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'Mystery' aims looking glass at Lewis Carroll

"THE MYSTERY OF LEWIS CARROLL," by Jenny Woolf, St. Martin's Press, 326 pages $27.99 (nf)

With the upcoming release of Tim Burton's film "Alice in Wonderland," a renewed interest in the source material's author has taken place. And he, it seems, was as quirky as the characters he created.

Lewis Carroll has always been an enigma of sorts.

He's been called a philanderer, child abuser, murderer, psychopath and a fraud, among other things. There is no proof of any of these accusations, but the rumors remain.

In "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll," author Jenny Woolf focuses on the evidence available to tell the story of Carroll — whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — a Victorian poet, mathematician, writer, photographer and children's book author.

Woolf breaks Carroll's life down into sections that are not necessarily chronological but that focus on similar material. She starts with the author's family, which creates a strong foundation.

Carroll loved mathematics and logic — so much so that Woolf dedicates some 30 pages to the subject.

Another section focuses on Carroll's love and sex life. Here, Woolf works to dispel myths and rumors about child abuse. Carroll did indeed love being around children — as the following section details — and after reading these chapters, it's not hard to see how speculation began, as some of his behavior would today be considered creepy at the least.

Due to the upcoming film, perhaps the most intriguing part of Woolf's book is Alice. There is much lore surrounding the book's title character. And it is true that "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was written for Alice Liddell, one of the daughters of Carroll's dean at Oxford.

What many will be surprised to learn, however, is that Liddell probably was not the inspiration for the title character. Carroll was fond of the child — he did write the book for her after all — but Liddell had short, dark hair, was a teenager before the book was published and had little to do with Carroll within years of "Alice's" publication.

Other sections cover Carroll's beliefs in religion and the supernatural, his love of photography, and literature and storytelling.

Woolf has worked hard to back up her information with facts and source documents. And her careful attention to detail is evident. As with any biography, she has made her own conclusions and shared her own sentiments, but the book feels less speculative than others of the genre.

"The Mystery of Lewis Carroll" is not a fast read, but it has a rhythm that keeps it moving forward at a comfortable pace. At times, discussions may go too far in depth for the lay reader, but overall Woolf's piece is interesting, informative and enjoyable.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com