Charles Ludwidge Dodgson’s biography has been a battlefield in recent years, at least since the publication of Karoline Leach’s In the Shadow of the Dreamchild (London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1999 – extracts at the Victorian Web), in which she maintained that the traditional view of Lewis Carroll’s morbid interest in young girls was mistaken: a passion for children, and especially young girls, was typical of the Victorian age and Dodgson used it as a mask behind which he could court mature women. This view, which Morton N. Cohen brands as ‘revisionist’ has been gaining popularity, not only through the articles Leach has published in the TLS (“Ina in Wonderland”, 3 May 1996 and “The Real Scandal”, 8 February 2002) but thanks to the activism of the Lewis Carroll mailing list and, recently, the Looking for Lewis Carroll web site.
One of the main targets has been Cohen’s Lewis Carroll: a Biography ( London: Macmillan, 1995). His long-awaited reply, “When Love was Young”, TLS, 10 September 2004, sounds convincing to me as long as it simply states known facts: Dodgson’s endless list of child friends and the lengths he went in order to get to know and then privately meet them, the dedications of his works and the number and tenor of the letters he wrote to them and their mothers.
I tend to agree with Cohen’s opinion that much of what the revisionists maintain is the fruit of “conjecture and surmise;” unfortunately he does not resist and proceeds to give us another dose of conjecture. In discussing a letter of 1930 from Lorina to Alice in which the former gives an account of her interview with a biographer, he correctly infers that Lorina concealed the real reason for the break between Carroll and the Liddell family in June 1863 stating that “his [Dodgson’s] manner became too affectionate to you… and that mother spoke to him about it… one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing.”
In the final paragraphs of his essay Cohen tries to convince us that Lewis Carroll’s “nieces… would not have wanted posterity to see that their uncle was rebuked by Mrs Liddell,” and so cut a page from his diary in which the incident was presumably recorded: they did not want us to know that she rebuked him, but had no intention of concealing what she rebuked him for, though we still do not know what it was — we do not even know whether she actually “spoke to him about it.”
The only clue comes from a note found by Leach about “Cut Pages in Diary” which summarizes the scandal of June 1963: “L. C. learns from Mrs Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess. He is also supposed [unreadable] to be courting Ina.” It is not clear who wrote this note, Leach attributes it to Violet Dodgson, one of the nieces responsible for cutting the pages, Cohen says that Philip Dodgson Jacques told him (in the 1960s) he had written it himself using details given him by the nieces.
A couple of strange things: if Cohen knew of the note, why did he not use it in his biography? If, as he says, Lorina was concealing the truth in her 193o interview, why did he maintain that the probable cause for the break was his excessive affection for Alice, or even a marriage proposal?
The note, as far as I can see, confirms that in 1930 Lorina was lying to the biographer and might also account for Dodgson’s nieces’ reluctance to spread rumours about their uncle’s conduct. All we can say is that Alice was probably not the cause for the break — Lorina might have been, or perhaps something Mrs Liddell said. Until new documents are found, and Cohen appears to believe that even the missing page was not destroyed, nothing more can be said for sure, I’m afraid.