Saturday, February 12, 2005


Bouncing Checks Down The Rabbit-Hole

TLS features one of the strangest and most curiously engrossing book excerpts I've seen in a while, from Jenny Woolf's new Lewis Carroll in His Own Account: The Complete Bank Account of the Reverend C. L. Dodgson. If it was April 1st, I'd imagined that someone was having me on with that book title -- but it really is an actual book, and a oddly revealing one at that:

Recently I discovered that Barclays Bank held, in their archive near Manchester, the entire C. L. Dodgson account... no one had ever seen Dodgson’s account, because no one had ever asked to. Forgotten and unread for over a century, it is the only major uncensored document about him that is known, and it makes revealing reading....

He began running into overdraft almost from the start. By the eighth transaction, his account was in the red..... Using a rough rule of thumb of £50 (modern) to £1 (Victorian), Dodgson’s £148 overdraft in June 1863 was the approximate equivalent of £7,500 now, and that was fairly typical....

Things deteriorated in the early 1880s, when Dodgson was around fifty. It is tempting to wonder whether he was experiencing a mid-life crisis at this point.... From September 25, 1883 till January 22, 1885, he was continuously overdrawn, often for substantial sums. His overdraft rose to over £666 in January 1884, money which, if only it had been a credit, would have bought him a very nice house at the time.... Perhaps predictably, neither the surviving diaries nor the correspondence refers to this matter at all: this was clearly one of the areas which his family wished to remove from the public gaze. From that time onward, Dodgson survived mostly on his income from publications, with overdrafts to tide him over until each February, when the annual payment came in.

And no, Woolf says, there are no hush payoffs to angry parents of little girls -- in fact, it looks like Alice Lidell's father earned about about six times as much as Carroll did -- though there are a number of drama school payments and the like for actresses that Carroll took a liking to. And with his latest royalty payments constantly heading right back out to pay off rolling debts, it seems that one of the most unusual authors in the English language had some very typical authorial finances.

This is one of the better examples of the scholarly titles which approach an author from the most absurdly specialized angle, yet somehow manage to tell you something new about the person. (A much larger academic genre would be absurdly specialized books that tell you nothing.) An old book analyzing Walt Whitman's opera reviews for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle also comes to mind; I picked that one up off a university library shelf for a laugh, and damned if it wasn't pretty good.

Still, for all the pure voyeuristic fun of Woolf's study -- a little like sneaking into an author's office and prying into their filing cabinet -- I am left slightly unsettled. This account record was not among Carroll's personal effects: it was in a bank manager's safe at Barclay's. At what point, exactly, did one's private bank records become public information? Just curious.

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