|Not what it seems. Read on.|
I love Lewis Carroll. My first published mystery opens in the middle of a Snark Hunt. This Private Plot uses both "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" and the Hatter's rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as clues. I composed a setting of "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and as a student, I adapted and acted in Alice's Adventures (and I insisted on including the elusive "Adventures") for Oxford's University Players. Good Lord, I've even read to the end of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.
But even a fan and apologist such as myself can't escape the fact there was something a little, well, questionable about Charles Dodgson's relationship with children, an issue thoughtfully and sensitively covered in a recent BBC television program "The Secret Life of Lewis Carroll," hosted by Martha Kearney. Now, I'm not going to rehash all the biography and psychology here -- even the very distinguished clutch of Carrolleans interviewed for the program couldn't agree on a characterization of Dodgson's interest in little girls, or indeed if his chosen companions were as "little" as we've assumed.*
And that's because the latest wave of LC/CD research is now seeking to undo the glib generalizations washed over us by earlier Freudian waves and other schools of thought that encouraged us to leer up Victoria's voluminous skirts. Dodgson's too-easy branding as a pedophile is now rightly seen as short-changing a unique and highly complex character, and may even be based on incorrect assumptions and biographical data. (And sometimes a rabbit-hole is just a rabbit-hole.)
Since my own interest in Carroll goes back to my teenage years, I've heard a lot of that knee-jerk labeling over the years -- "Lewis Carroll liked little girls, nudge nudge" -- usually from jerks who are suspiciously keen to rush to a prurient judgment.
So what do you make of this? Google "Lewis Carroll." Go to images. I guarantee that, not too far down, you'll see the picture at the top of this post. "Carroll-and-Alice-kissing" is its file name. The image seems to have first appeared on Pinterest, but has been picked up by more than one blog, completely at face value. An innocent moment of Victoriana or something a little more revealing?
It doesn't matter. Because the picture is a fake, and a remarkably bad one for something that's frequently reproduced with no comment.
Here's the original of Dodgson, a self-portrait, flopped for the forgery, although he noted that, since he asked Alice Liddell's older sister Lorina to uncap and then recap the lens, Ina claimed she was the true photographer in this instance.
Now, here's the source of Alice. Carroll's group shot of the three Liddell sisters (hence the pun in the three "little" sisters of the Dormouse's sleepy tale) in a tableau called "Open Your Mouth." Alice's mouth is open, not for a salacious smooch with an Oxford don, but for the cherries that Ina is dangling, their poses stiff and awkward because of the long exposures required by mid-nineteenth century photography. (Younger sister Edith looks on.)
I'm not going to attempt to identify the source of Carroll's claw-like hand that was Photoshopped into the fake. The whole exercise is disturbing enough.
But this isn't the only case. Take a look at this image, also found on Google images, again of Dodgson and Alice, in a marginally less scandalous arrangement. At least he's keeping his visible hands to himself this time.
Another fake, of course. (There are very few pictures of Dodgson, who protected his privacy and tried to hide his alter ego from the adult world, and only one or two that include him with other people.) Here's the original:
It's a picture by Dodgson of a fellow clergyman, nursing a small child that, according to the record, is oddly no relation whatsoever to the man of the cloth. The face of Alice that's been badly pasted over the other girl seems to be a flopped cut-out from this picture of the three girls.** (Dodgson's face clearly comes from the same self-portrait, shown above.)
Is any of this frankly too-easy research going to stop the proliferation of these concocted images? Of course not. The same deeply unpleasant impetus that led to their creation is going to keep them circulating around the internet for years, no doubt joined in time by dozens of suspiciously "rediscovered" pictures of nude girls, supposedly taken by Lewis Carroll, that notorious child-molester and pervert. Ah, what a world. We're all so bloody sophisticated, aren't we?
*Nonsense. Of course I'm going to throw in my own observations. First, a biographical note that is rarely given enough weight. Charles was the third child of the family. He had two older sisters and was followed by two further girls before the next boy emerged. He grew up surrounded and worshiped by little girls, and as the oldest boy and his father's namesake was very much the leader in play and family entertainments. He acknowledged his rural childhood as idyllic, but the final step into adulthood -- his permanent relocation to starchy, celibate, serious Oxford when he was a stammering 19-year-old -- coincided almost to the day with the sudden death of his beloved mother. Surely then, the company of young children, especially girls, was as much a connection to a childhood curtailed by tragedy as any suppression of a newly discovered sexuality.
Second, the BBC program brought up the observation that Carroll/Dodgson's first biographer, his nephew Stuart Collingwood, may have stressed his uncle's fascination with younger girls in order to draw attention away from his interest in older girls. The famous rift with the Liddells seemed to revolve around his attention to Lorina, not Alice -- Ina was no longer considered a "child," being past the age of consent. Whether or not a contemporary photograph turns out to be Dodgson's nude study of the teenage Ina, which was freshly considered in the BBC program, his later diaries are full of smug references to his habit of inviting unchaperoned "child-friends" who were actually in their late teens and twenties -- but still far less than half his age at the time -- to visit him at Oxford or stay in his lodgings during his summer vacations in Eastbourne. Even his spinster sisters berated him about the appearances of this behavior, but he boasted that he was defiant of popular moral convention, which he personified as "Mrs. Grundy."
Scandalous maybe -- and to say that none of these young ladies ever reported any misbehavior may not cut it in the days of Operation Yewtree and Cosby -- but a different sin from the one people have been trying to pin on him, and a an alternative viewpoint that's been well covered by some recent biographies.
**In an earlier version of this blog, I thought Alice's face came from a picture of Alice alone, posed in her best clothes in the Deanery garden, a companion image to the familiar portrait of her as a beggar. I've changed my mind.