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In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll (review)

From: Victorian Studies
Volume 43, Number 4, Summer 2001
pp. 650-653 | 10.1353/vic.2001.0112

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Victorian Studies 43.4 (2001) 650-653

Book Review

In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll

In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll, by Karoline Leach; pp. 294. London: Peter Owen; Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1999, £19.95, $35.95.

As a piece of biographical scholarship, Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild is difficult to take seriously: repeatedly proclaiming its improbable, feebly documented central propositions with such an inflexible assurance, it vitiates its less spectacular, more plausible observations. For this very tendentious biography insists that virtually all the numerous biographical studies of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) published since his death in 1898 have missed (or deliberately avoided) a crucial point: that this ostensibly celibate, conservative Christ Church don, generally considered an innocent -- or, at least, sexually repressed-- lover of little girls, probably had numerous grown-up lovers ("whether or not," as Leach says of one such supposed affair, "they ever engaged in the technicality of penetrative sex" [247]). And as if that claim isn't sensational enough, Leach also posits "a probable liaison" (220) with one such grown-up sweetheart -- Lorina Liddell, mother of the original Alice and wife of the Dean of Christ Church, the preeminent Oxford college of its day.

If Leach's contentions were valid, our understanding of Dodgson, his particular upper-middle-class milieu, and even his literary and photographic achievements, would require substantial revision. To begin, we would be forced to discount the trustworthiness of a number of major biographies published in the past half-century, from Florence Becker Lennon's 1945 Victoria through the Looking-Glass through Morton Cohen's 1995 Lewis Carroll: A Biography--biographies grounded in the conviction that Carroll's frequently manifested love of what he called his "child-friends" (including Alice Liddell) was authentic, and not -- as Leach would have it -- often merely a guise of the chaste "patron saint of children" hoping to get at their mothers or older sisters (162).

Leach endlessly reiterates her sweeping contention that the "hundred years of biography surrounding the author of Alice [. . .] has been devoted primarily to a potent mythology" (9), casting Dodgson as either "the world's favorite saint" or "the world's favorite pedophile" (258). "The evidence for this [mythologizing] is everywhere," Leach declares (9). The only way, perhaps, to excuse such irresponsible exaggerations is to consider them as rhetorical flourishes; for despite the handful of unsophisticated biographies of an earlier time, like Roger Lancelyn Green's hagiographic The Story of Lewis Carroll (1949) or Phyllis Greenacre's reductionist Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives (1955), Carroll's biographers have increasingly depicted him as the complex, engaged, and curiously unclassifiable person he most surely was.

Much of the "evidence" for Leach's own sensational myth of a womanizing, adulterous Dodgson depends on conjecture about what is missing from, rather than on what is actually present in, the extensive corpus of published primary materials. The missing, never-accounted-for diary entries for 1853 to 1854 and 1858 to 1862, and the few small gaps created in the nine remaining diary volumes when several pages were excised some time after Dodgson's death (probably by his nieces Menella and Violet Dodgson)-- these lacunae are, for Leach, fertile grounds for establishing her claims. Upon them and several scraps of ambiguous evidence like Violet's brief, somewhat cryptic note headed "Cut Pages in the Diary" (discovered by Leach in 1996 in the Dodgson family papers) and the never-explained diary confessions of generalized sinfulness in the volumes covering 1862 to 1873, she builds a melodramatic case, disregarding the mountains of extant documents and conscientious scholarship that would not support it.

Leach's rhetorical style, which typically depends on all-inclusive, unqualified statements, is likely to alienate readers looking for considered and dependable judgments. Here she is, for example, on the simplistically polarized saint vs. pedophile myths:

the axiom upon which the entire analysis of Carroll's life and literature depends is the assumption that the girl-child was the single outlet for his emotional and creative energies in an otherwise lonely and isolated life; that she was the...



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