I try reading the London Review of Books about twice a year, but each time end by flinging it in the bin: it’s not a literary publication, it’s a political one written by amateur politicians. And what I can’t take about the Times Literary Supplement is those formless review articles muttering over three pages that generally seem to be written by academics (again, amateur writers) as bad examples to their students.
A chance purchase of last week’s TLS, though, revealed gold: three long review articles that may be tarnished by some automatic writing, but still have something original and stimulating to say. I’m referring to Lesley Chamberlain on Russian official nationalism, John Freedman on Soviet theatre, and Dinah Birch on Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s new book The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.
Dinah Birch’s piece seems to me one of those rare examples of a reviewer who knows as much about the subject as the author of the book he/she is reviewing, yet who interacts with the author sympathetically, rather than criticising, point-scoring, or even noticeably ‘reviewing’. The result is an engaging dialogue in which sometimes you can’t distinguish the reviewer’s voice from the author’s.
I was particularly attentive to the Douglas-Fairhurst/Dinah Birch dialogue about Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell and other young girls, because this is surely a biographical crux, and therefore on a par (for me) with George Calderon’s ‘Edwardianism’ or the reason why he insisted on going to the Front. As Birch puts it: ‘To modern eyes, the fact remains that [Carroll’s] interest is either distasteful or offensive, particularly when it extended to taking photographs of nude children.’ So how to regard it today? How to regard George Calderon’s ‘dilettantism’ and ‘death wish’ today?
Birch continues: ‘Middle-class Victorians, as Douglas-Fairhurst points out, often saw things differently. They were inclined to associate children, unclothed or not, with purity rather than forbidden pleasures.’ Difficult though we may find this to believe today, when our own reality is plagued with paedophile crime, we have to accept it as a fact presented by specialists in Victorian reality who know what they are talking about.
Of great interest to me, therefore, is Birch/Douglas-Fairhurst’s conclusion: ‘It may well be that Carroll’s interest was sentimental rather than sexual, arising from an obscure mixture of feelings that can never be fully understood.’ In a biography, I believe, one is striving to understand why one’s subject did certain things (perhaps one day Ruth Scurr will explain to us why we strive to do this!). The idea that an action, e.g. George’s determination to sign up at forty-five, arises from an obscure mixture of feelings that can never be fully understood is rather heart-stopping for this biographer.
However, philosophically it may be true…
Next entry: The ‘strange aftermath’ at Anzac