Why is Simon Winchester so popular? Assessing the author of The Professor and the Madman and other books.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 30 2011 6:56 AM

Simon Winchester

The historian as tour guide.

(Continued from Page 1)

If this hunger for unique-seeming experience wasn't lost on Winchester, neither were the limits of its authenticity. To go from being served pastries in a hotel to a being served fresh fruit on a veranda in a village, after all, is not exactly to set off into a terrifying frontier: The change from "tourist" to "traveler" he describes is really just a switch from one mode of tourism to another. It is an appealing shift, however. The books Winchester published in ensuing years worked to conjure that more authentic-seeming flavor of tourism on the page. In his volumes on Korea and the Yangtze River, he is not merely his own protagonist and narrator but a kind of proxy tourist off the beaten path, describing, wide-eyed, his exact process of discovery. In its weaker moments, this approach can be a slog to get through. (The Yangtze book begins with a Proust-paced narration of Winchester's email-checking habits and what may be a misquotation of his own computer—"You have mail!") But at its best, it offers the thrill of discovery, with all the wandering, false leads, and gleeful eye for eccentricity that tourism at its best allows.

The Professor and the Madman, which marked Winchester's shift away from the first person, brought this approach to bear on research rather than experience. The book narrates the strangely interwoven lives of James Murray, who helmed the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and William Minor, an erstwhile military doctor who compiled quotations from a lunatic asylum. It is framed not so much as a proper history—critical, argued, fully sourced—as a travel narrative. The safari Winchester leads us on starts in the preface: "Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them," he explains. Secret files, unexplored by human eyes! From here, he leads us through the quirky world of Victorian Oxford and Civil War trauma, describing physical settings at length and pausing to elaborate a technical point or a matter of convention like a guide stopping along the trail. There is, here as elsewhere, a sense that Winchester is trying to sell you a tour package to the past.

Do we buy it? For all the appeal of this approach—and The Professor and the Madman is an appealing book—there's something unsettling here: not just the glancing ease of the narrative but the relationship to history it helps build. When Winchester describes horses' "hooves striking sparks from the cobbles as they rushed the victim to the emergency entrance," we are not supposed to ask—not allowed to ask, given no sourcing—whether those sparks were actually there, probably there, or made up. When Winchester passes his pictures through a rosy filter (as he often seems to), we're left with a tourist's inability to do anything but take the story as it comes. What's unsettling is not that readers don't realize these dangers but that they almost certainly do: To allow yourself to enjoy Winchester's books is to accede to the idea that history can be understood passively, as entertainment.

Advertisement

The perils of this approach come to the fore in Winchester's new volume. The Alice Behind Wonderland explores the relationship between Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell (the girl who inspired his famous tale) through the photos he took of her over many years. The setting is once more Victorian Oxford, but the material here is fragile and fraught: A nagging puzzle about Charles Dodgson is the extent to which he was, or wasn't, a pedophile.

And on this matter, Winchester is strangely evasive. He refers dismissively to "all the fuss and bother that surrounds the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell." He dwells instead, at length, on the history of amateur photography. Bubbly asides play up characters' charming quirks—we learn, for example, about the Liddell paterfamilias's "enduring fascination with matters of drainage"—but when it comes down to the uncomfortable bits, Winchester zooms ahead, inviting little from the reader but a double take: Dodgson's "utter fascination with all of these girls, his need to picture them with or without clothing, his need to make them happy, to amuse them …" What? He is unsqueamish about raising the sex issue for suspense but finally declares, briskly, that Dodgson's "interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word." In a text whose cheery vagueness comes near hagiography (we're told that Dodgson, "a young man of exceptional talent and ability," graduated from Oxford with a First Class in mathematics but did "rather less well" in classics—an unexceptional performance that gets no further elaboration), this dismissal raises uncomfortable questions of its own.

"Volumes have been written about the friendship between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell household," Winchester informs us near the end of The Alice Behind Wonderland. His "Suggestions for Further Reading," which comprises a total of five books, names two. Although you'd barely know it from Winchester's quick summaries, Carroll scholarship has grown fascinatingly divided in the past two decades: On one hand are those who believe there was something shady going on, and, on the other, those who demonstrate, carefully, how Dodgson's conduct might fit with Victorians' ideation of childhood. Both sides make for provocative and illuminating reading. The problem with the author Winchester has become lately isn't his terrifying speed, scholarly looseness, or sometimes-overdone style. It's his commitment to the cause of historical tourism over frank appraisal, pat narrative over uncomfortable paradox. A good book ought to bring its readers down the rabbit hole, into the heart of something strange and wonderful and complex. Winchester, these days, simply offers us escape.

  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 29 2014 3:45 PM The Great Writing Vs. Talking Debate Is it harder to be a good writer or a good talker?