In In the Shadow of the Dreamchild , Karoline Leach finds evidence that the famous image of Lewis Carroll as a lonely figure, exclusively focused on female children, and unwilling or unable to engage with the adult world, is simply a myth. Hidden beneath this image she discovers a complex and sometimes mysterious man, whose real life has remained all but unexplored...
...For more than fifty years before Leach began her research it had been assumed Lewis Carroll was paedophilic - by inclination of not in practice. Leach was the first biographer to go back to the source evidence and show this assumption was based on fundamental errors of scholarship and misunderstandings of Victorian culture.
Using his diaries and letters as evidence, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild proves Lewis Carroll did not 'lose interest' in girls over the age of 14. In fact many of Lewis Carroll's so-called 'child-friends' were actually grown women at the time he befriended them. The book shows it was these - adult - friendships that had been the source of gossip and scandal during Carroll's lifetime. Gossip that his family did their best to erase from the record after his death.
The book also shows the traditional "real Alice' story is equally mythic. Carroll was not in love with her, did not base his fictional heroine on her. The discovery of the "Cut pages in Diary" document - first published here - finally proves Carroll's much-discussed break with the Liddell family had nothing to do with Alice.
Most significantly of all perhaps, it showed his life was haunted by an unnamed pain that scarred much of his adult life. It was likely in part to conceal the nature of this pain that his family hid so much of the evidence for his relationships with adult women.
When In the Shadow of the Dreamchild first appeared in 1999 it created considerable controversy in Carroll scholarship and fandom.
Many traditional 'Carrollians' refused to accept the idea of the Carroll Myth despite the overwhelming evidence. There were even calls from some quarters for the book to be burned.
However in the sixteen years since then In the Shadow of the Dreamchild has become a benchmark reference work for all Carroll scholars and fans, and its idea of a "Carroll Myth" has become increasingly accepted as true.
It's inspired several later works of fiction and non-fiction and a feature film, based on the book is in the process of production.
...At last a book with something new - and surprising - to say about Lewis Carroll. A great many Alice fans will hate it because it debunks her, as well as Lewis Carroll, as largely fictitious icons of the pious, sentimental literature of childhood innocence.
No, gentle reader, I do not mean that Charles Dodgson’s relations with Alice Liddell were guilty ones of repressed paedophilia, as has often been suggested in recent times. What Karoline Leach suggests, treading boldly into the field of Alice ‘experts’, is more shocking than that. It is that little Alice did not matter all that much in Dodgson’s life.
He was certainly not in love with her. Although he created Wonderland for her (and did very well out of it commercially) his friendship with the real Alice was quite short-lived and no more intense than those with many other of his ‘child-friends’. The Dream Child existed only in the book...
...Karoline Leach has chosen a difficult book to write. For while she aims for the general reader, she presents the kind of intricate reconfiguring of sources usually found in an academic monograph. The lengthy first chapter of the book comprises an exhaustive review of Carroll biography over the past century. This is essential if the rest of the book is to make sense, but it does demand a high level of commitment from readers who have spent the past 15 years dawdling towards the idea of Lewis Carroll as a paedophile.
...Particularly persuasive is her reading of Dodgson’s love poetry... which deals with the agony of frustrated adult, sexual love. Since the verse was not published by ‘Lewis Carroll’ and fits uneasily with either the benign or malign versions of the child-lover, it has been ignored by biographer. So too has the extraordinary Sylvie and Bruno, 800 pages of prose soul-baring which forms a barely coded commentary on Dodgson’s relationship with the entire Liddell family....
Leach...traces the way in which the image of Carroll was created by successive biographers. He was first portrayed as a bachelor academic whose innocence was expressed in happy associations with children. then, of course, the world was changed by Dr Freud and he became a potentially dangerous pervert...and the unmistakable sense of loss which coloured his later life was interpreted as evidence of a love for Alice.
This edifice was largely built on gaps in the record, for Carroll’s family not only destroyed key volumes of his diary but cut out entries from those which survived... As a result this book has something of the character of a detective story as Leach re-examines the evidence, including a note which summarises the contents of the crucial missing entry.
She can’t shy away from the fact that Carroll liked photographing naked young girls, but places this convincingly in a cultural context which is now unimaginable to us: he could be public about this taste because it was seen as quite innocent. It was his photographs of mature women which he had to keep secret.
What did Dodgson write in the parts of his diaries that Collingwood and probably other members of his family decided should be withheld from all the would-be biographers who succedded him? Leach, a patient, resourceful and commonsensical literary detective, finds the greatest significance in the diary pages Collingwood cut out. By adducing circumstantial evidence, she constructs a theorynof what is missing, an account of a love affair that Dodgson had, apparently not with Alice Liddell but with her mother, the wife of the dean of his college.
Leach publishes, as an appendix to her excellent book, long extracts from Dodgson’s love poetry, which was written between 1859 and 1868, a period of emotional turmoil and depression. Some of the poetry, in her opinion, is ‘mediocre’, and so it is, but ‘all of it is honest, providing, even at its most rambling and self-indulgent, a rare insight into his heart and mind during this strange and troubled period of his life’. In a poem called ‘Stolen Waters’, the love-lorn Dodgson first eulogises, then laments the loved one: ‘She was lithe and tall and fair/ And with a wayward grace/ Her queenly head she bare’. (Surely not little dark-haired Alice Liddell?)
Leach's book is less straight biography, than a sort of biographical detective story, reminiscent at times, of Humphrey Carpenter's portrait of Robert Runcie. The picture with which she replaces the former confected image is far from definitive. The destruction of essential documents, like the pages ripped from his journal, would alone have seen to that. But even if the verdict is sometimes no more than 'not proven', the investigation is well worth the scholarly struggles involved. We are nearer now than before, I think, to the man who wrote Alice.
It is Karoline Leach’s achievement to cut through a century of unrealities to give a credible account of the man who was Lewis Carroll. her defence both of his brilliance and his frailties is more than chivalrous; it is just. The hostility has been extraordinary. No-one denies the quality of the Alice books, but they are treated as accidents emanating from a deviant’s pathology. there have been too few who have been able to accept Charles Dodgson as the poet-logician of rational genius extending beyond mere chance.
Someone as influential as Dodgson is certain to attract all manner of prejudice. But in his case this is singular in the degree of prejudice and its duration. The truth is more interesting than the myths for and against. Charles Dodgson was neither the shy, kindly celibate, nor the weird voyeur of innocence. His true nature has been evident for years, but lacking the systematic investigation of the relevant documents. there have been those, notably Edmund Wilson, who surmised that ‘Lewis Carroll’ obscured a more sympathetic man. Now we have the whole truth with an intelligent advocate. Karoline Leach’s achievement is considerable and it cannot be ignored.
What this book demonstrates is that despite the thousands of letters and all the surviving volumes of the diary, the biographies and the reminiscences, there is so much that we really do not know about Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, possibly because that is the way he wished it to be.
After Karoline Leach’s book Carroll studies can never be quite the same again. We may not agree with it but we cannot ignore it and it should certainly be read by anyone concerned with Dodgson’s life and work. The author may not in the end have stormed the castle but she has blown a considerable breach in the walls.