lewis Carroll and Alice, by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel; and In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll, by Karoline Leach. Although these efforts no doubt anticipated the 1998 centenary of Carroll's death, the publication of five biographies of the same individual within as many years also raises an essential question: what fuels the need to keep writing and rewriting this [End Page 230] man's life—aside from the mere fact that he is, in the final words of Cohen's biography, "a man worth writing about" (533)? If a life, as Phyllis Rose has...