Neverland, Oz, Narnia - they all hold positions as wondrous literary landscapes that have captured the imagination and inspired countless readers.
The mythical world of Wonderland has done the same, perhaps even surpassing its colleagues. The land of the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts and the Jabberwocky has taken its place in the culture of Western civilization as a classic tale and marvelous literary accomplishment. As with any such success, many desire to understand the creator of this lasting achievement.
London journalist Jenny Woolf explores the author of the Wonderland tales in The Mystery of Lewis Carroll. The biography clocks in at around 300 pages and includes a bibliography of about three pages; there are 14 pages of citations from that bibliography, making The Mystery of Lewis Carroll no small feat of research. Not only this, but Woolf writes well and tells the story of the intriguing – and, as she argues, often misunderstood - literary icon.
The biography follows a basic formula, each chapter emphasizing a different part of Carroll’s life. It begins with his childhood, telling of Carroll’s origins and family background. In the next chapter, Woolf talks about Carroll’s career as a professor of mathematics. In the chapters that comprise the center of the biography and the bulk of the book, Woolf examines Carroll’s life in detail - specifically addressing his love of children and how Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass came to be.
It’s natural that Woolf should spend the most time on this aspect of Lewis Carroll, since these works
are what made him famous enough to inspire biographies to be written about him more than a century after his death. The Mystery of Lewis Carroll also includes several selections from various works of the author as well as copies of letters and diary entries he wrote. Woolf uses these examples to emphasize her points, especially when talking about Carroll’s writing style and his use of language. To hear Carroll’s words so long after they were written is a somewhat haunting way of learning more about him that will intrigue readers. The biography also includes quotations from people who knew Carroll.
Also in these chapters, Woolf tries to sort fact from fiction, attempting to resolve the many misconceptions about the famous author. As revealing as Woolf’s research is, though, this is where the biography loses some of its steam. As well as informing about Carroll, the reader can’t help but feel as if Woolf is on a quest to vindicate him. She
submits that there has been a lot of misinformation (much of it negative) about Carroll’s person, which has led to an inaccurate societal perception of the Wonderland creator. She spends a great deal of time disproving the notion of pedophilia (yet only briefly dwells on his alleged drug use) and other inappropriate and disturbing behaviors that people have come to associate with Carroll.
Woolf admits that she was and still is a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, and sometimes it shows a little too much in the way she consistently praises Carroll as well as the hostility she
appears to hold for those who have damaged his reputation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to set the record straight - she does an excellent job of this - but the book seems to hold a positive bias as much as Woolf criticizes others for having a negative one.
The last few chapters focus on Carroll’s hobbies and beliefs in an effort to better understand him as a person. Carroll was an amateur photographer, and the book features several pictures taken by him, usually at the start of each chapter. The last section deals with Carroll’s finances, of interest because Woolf stumbled across never-before-seen records of his financial life. These records assisted her in shedding more light on Carroll’s life.
The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, while a charming and well-researched biography, still doesn’t answer all the questions. Woolf admits this, and of course there is really no way to know everything about figures of the past, especially those from other centuries.
Nonetheless, the research is thorough and fascinating, and fans of Carroll’s literary works will delight in reading a book that shows him as an intriguing and intelligent figure. Overall it’s a well-done biography that will be of value not only to fans of the Alice tales but also to anyone with a fascination in literature.