In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, by Karoline Leach

March 16, 2014 at 14:59 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

DreamchildLife will always be hard for the biographer. There really is nobody famous who has not already been biographied to death, and the lives of interesting people without fame are never going to appeal to publishers. The biographer’s task, then, has been reduced to that of essayist, and his lot is to find some aspect of a celebrated life that can be challenged, psychoanalysed, enhanced, or otherwise marketed to compete with another dozen definitive biographies on the (probably long-deceased and unlikely to grow litigious) subject.

It is tempting therefore to recommend this book chiefly on the merits of Leach’s startling and provoking conclusions: her fearless heresies that threaten to tear down the temple of Carrollian orthodoxy and instantly demolish a hundred years of scholarship. In short, something truly original; the sole selling point and crucial lie of almost every biography in print.

“The changed, newly depressive, freshly discursive diary voice that Dodgson presents on the other side of the four ‘lost’ years tells its own story. The alteration is profound. Aside from the sense of sin and depression, there is a new edgy cynicism in his work.”

-In the Shadow of the Dreamchild

It cannot be ignored that there is something rare and precious in a ubiquitous boast that happens once to be unashamedly true, and part of the charm in Leach’s book is that she does not rely only upon new interpretations or weighing certain evidence differently, but on new facts and new documents that have simply been ignored by her peers. That she comes out with new conclusions is therefore wholly unsurprising, and makes this book indispensable reading for scholars of Carroll, and indisputably the first stop for any casual reader looking to discover more about his or her favourite author.

This aspect of the book–the new reading of Charles Dodgson and his life–no matter how heterodox and bold it might be, is only one part of this biography’s success.  After all, it has already been remarked that this book’s bold success is, of course, only what every modern biography claims to contain. Biographies in general ought to find a particular balance that they hold in common with well-written histories. Whether the story of a particular man or the story of a particular war; whether the life of a woman or the life of an empire, the genres are remarkably similar.

A biography must be written with a definite glimpse of the author. It should not merely be the sifted recrudescence of the subject’s acts and papers, but should be like a comfortable fireside talk with a fellow who has known the subject intimately, and with a few drinks will begin to reminisce warmly and vividly. Interpretation and conclusion are welcome as peripheries and abhorrent as a driving force. When a biographer begins to say things like “he must have…” or even worse, “he thought…” then he begins to enter dangerous waters.

Here is where Leach performs magnificently. She includes only enough analysis of Carroll’s works and writings as are immediately germane, instead reconstructing an elaborate storyline of the man’s life. Like any intimate friend might have, she has certain very strong opinions of what Carroll was and what Carroll did, but she impresses these thoughts on the reader by a careful tailoring of her narrative, not by a tedious pseudo-intellectual essay.

At the end of any biography, the reader is going to have to come to a decision, whether he will agree with what has been nothing more nor less than a carefully structured essay to persuade him to see a person (or event) in a certain light. It is plain that regardless of her evident skills as an essayist and her dilligence as a researcher, Leach will not persuade all of her readers. But it is extremely unlikely that anybody who takes the time to join her on a winding path through the life of one of the nineteenth century’s most singular writers will at all regret the journey.

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