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The Real Life Adventures Of an Oxford Don


By Morton J. Cohen

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Alfred A. Knopf

592 pp., $35

A deacon of the Anglican Church and professor of mathematics at Oxford, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was the author of eloquent moral tracts and brilliant forays into the higher realms of symbolic logic. But his greatest fame came from his uncanny ability to write perfect nonsense.

Under the pen name of Lewis Carroll (a Latinized inversion of his first and middle names), this shy, conscientious Victorian bachelor created the enduring children's classics "Alice in Wonderland" (1865) and "Through the Looking Glass" (1871) - not to mention the much-loved verse mock-epic "The Hunting of the Snark" (1874).

Alice and her friends - the White Knight, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to name a few - became household words in Carroll's own lifetime, their likenesses appearing on stamp albums and cookie tins, their exploits translated into a multitude of foreign languages. Alice's fame has continued to spread in our own century, as everyone from Walt Disney to Jonathan Miller has come up with his or her own version of the story, with results ever "curiouser and curiouser," as Alice herself was wont to remark.

Carroll's inventive imaginings and his genius for wordplay have delighted generations of children; nor were they lost on such sophisticated admirers as James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. And, as Carroll's latest biographer, Morton N. Cohen, tartly notes in his introduction to "Lewis Carroll: A Biography," Alice's adventures have also inspired some laughably misguided, not to say loony, disquisitions by literary critics who "read" her story as being about everything from the Oxford Movement to the author's own birth trauma.

Professor Cohen, who has spent much of his academic career examining and editing Carroll's writings (both published and unpublished), brings to his subject not only extensive knowledge, but also the precise blend of tact, sympathy, and seasoned judgement that his subject demands.

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Charles Dodgson was a gifted, devout, and benevolent man who fell in love with little girls. Over the course of his adult life, he proudly claimed between 200 and 300 "child friends," most of them female. He took them on picnics, boat rides, and trips to the theater. He entertained them in his Oxford rooms with puzzles, stories, word games, and tea parties.

One of the earliest and most adroit amateur practitioners of the newfangled art of photography, he delighted parents with pictures of their little ones, especially girls, in some cases (with their parents' permission, and if the children themselves liked the idea ) nude. Notwithstanding what this might suggest to modern child-welfare guardians, Dodgson himself believed his interest to be purely aesthetic.

It was Dodgson's friendship with one particular girl, Alice Liddell, the middle daughter of the eminent classicist who was dean of the college where Dodgson taught, that resulted in the "Alice" books. Dodgson, a friend, and the three Liddell girls were enjoying a boat ride and picnic one summer's day in 1862, when 10-year-old Alice requested that Dodgson write down the wonderful story he had been telling them all. This story eventually became "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," published to warm acclaim in 1865, to be followed by "Through the Looking-Glass" in 1871.

Sadly, between the happy day of Alice's request and the book's publication, the friendship cooled. Cohen speculates that Alice's socially ambitious mother may have wanted to make sure her soon-to-be-eligible daughter wasn't becoming too attached to the nice but unprepossessing mathematics don. Whether or not Dodgson ever entertained serious hopes of marrying Alice Liddell (Victorian bachelors sometimes waited years for adolescent fiancees to come of age), his biographer cannot conclude for certain. But Cohen does not doubt that the creator of the fictional Alice was in love with the real one.

How Dodgson managed to live a useful and rewarding life despite the difficulties posed by his unusual inclination is the theme of this biography. Apparently unable to transfer his love to ladies nearer his own age, he allowed himself - and his little companions - the sunny pleasures of innocent friendship, while repressing or suppressing whatever elements were not in accord with his conscience.

Examining the many facets of the man - his religious beliefs, his relations with his family, his role in college politics, his contributions to mathematics, his love of the theater, and his long commitment to a virtuous life - Cohen provides a thoughtful, lively, and well-rounded portrait of a brilliant man who never lost his childlike sense of wonder and fun.

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