Biographising the Famous & Dead

Thinking about this lately.

Living people are complicated and multi-layered, make jokes, contradict themselves, change as they age, have different viewpoints at twenty from the ones they hold at fifty.  They are almost impossible to fully understand and would take years of close study to be able to describe with any accuracy or completeness. But the Famous and Dead are different.

Or they are if you happen to be a certain kind of biographer.

The first  thing about the Famous and Dead in certain kinds of biography is the known facts about them are  all the facts. Or at least all the salient ones. The rest can easily be filled in with inference or repetition.  Like, the 20 or so fragmentary facts we have about Shakespeare’s life are more than enough for certain kinds of biographer to just guess the rest and be probably right. I mean when you’ve read his  will, a list of his debtors and his  tax returns, what else do you need to be able to figure  who he fell in love with and what he really thought of James 1?

It’s all made easier too by the fact that the Famous and Dead were apparently  born, lived and died with a single set of opinions, traits and feelings. If a man was described as  ‘forgetful’ by someone who knew him aged ninety-seven, then he was obviously  ‘forgetful’ from birth, and  so certain kinds of biographers are quite justified in  considering how being ‘forgetful’ at school would have caused problems, and what those  problems might have done to his psyche, and how that damaged psyche might have given him a complex and how that complex might have made him depressed, and then they can  call it a  solid fact  that this person was forgetful and chronically depressed about it.

All this is of course definitely true once it has been said, because another fortunate thing is that  biographers of a certain kind always know more about the Famous and Dead than they did themselves.

I mean, suppose our aforementioned ‘forgetful and depressed’ man spent his life visiting aquariums, and writing about how fish were just wonderful. You or I might just assume he rather liked fish, unless there were some strong evidence in his own behaviour to suggest otherwise. But certain kinds of biographers know better than this.  They don’t even need evidence, since intuition is more than enough. They can simply say that ‘despite all outward appearance’  (great phrase frequently used),   he actually hated fish quite a lot and preferred newts. And that is enough to make it true.

The only thing that is required as an axiom to be taken literally about the Famous and Dead are their jokes, because , as we all know,  in the olden days they  had no sense of humour or irony, and never made a joke about anything.  If our man once said “I’d find a dead horse more interesting than Simpkins and his slideshow,” then that is what he meant – literally.  This forgetful, depressed, fish-phobic, newt-lover liked dead horses for company.

And there’s a lot more books in that.

Lewis Carroll has had more than his share of this treatment from his biographers of course.  They mostly either had no facts available so just made stuff up (Reed, Taylor), or ignored the facts and…well, just made stuff up  (Green, Hudson). Even the best of them, who strove to get some real understanding of their subject (Cohen, Clark in places, Lennon, to the extent she could at the time),  would too easily fall back on just ’knowing’  what his/her hero really meant, even if that is entirely  contrary to anything he actually said. One biographer, for example ‘knew’ that   ‘despite all outward appearance’  Mrs Liddell ‘hated’  Charles Dodgson.  He didn’t say how he knew. He didn’t need to. He was a biographer. He just knew.

The situation is, hopefully, changing a little now, but it’s a legacy hard to escape.  It hangs about, and  even very new biographies and source texts can  stray into the ‘well  I just ignored that fact because I was sure Carroll didn’t really mean it’ kind of  mindset. For example, ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ or Theosophy as it’s now known, formed – as Carroll says in his own foreword – the basis of his last novel Sylvie and Bruno.  As such it was clearly highly important to him personally, and a vital expression of his own spiritual exploration. It also set him within a very important philosophical and spirtual context within his own time. But one recent biographer decided he/she knew better. And that when Carroll said ‘Esoteric Buddhsim’ he really meant ‘Japanese Buddhism’. And why? Because – apparently – the author read up on Theosophy and decided it was not the sort of thing Lewis Carroll would have liked!

So, there y’are Mr D. Now you know what you really thought.

~ by Contrariwise on May 2, 2010.

7 Responses to “Biographising the Famous & Dead”

  1. I wonder with Lewis Carroll whether we are more interested in gaps- the negative spaces if you will- of his life.I sometimes think we have become so obsessed with what is apparently ‘missing’ from Dodgson’s life that we fail to see what is actually there.

    The life of Charles Dodgson is a rich and complex tapestry with some truly amazing
    threads running through it. But we seem more fascinated by the moth holes than with the overall patterns of his life.

    Perhaps if we step back and look at Dodgson’s life as a whole, then the gaps may not be as critical to our understanding if the man.

  2. Hi Deb,

    No, I disagree. the issue is the tapestry itself. Let’s face it, for over 100 years this tapestry, as painted by Carroll’s biographers painted a picture of a CL Dodgson that not only could not possibly have written the works of Lewis Carroll, but also indicated that he was a reclusive, anti-social pedeophile. Hardly a pleasant image – except to publishers who like to to maximise their sales on the basis of gossip, sex and sleaze.

    This reached its epitomy with Morton Cohen’s biography of Carroll which was described at the time as the Definitive work on Carroll.


    We now know just how wrong that was.

    Yet unfortunately Cohen’s book created a gap. A huge gap. Because, Thanks to writers such as Hugues Lebailly and Karoline Leach Cohen’s work has been exposed as a fiction of his own image of Carroll, biographers following Carroll have consistently pursued the idea of providing a PC version of Carroll with regards to his sexual and social nature.

    Sadly this has added nothing to our understanding of the intellectual, theological and philosophical processes that informed and drove CL Dodgson to write such radical and exemplaray works of literature.

    Despite evidence to the contrary, biographers continue to maintain the myth that Carroll’s religious views and ideas were, at least, uncontroversial.

    The citation that Karoline mentions regarding ‘ esoteric budhism is a classic case.

    I know for a fact that the author in question was wholly aware that esoteric budhism was the term used in the 19th century for what is now known as Theosophy. I also know that this author was completely aware of the link between Carroll’s support for The Society for Psychic research and the ideas behind esoteric budhism. This author also was aware that Carroll’s most significant adult relationships (we are talking about Tennyson, McDonald, the Rossetti’s FD Maurice, Henry Holiday and others) all had in common a belif in gnosticsm ( or, more correctly, neo-platonicism).

    Yet s/he omitted al mention of this.

    Why do you think this was the case Deb?

  3. I think it’s a fair point that we shouldn’t make the gaps more meaningful than the life as we can see it, and there is a temptation to fill those gaps with as much or as little as we want to have been there. But at the same time to ignore them is to paint a false picture and to fall into the ‘this is all we know, so this is all there is to know’ type of thinking. And of course, in the case of LC, some of those gaps were quite obviously very very meaningful, and it’s therefore essential to at least recognise they are there and not, as many of the Apologist tradition did, simply airbrush them out of existence.

    But yes, we do need to avoid the temptation to create or perpetuate mysteries where none, in fact, exist.

  4. Can I aske why people try to “probe” that Carroll WASN’T a pedophile? Why? Being a pedophile is not bad. Lewis Carroll was a pedophile because he loved little girls, sexually and romantically. No, he never had sex with them. He respected them too much for doing that.

    Lets say that he was gay. Do you think people would “acusse” him of being gay, like if it was something to be ashamed of? No, of course not. Well, the same with pedophilia. No one chooses to have that sexual orientation, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. He never hurt little girls. He fall in love with Alice, his special love. Is being in love with a little girl something wrong? Is something to be ashamed of? You don’t choose your feelings.

    So I ask you again, contrariwise: why so much emphasis on proving that Carroll WASN’T a pedophile, like if it was something bad? Being a pedophile is not wrong, because is not something you choose (you choose to act on that attraction, not the attraction itself). It’s just a different sexual orientation. Who are we to judge him?

    I await your answer.

  5. I din’t think that Contrariwise has ever attempted to ‘prove’ that Carroll was NOT a paedophile. What it has done is to challenge those who allege that he had paedophilic tendencies to provide a single scrap of primary evidence to justify such assertions.

    Your claim that Carroll was ‘in love’ with ‘Alice Liddle’, for example is now refuted by EVERY serious Carroll scholar (Mortin Cohen, possibly excepted) not just subscriber’s to Contrariwise.

    I await you reply – complete with primary evidence to support your assertions.


    John Tufail

  6. No-one in the Association for New Lewis Carroll Studies is ‘trying to prove’ anything or ‘defending’ anybody, any more than those serious scholars, like Morton Cohen, who do believe Dodgson was a paedophile should be seen as ‘attacking’ him. We are all just trying to find out the truth.
    If you do not agree with some of our members’ conclusions it does not in any way give you the right to attack the motivation or the methodology of those who draw them.

  7. Well, P, the answer is (in case you really don’t know), that your above comment is a collection of illogical, sophistic bullshit.

    In more detail

    1. We are not trying to ‘prove’ (or even probe) Carroll wasn’t a pedophile. We are showing that the evidence upon which the assumption of his pedophilia was based is flawed or in some instances completely false (sorry, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for a role-model).

    2. Pedophilia – being sexually attracted to children – can’t be compared with homosexuality because it isn’t a comparable entity. Homosexuality involves attraction to a gender not an age-range. It’s perfectly possible to be a homosexual pedophile, and that is just as wrong and just as dangerous as being a ‘straight’ pedo.

    3. The big lie pedos tell themselves is that they do no harm. That, actually, they bring light and joy into kids’ lives. Sometimes they even brainwash the kids into believing them temporarily. But the truth is there’s no such thing as ‘safe’ pedophilia. And pedophiles don’t bring kids anything but pain and confusion and blighted lives. If you (I’m taking a leap here and assuming we’re talking about you) want to have sex with kids then you’re a danger to them, whether you think you’ve acted on it or not. Chances are you already have acted on it in some way, even if you don’t think so. Chances are, even if you haven’t, you will soon. So, if you really ‘love’ children, stay away from them. And seek help before it’s too late.

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