24 MARCH 1979, Page 22


Benny Green

Lewis Carroll: A Biography Anne Clark (Dent £6.95) Carroll presents one of the subtlest biographical challenges of the 19th century, a riddle at least as exasperating as the affair of the raven and the writing-desk. On the face of it, the case looks highly promising; a prissy old maid of ultra-conservative inclinations who enjoys intermittent bouts of brilliant anarchic literary genius in which he lampoons the very panjandrums to whom he defers in the normal course of things. But the outbursts were infrequent, and the spinsterish quadrille danced out in the stultifying environs of Victorian Oxford, with every dancer hobbled by High Church morality, and every female of the species suspected of being the unwitting agent of the devil. The essence of the riddle is to divine the relationships between the spinster and the anarchist, an exercise which requires an acute literary diagnostician with a considerable knowledge of psychology.

Most of the attempts have been catastrophic, particularly those which have concerned themselves with either Freudian, Jungian or Adlerian explanations for the Cheshire Cat. One day readers will look back on the quacking noises made by the psychoanalysts of Wonderland and marvel that anybody ever took such rubbish seriously. Dr Scott, one-time Dean of Rochester, on behalf of the Jungians, was convinced that 'Jabberwocky' was part of the luggage 'which the Aryan race at its dispersion carried with it from the great cradle of the family', and saw in the Tumtum tree intimations of the Yggdrasil in Scandinavian mythology. For the Freudians, a Dr Grotjahn announced that 'for the understanding of the symbolisation of Alice, the phallus must be represented only by a girl, not by a boy'. An American called Fensch has suggested that anyone can get down the rabbit-hole today easily enough — 'You can get the same thing for five dollars, a pill of acid'. Talking of pills, as Groucho Marx would have said, Mr Fensch's essay is perhaps the worst piece of Wonderland exegesis ever anthologised, in a field where the awful has tended to be the norm.

It is understandable then, that latter-day biographers, taking due note of the terrible havoc wrought by the well-meaning ugly duchesses of Carrollian criticism, should strive to be sane and sober. Miss Clark, however, has over-reacted to so great an extent as to have rendered her hero positively uninteresting. What she has done is to misname her book, which ought really to be titled 'The Reverend Dodgson: A Biography', for the text is preoccupied almost exclusively with the day-to-day existence of the old maidish mathematician, at the expense of the gallant, scintillating fan tastist. To sink into the jargon of the Grosjahns, she has over-compensated for the pseudo-psychological excesses of others, venturing down too many by-ways of family, ecclesiastic and academic history, and although it may excite some Carrollians to learn that 'the gentle Princess Alexandra cannot have been the inspiration for the formidable Queen of Hearts', it is probablY fair to say that a book on Dodgson-Carroll which hardly glances at the nature of his literary achievement, and which banks on the circumstantial existence of its hero is sure to disappoint those who know, without quite knowing why they know, that Bill the Lizard is a much, more eminent Victorian than, say, that aged cherub, Dr Jowett.

Miss Clark must be aware that anyone today setting out to tell the life of Carroll has to contend with very severe opposition indeed. Derek Hudson's illustrated biography, republished three years ago (Constable £6.50) is an admirable piece of work, surpassed only by Florence Becker Lerinon's life which first appeared as Victoria Through the Looking Glass. Then there is Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, a work of which Dodgson would have been s° proud that he would have metamorphosed instantly into Carroll and written some verses about it. In the face of such rivals, Miss Clark's book fades into the background, although I side with her against Mrs Becker Lennon on one point, when she nominates as a particularly moving passage the moment when Alice has to leave the White Knight for the last time. The extract begin' fling 'Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again' is described hY Miss Clark as possessing 'peculiar poignancy', in which opinion she is quite right, even though Mrs Becker Lennon took the passage to be a lapse into sentimentality indicating a slackening of tension in Car' roll's art.

Miss Clark makes no direct reference either to William Empson's famous Alice disquisition in Some Versions of Pastoral or to Edmund Wilson's Poet Logician, arid never mentions that highly revealing moment in Dodgson's — not Carroll's — when he heard the 'damn me's' in Pinafore for the first time and accuseL! Sullivan of 'prostituting his noble art to set to music such vile trash'. A man who winces at a damn one moment, and annihilates the sanctimony of Isaac Watts the next ouglit t° be the biographer's dream. But then it was the Red King's dream in the first place' which so complicates matters that metaPhY' sicians have been squabbling ever since as to what would happen if the King woke 111). Wiley: An Adult Novel Judy Blume (MacMillan £4.95) Mrs Job: A Novel Victoria Branden (Gollancz £5.50) These are both imports, the first from America, the second from Canada; both are about a woman, and inevitably her love affairs, marriage, children and their horrors or compensations — mainly horrors. Otherwise they are unalike, though Mrs Job would be a strangely appropriate title for Wiley: Judy Blume's heroine, Sandy Pressman, is always coming out in blotches and blains symptomatic of her unhappiness. She has a conscientious, boring husband, Norm, Who values routine in all things and is Obsessed by bowels and cleanliness; two lovely all-American children; an obscene Caller, and a visiting exhibitionist — possibly the vet. Her dissatisfaction is presented mainly in sexual terms. She has empty flings With her brother-in-law and her best friend's husband, an old and expert lover reappears, but it all ends happily with Norm reluctantly agreeing to try new techniques. It wasn't that sex with Norm was unsuccessful — just that, equating orgasms with courses, 'usually it was a TV dinner and an Oreo when she craved scampi and mousse au chocolat'. Sandy is that kind of girl. The enormity (sorry) of Norm's behaviour (he always sprays the bedroom With Lysol the next morning), the awfulness Of the Country Club lifestyle into which she tries to fit, the stink of sex and money are real enough. But Sandy's search for alternatives to Norm is less than enthralling. SheP, the lover, is a one-dimensional figure nut of a porn magazine. Love equals sex, understandably when the characters are so unloveable. Couples remain stuck together by habit, family pressures, the impossibility nf escape, as escaping would entail becoming different people.

Victoria Branden's heroine, Meredith, has a Southern Ontario Protestant's conscience and tends to rail at God. After a dud marriage, she has a bastard (Nickie) by an attractive drunkard (Nicholas); she marries the apparently ,homosexual Kenneth to make the child legal, but throughout the book is pursued by Nicholas's witch-like ex-wife, Bridgie, who has psychokinetic powers and believes Nickie is 'hers'. Kenneth, Meredith and the large-bottomed Rod lead an idyllic existence in a country commune for some years, but God takes all this away and the dunghill ensues, until Kenneth reappears to prove that the mythical ideal husband may be Under one's nose. Both authors, I suppose, have sharp things to say about women, men, and the stereotypes that blur their view of each other; but I preferred the deterMinedly cheerful Branden flavour, in spite of the eventual triumph of women's Magazine values.