Jenny Woolf's The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.

Reading between the lines.
March 4 2010 9:57 AM

What Lewis Carroll Taught Us

Alice's creator knew all about role-playing.

See great pictures of other mad hatters from Magnum Photos and people who are late! They're late!

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Little wonder that the great art form of the period was caricature: a blend of political and social satire, mannerist exaggeration, and subversive wit. Carroll's contemporary Edward Lear was one of the great caricaturists of the century. So was Carroll's illustrator John Tenniel (and so, too, was their American contemporary Thomas Nast). In passing, Woolf notes that late in life, Carroll drifted into "self-caricature." But instead of pursuing this line of insight, she tries to resolve the extremes of the life and work into domesticated eccentricity. Her tone throughout speaks down to what may well have been intended as a young-adult reader. "Carroll was dramatic, creative and emotional, but none of these qualities were particularly admired in Victorian middle-class society, and he did not choose to express them much in public."

In fact, a key to Carroll's elusive identity and his art was his recognition that all life involves role-playing. His literary fictions and his photographs capture the drama of protean self-presentation so central to 19th-century experience. The Red Queen's court is as much a theater as Victoria's. Alice is on stage as much as a Savoyard ingénue. Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are peppered with performers, reciting their poems or their stories. Indeed, the Caterpillar's command for Alice to recite, "You are old, Father William," comes off as a fickle play-director's call for an audience piece—only to decide he's made a casting mistake: "That is not said right. … It is wrong from beginning to end."

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Look once again at Carroll's photographs: Alice Liddell as a seductive beggar maid; Xie Kitchin in a fur hat, dressed up like "a Dane"; Reginald Southey with his arm around a human skeleton; the girls in Chinese dress (all of them, and more, finely reproduced in Woolf's book). These are the tableaux of Victorian melodrama, images on stage-sets of the imagination—now fixed, but ever susceptible to change. Like the photographs of Carroll's contemporary Julia Margaret Cameron, who dressed up famous friends and local neighbors in Arthurian garb, they are essays in impersonation. They call to mind, too, the work of the now-forgotten Mary Cowden Clarke, whose then-popular The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (first printed in 1851) imagined Ophelia and Rosalind, and a host of others, growing up before their appearance in Shakespeare's plays.

It is precisely this sense of the self as artifice that locates Carroll at the heart of his Victorian society—the idea not just that we all play roles in life, but also that the characters of an imagined fiction could have lived before their stage entrances. In the end, it may be better not to try to reconcile the different sides of Dodson's life but instead to see "Lewis Carroll" as a persona in a drama, played and scripted by an Oxford don. The mystery of Lewis Carroll is really nothing less than the mystery of the Victorians themselves: their piety set side-by-side with parody; their domesticity shading their deviance; their decorum left at the stage door. Alice herself would have an afterlife in theater (a musical Alice in Wonderland opened in 1886, and there have been countless plays, films, and television adaptations). To think freshly about Carroll and his work, we would do well to watch how he celebrates the disparate and the dramatic and to recognize, more than a century after his death, that his work continues to teach us the rules of the game of choosing what we mean, without losing our heads.

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