Writers, like other artists, seek an audience, and sometimes the audience responds. A successful author gives interviews and biographies are written, but what in the end can we really know, even in the age of social media? I have had two run-ins with biography by accident, and they have only deepened the mystery for me.
The Truth about Lewis Carroll?
Commentators have been speculating wildly about Lewis Carroll’s tastes and psyche for many years, sometimes with little basis in fact. When I was in grad school, I was lucky enough to land a job as a research assistant on a scholarly study that was attempting to find as much objective truth as possible about Lewis Carroll through his surviving letters and diaries. Note I say “surviving.”
After his death, Carroll’s diaries fell into the hands of a relative who took it upon herself to censor them. Naturally we assume she cut out all the “naughty bits,” although we really cannot know that for certain. In the one case, a passage survived by chance that surprised us.
A few pages from Carroll’s diary appeared in print before his relative took out her scissors, and one of them was probably chosen because it is about Ellen Terry, perhaps the most famous actress of her time.
One day Carroll was visiting backstage, and he writes in his diary that he happened to pass the open dressing room door of Ellen Terry. She was combing her long flaxen hair, and his spontaneous comment is that of a man we meet almost nowhere else in his voluminous “surviving” papers. He says, “Ah, to be the comb.” A passage like this makes you wonder what exactly was cut out, and how much of it might have been startlingly normal to our modern eyes.
Can We Know What Really Happened?
I never quite understood Carroll’s niece’s behavior until I worked as another part-time job with the opera singer Christa Ludwig on her memoirs. Although Ludwig provides a lot of interesting information in her book about how she developed into a great singer, the influences on her, and what it was like to sing opera all over the world in the mid-twentieth century with Callas and Pavarotti, and to work with all the greatest conductors and stage directors of the time, she chose not to tell tales out of school.
To Ludwig’s credit, we did talk about the nature of truth sometimes, and her view was that history is a story and not absolute, and she wasn’t about to spend her time speculating. (She told me one afternoon that she loved math “because it is the only place where two and two always make four.”)
Having spent a decade working for someone attempting to find the real truth about the long-dead author of a classic tale, and many months with a woman struggling to understand her part in what may or may not someday be considered a “golden age” of opera performance, I prefer to enjoy the art and not worry too much about the mystery of creativity.