The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created “Alice in Wonderland” examines modern ideas about Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and attempts to debunk them. Jenny Woolf does a good job of providing evidence that his friendships with children, rather than being pedophilic tendencies as is interpreted today, were regarded by Victorians as innocent and probably were innocent. She also shows that the modern interpretation of his pictures of nude children was not one held by people of his own time, and that they regarded this pastime and the resulting pictures as harmless because children were considered innocent.
In fact, Woolf provides evidence that his friendships with young women were much more subject to question and talk. She posits that he cultivated a persona of being older than he actually was so that they would not be questioned, even though these relationships were almost certainly innocent as well.
Woolf depicts the Reverend Dodgson as a sensitive, artistic man who cared for his family and loved entertaining children. His position at Oxford did not at that time allow him to marry. A number of years during the time he was a young man are missing from his diaries and he refers to feelings of guilt in later entries, leading Woolf to conclude that something happened, possibly with a woman, that he regretted. Her theory is that he cultivated relationships with young girls as a return to innocence.
The book is interesting, but with a caveat. It is very short, almost shorter than the subtitle, but Woolf is so focused on one or two ideas that it often seems repetitive. A good deal of information about Carroll’s life is missing because he or his relatives removed pages from his diaries and his relatives destroyed a great deal of material after he died. Although this has often been interpreted as the family’s attempt to hide nasty secrets, Woolf is not convinced that there was much to hide. She blames a good deal of the current perception of Carroll on the initial emergence and misapplication of certain theories of psychology in the infancy of the science.