The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland (review)
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The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland. By Jenny Woolf. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010.

In The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, Jenny Woolf, a London journalist, attempts to provide a more accurate portrait of the famous author of the Alice books than that provided by previous critics. Not so much a biography of the author, this study is a series of interlinking chapters that focuses on significant areas of Carroll's life and career: his childhood, his academic career at Oxford University, his religious beliefs, his relationship to children, his relationship to Alice Liddell as a person and muse, his photography, and his finances. In many ways this book, which is based on topics rather than a chronology of the writer's career, resembles Jean Gattegno's Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass (1976), in that Woolf chooses to highlight those subjects that seem to most fascinate readers about Carroll.

While there is little new information in this study, it is a sensible, rather than sensational, look at Carroll. Although the title hints that Woolf will uncover some of the mysteries of Carroll's life, this is really not the case. It might be more accurate to say that Woolf attempts to correct some of the many misunderstandings that have developed around Carroll as the result of previous biographers and critics. As a long-time admirer of the Alice books, Woolf was puzzled, if not confused, by the contradictory representations of Carroll found in [End Page 471] various critical studies and decided to set the record straight. Those seeking a sensational version of Carroll will be disappointed, since Woolf rejects most of the suggestions by critics who have attempted to psychoanalyze him or present him as abnormal, a trend that was begun in the 1930s.

Woolf argues that, "it is only fair to judge Carroll by the standards of his time, not ours" (139). She finds him to be an individual who established his own moral limits and tried to live within those self-established boundaries. Carroll's religious beliefs were "absolutely central" to his sense of self (203). Woolf writes that he consistently had a "desperate desire to live a conventionally religious life" (193). However, this created great stress at times for Carroll in that he wanted to accommodate two intense, but conflicting needs: "to believe in God and think logically" (Woolf 186). But this crisis of faith in which Carroll struggled to combine progressive ideas with a traditional religious faith is a hallmark of well-educated Victorians and actually marks Carroll as typical rather than atypical. So after reviewing Carroll's life and work, Woolf finds "not the slightest shred of evidence that he did anything out of line with pre-pubescent girls, and no indication that he had sexual feelings toward them" (139). Instead, Woolf views Carroll's relationships with his young girls as "an antidote to his feelings for women. With his loving child-friends, he could obtain loving, beautiful, feminine company which was neither tempting or 'sinful.'" (139). Woolf solves a mystery, but perhaps not to everyone's satisfaction.

The most original aspect of this study builds off of Woolf's previous book, Lewis Carroll in His Own Account: The Complete Bank Account of Rev. L. C. Dodgson (2005). Woolf discovered a large source of original and previously unknown Carroll material—no small scholarly accomplishment—when she located Carroll's Oxford bank account that ran from 1856 to 1900, two years after his death. In her earlier book, Woolf carefully transcribed and annotated this forty-five-year bank account, which does provide a different way of examining the author. In The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, Woolf summarizes the key information she found in going through Carroll's financial records.

While Carroll was generally conservative in many of his personal beliefs, he was a bit reckless when it came to money. His bank account frequently went into overdrafts almost from the beginning. Carroll seemed uninterested in saving for the future or increasing his wealth. He was generous to a fault to members of his large family, a...