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Lewis Carroll and his world by John Pudney
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Lewis Carroll and his world (1976)

by John Pudney

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Twenty-eight wrongs do not make a right.

Charles Dodgson had many obsessions, and these have led to extremely diverse interpretations of who he was and what he did. Being obsessive in my own way, I've now read (I believe) twenty-seven volumes of Dodgson/Carroll criticism, biography, rank speculation, and other silliness.

And silliness is generally the relevant word. Not one of these biographers, I think, have captured the man.

This isn't the worst of them, but it is certainly below average. For example, it calls Dodgson a poor mathematician. He was not a poor mathematician, as his work on voting theory and determinants and probabilities shows. What he was was a man who could not overcome orthodoxy -- where there was an established rule (e.g. Euclidean geometry), he refused to go beyond it. Where there was open territory, he could be brilliant and original.

Similarly, the book calls him "self-indulgent." Not really true. He was nitpicky beyond belief -- but this wasn't self-indulgence, it was a genuine mental limitation (almost certainly due to autism): He knew what (he thought was) right, and insisted on it. In fact he was often wrong, and he was an immense pain-in-the-whatever, but it wasn't because he was self-indulgent; he wanted to serve others. He was just too out-of-it to know how.

So I can say, flatly, if you want to try to understand Charles Dodgson (not Lewis Carroll, which is simply his pseudonym), this isn't the place to start. To give it its due, there are a few items in here which I haven't seen in bios #1-#27 -- but they are few, and they are inadequately documented, and given the several misquotations I found, I hesitate about trusting them. And what do you say about a Dodgson bio that doesn't emphasize that he is the White Knight being left behind by Alice -- and all the other Alices, and Ediths, and Agneses, and the 90% of his child-friends who outgrew him although he never wanted to outgrow them? So, for me, this goes down around #18 of #28. I'd wait until you've read at least a couple of good Carroll bios (say Cohen or Hudson or Clark) before you get to this one. ( )
1 vote waltzmn | Jan 14, 2016 |
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A thirty-year-old Oxford mathematics don, the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, laid aside his white flannels and straw boater to assume his customary clerical gear, and wrote in the diary he meticulously kept: 'Duckworth and I made an expedition up the river to Godstow with the tree Liddells: we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Christ Church again till quarter past eight, when we took them to my rooms to see my collection of micro-photographs, and restored them to the Deanery just before nine.'
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