You must not ask

Marina Warner

  • Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Morton Cohen
    Macmillan, 592 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 333 62926 4
  • The Literary Products of the Lewis Carroll-George MacDonald Friendship by John Docherty
    Edwin Mellen, 420 pp, £69.95, July 1995, ISBN 0 7734 9038 8

Bachelor uncles can be popinjays who wear moustache trainers in bed in order to cut a dash the next day, as in Fellini’s Amarcord; or they might take the children aside at Christmas and show them how to trumpet a tune in farts, as in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In stories like that of Freud’s ‘Katharina’, they interfere with little girls, though for many reasons Freud substituted Katharina’s uncle for her father. Perhaps an uncle seemed a more plausible or even acceptable perpetrator. But the kind of bachelor uncle formed in England over the decades by the university ruling that dons should not be married offers a study in psychological and national identity that has no counterpart abroad. He lingered on – still does – though the rambling houses of North Oxford built to accommodate the new families of married fellows stand as monuments to the social changes that inaugurated his decline. His love objects were not usually girls, though John Betjeman, sighing over thighs, caught the authentic tone of enraptured and impotent yearning.

Morton Cohen is, however, at pains to rescue Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) from this galère, and to present him as a well-rounded, sociable man, inspired by deep religious convictions, motivated by generosity and altruism towards his large family of brothers and sisters. His ‘Charles’ – deliberately distanced from earlier portraits by the unprecedented use of the Christian name – is exceptional for his brains and his multiple talents, but he is an ordinary man all the same, in full command of a normal range of emotions, who was afflicted with an obsessive – but chaste – passion for little girls. Cohen rejects the image of the eccentric cleric who never grew up, the dotty genius who repressed all possibility of mature attachment and was cursed with a perverse desire. With diligence and system, he surveys the breadth of Carroll’s interests: he digs into the nature of his Anglican piety, noting the graph of his nighttime prayers and appeals; he expounds his part in church conflicts of the day between High and Broad, between ritualism and evangelism, making much of his disagreement with his father over the seemliness of going to the theatre, for example, and noting how distressed he was that one of his two brothers, who both became parsons, took to evangelism. Carroll’s job, from 1853 on, as a Student then a lecturer in maths at Christ Church; his important contributions to logic; his victualling of college kitchens and his laying down of port in the college cellar; his occasional testiness with servants; his prodigious industry (he wrote more than 100,000 letters, Cohen reckons); his up-to-the-minute expertise in new technologies – his love of the camera was followed by use of an ‘electric pen’, Edison’s early form of photocopying, and, as soon as it appeared, the typewriter – all these win Cohen’s attention and his open admiration. He chronicles Carroll’s engagement with college and university politics, including his many disagreements with Dean Liddell, the pompous father of his Alice. He covers the remarkable series of gadgets Carroll devised – they include the Nyctograph, a braille-like cipher which allowed him to write in bed without getting out to light a lamp – and he maintains stoutly the importance of his mathematical cribs and puzzles and his hitherto underestimated contributions to Symbolic Logic.

Some biographies suffer because the writer does not like the subject, and communicates distaste; others can be harmed by the awed encomiast’s enumeration of virtues. Cohen loves his subject for his merits, not his faults, and keeps flourishing before the reader more items in the inventory of Carroll’s creative energy and virtue; his biography, the fruit of three decades’ research, is thorough, restrained (at under six hundred pages), yet the unique spirit of Lewis Carroll isn’t there: Cohen comes near to making Carroll tedious, something one would have thought almost impossible to achieve.

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