Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Mystery Of Lewis Carroll

After finishing this book, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf, I asked myself,  Why did the author choose this title? Why not just call it Lewis Carroll and be done with it?  I think that it may be because even with as much knowledge as the author has uncovered about him, I still think that Lewis Carroll is a mystery to her even now...

 His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. We all know that he wrote "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" and he is quite famous for having done so.  He never married and had no children. He  did not become the anglican vicar that he was expected to be.  Seemingly got on better with children than with adults and suffered with what some may call a stammer or a hesitation when speaking.  He  particularly liked being around little girls and photographed many of them, but still maintained these friendships even as they were adults.  Lived and taught Mathematics in Oxford and enjoyed spending many of his summers in Eastbourne, on the southeast coast of England. Lewis Carroll became quite  particular in his very structured and orderly life.  The bare facts of his life are there for anyone to read  but when you go deeper into his life story, many things are simply mystifying.

One of the earlier biographies of Lewis Carroll is by Florence Becker Lennon, an American.  Many of the misconceptions of the life of Lewis Carroll have come from this book.  May I share a quote about her from Jenny Woolf?  "She was also American, and did not fully understand British social attitudes of Carroll's day".   You might think that I would be offended by that but I agree with her and I understand exactly what she means.
Jenny Woolf was able to view his bank accounts from 1856 to 1900. (And her account of being able to do this is extraordinary!)  I remember reading once, " show me what a man spends his money on, and I can tell you what kind of man he is".  I loved the quote from Lewis Carroll that he wished to put his money towards "him that hath no helper".  So, it appeared that he gave to different charities that perhaps were not as well known as others.
I think that it might be possible that his life may be understood better if it might be considered that he  might have been on the Autism Spectrum.  The symptoms vary but in general, they fall into three areas:
1.  Social impairment
2. Communication difficulties
3. Repetitive behaviors

I made so many notes as I read this book, and after looking over all that I had written and then going back to re-read the passages that I had noted to read again. ( I never mark in any book!) , I kept coming to the same conclusion that Lewis Carroll was a very high functioning autistic person and I just wish that someone could have understood and explained all of this to him at the time.  Of course, I could just be totally wrong and be completely off the mark, but read this book and keep these observations in mind and see if you don't agree.    After reading this book,  I quite liked and admired Lewis Carroll but I couldn't help but feel that he had a sad and lonely life and that people didn't really understand him.  I really just wanted to go back in time and shake his hand and say "sorry" and to wish him well.  In a sense, I feel that Jenny Woolf with this book, did that for me...

Oh, and that first photo is of the pier at Eastbourne.  I love the idea of Lewis Carroll walking along the seafront and then up to Beachy Head.  It is a beautiful spot and it pleases me that he enjoyed the walks during his summers there.


  1. It's very possible that he was a very high functioning autistic person. Leonardo da Vinci was another artist/genius suspected of suffering from the same thing or from Asperger's Syndrome. Or maybe not. We'll just never know. These gifted individuals were often considered weird; perhaps unfairly so.

    1. Dear Martha,
      It took me a long time to write this post as I had taken so many notes on the book as I was reading it.
      Lewis Carroll was such a genius and yet, I don't think he truly was able to make people understand him. I am not an expert (on anything!) but these were just my sincere thoughts on this book but you would never believe how anxious I felt in putting these words down!

  2. What I find sadder is that even nowadays it can be hard for parents to get others to recognise that their child is autistic and to get special help or schooling for them. A friend of ours took years and years to convince people about her son.

    1. Dear Scriptor,
      One of the things that occurred to me: If Lewis Carroll could be proved to be autistic, then perhaps that could help those who have the same thing and then, maybe help us to understand autism and that one can live with it in a positive way. He really did enjoy his life, it seemed to me, but just had that unique way of looking at the world which, at times, must have caused him grief and sorrow because his innocence was misunderstood.

  3. Kay, I want to read Jenny's book, too; I so enjoy her blog and the way she writes, therefore I am sure I will like the book, no matter that it is on a very different topic than her blog.
    And why would any American be offended by the comment about the other author? I, for instance, am German with what I like to think of a rather open-minded European outlook. I would never pretend to have a full understanding of the lives and times of someone who lived, say, 100 years ago in Africa - or even nowadays.

    1. Dear Librarian,
      Not only is this an interesting and thoughtful book on Lewis Carroll, but it also made me read more about the Victorian period in England and I was quite happy reading for hours!
      I'll have to think a bit more and get my thoughts together better to make you see why Americans are a bit sensitive these days...

  4. Hi Kay, I really enjoyed your review of this book. I so often find it difficult to translate into words (concisely!) what I took from a book. Lewis Carroll, like a great many highly creative people, was misunderstood, for whatever reason. Your theory of highly functioning autism or Martha's of Asperger's may be correct. This book is one that I will look for next time I'm at the bookstore to take a closer look at.

    You may have noticed this is being written in the middle of the night, I went to bed early and then woke up and couldn't get back to sleep... so I am reading blogs, lol!!

    1. Jenny Woolf is a very good writer and she has a great blog under...well, she has the best little kitten photo on there, if you go back in my blog to Nov. 17, 2011, "England At Her Best", Jenny left the last comment on there.
      Ha, CONCISELY, is the word, I really had so much more to say, but what do I leave in, what do I leave out?
      And hey, if you can't sleep, please read my blog, it will put you to sleep every time! :-)

  5. Interesting. I don't really know much about Lewis Carroll, so I am thinking I should read this book. Another one to add to the ever growing list!

    1. Dear Tracey,
      I love to read books about people and things that I know NOTHING about and then I learn more! Anyone who enjoys MATH, in my opinion, is so very far from me that they might as well be from another planet! ;-)

  6. What an interesting blog! I've long been fascinated by Lewis Carroll, though I've never read any biographies of him. Isn't mathematics another area where high functioning autistics excel? Once while in Hampshire we visited the churchyard where Alice LIddell is buried.

    1. You need to read this book! It also will make you curious about the whole Victorian period, in general, I believe.
      I wonder if Alice Liddell didn't tire of being associated with the story of her as a young girl. She didn't seem like an adult that I would want to know, but maybe that's just me...Did they have anything in the town that you visited to say that Alice Liddell had lived there?

  7. Hello again, Kay, and thanks so much for reviewing my book. Since you have taken such a lot of trouble I will respond to it with equal thought, so forgive this long comment...

    > I still think that Lewis Carroll is a mystery to her even now...

    Yes, AND he belongs to a culture that nobody alive has first hand knowledge of! But human nature doesn't change so I concentrated on seeking the real human being stuck in a world where everyone thinks differently from now.

    I didn’t mean to be rude by saying Florence Becker Lennon didn't understand the subtleties of Victorian English society. It’s not reasonable to expect her to, and I doubt she’d have enjoyed it, as IMHO it was very snobbish and hypocritical at times! American middleclass society seemed far more open, free and pleasant

    > I loved the quote from Lewis Carroll that he wished to put his money towards "him that hath no helper".

    Yes, he seems to have felt personal anguish at the idea of helpless creatures suffering and having their lives blighted. Even as a teenager he was known for protecting younger children from bullies and he hated animal suffering. (there’s a nice little poem he wrote for his small sisters and brothers to remind them not to swing their pet rabbits by their ears!)

    > I kept coming to the same conclusion that Lewis Carroll was a very high functioning autistic person and I just wish that someone could have understood and explained all of this to him at the time.

    He did have some typically autistic features. He'd create real social embarrassment by insisting on complete accuracy, or refusing to talk. He cross-referenced his personal diary (for heavens sake), kept to a strict routine, loved order and predictability, and so on. There are well argued articles in journals suggesting he had Asperger Syndrome. So I wondered whether to put something about it in the book.

    I decided not to, because actually LC also had several major qualities that were the opposite of autistic or Aspergers. For instance, he looked people in the eye when he spoke to them, and connected with other people very well - when he chose to. (But he often didn’t choose to). He had a notable gift for theatre, and was reported to be a particularly compelling storyteller, drawing listeners into his own personal world. He often WASN’T organised, and he loved idiotic nonsense. He loved and understood poetry and imaginative fiction – fairy tales and fantasy and poems were among his favourite reading and took up a large part of his life. Another large part of his life was concerned with intangible aspects of religion and spirituality.

    I couldn’t put all the examples of this stuff in the book – not enough room - but I couldn’t make it fit overall with the image of an autistic person, either, even a high functioning one.

    And you are right that nobody apparently understood him at the time (though a few little girls or young women seemed to be able to connect to him). I think it was a strain for him,. and he certainly suffered from depression. But he was lucky he had such a huge family who may not have understood him perfectly but they all stuck together anyhow and he was able to relax with them.

    You may understand now what I wrote in the introduction, that the nearer you got to him, the further he seemed to drift away and not be what he seemed at first after all. He was really a MOST puzzling person! So you are right in your conclusion, that actually I don’t really understand him….. . :)

    >Oh, and that first photo is of the pier at Eastbourne. I love the idea of Lewis Carroll walking along the seafront and then up to Beachy Head. It is a beautiful spot and it pleases me that he enjoyed the >walks during his summers there.

    Yes, it is lovely… I suspect he was happier in Eastbourne than anywhere since his childhood.

    Oh well, that’s a long comment, But your interesting observations were worth spending some time thinking about and I am honoured that you spent time on it- thank you.

    1. Dear Jenny,
      I really can't thank you for enough for the time that YOU took to write this thoughtful comment!
      It thrills me to know that he was familar with Eastbourne. I looked up the church that he attended while he was there, and I am familar with it! It is on Seaside, which is the street just behind the seafront. That is the last church that I went to when I last visited! You know that comment that you left me on my post "England At Her Best"?, you said that the view from Beachy Head would make him weep. That comment alone was worth me having my own blog.
      And now, after my struggle to review your excellent book, you have left me ANOTHER comment...I am very, very grateful! I am the one who feels honoured! (And to show my respect, I have spelled that word with a "u"!)

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed that post. I found the replies and answers very thought provoking.

    Aghhhh Eastbourne: I used to visit there often when I lived in Sussex. Worthing was little more than a stones throw from Eastbourne. I used to meet my husband there and we would go to the pub at Beachy Head. Did you ever get there - the pub I mean! Wonderful Ploughman's lunches.

    I have not been to Eastbourne since we moved to the Isle of Lewis - 7 years ago now. Are the flower beds as pretty as ever I wonder?

    I am so glad I found your Blog site. Thanks to Scriptor for that.

    Bye bye Pat

    1. Hello Pat! (Spesh 1)
      Oh, I am glad that you liked this post! Cannot tell you how much I worried over how best to write this...
      I love the pub at Beachy Head! You wouldn't believe this, but as I am typing this, I can look up behind my computer screen and see a photo that I took of my husband, my son, and Joan & Peter (my in-laws) and they are standing in front of that very pub! Ploughman's lunches are wonderful but I must tell you, when I am in England, it is almost ALWAYS Fish & Chips for me!
      The flower beds in Eastbourne are still beautiful, they call them the "Carpet Gardens", and you have reminded me of something... I have an old postcard of the Carpet Gardens from the early part of the 20th century and then the same view of the Carpet Gardens from 1985 and the flowers are exactly THE SAME!!! Only the clothing is different....if I can find those cards, I will photograph them side by side, so you can see what I mean.
      Oh, I am glad you found my blog too! Give Scriptor my thanks! (Do you call him John?)
      Cheers! Kay

  9. Yes, we always call Scriptor "John". He comes to stay on Lewis almost every summer and we spend a lot of time with him - either at his brother's house or at our house. Briagha, my retriever, is a real fan of his too - she hardly leaves his side! He is a very good friend.

    The world is very small. Just imagine there is quite a good chance (better odds than winning the lottery I would think) of us actually being in the same part of Sussex at the same time - even passing in the street. How spooky is that!

    David and I are off to Sussex at the end of March to catch up with friends. Our daughter leaves for a new contract on board "Oceania Marina" and it will be another six months before we see her so going down to Sussex takes the edge off her leaving.

    Looking forward to more posts on Georgia.

    Bye bye! Pat

    1. Dear Pat,
      Just realizing I forgot to reply to this! Your daughter works on a cruise ship! How fun, what does she do?
      The next time you are in Eastbourne, may I suggest something to you? One of my favorite places for tea (or for food for that matter) is the Hydro Hotel. It is up high! The croquet lawn makes you think you will hear the Queen yell "Off with her head" any moment. I am trying to find out if Lewis Carroll ever visited there, it was built just before he died. If you go, find out for me, would you? :-) But watch out for the seagulls, if you are outside, they will swoop down and take your whole sandwich!