Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, was a man of diverse interests - in mathematics, logic, photography, art, theatre, religion, medicine, and science. He was happiest in the company of children, more specifically girls, for whom he created puzzles, clever games, and charming letters. As all Carroll admirers know, his book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865), became an immediate success and has since been translated into more than eighty languages. The equally popular sequel "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There", was published in 1872.
The "Alice" books are but one example of his wide ranging authorship. "The Hunting of the Snark", a classic nonsense epic (1876) and "Euclid and His Modern Rivals", a rare example of humorous work concerning mathematics, still entice and intrigue today's students. "Sylvie and Bruno", published toward the end of his life contains startling ideas including an 1889 description of weightlessness.
The humor, sparkling wit and genius of this Victorian Englishman have lasted for more than a century. His books are among the most quoted works in the English language, and his influence (with that of his illustrator, Sir John Tenniel) can be seen everywhere, from the world of advertising to that of atomic physics.
Charles the Child Photographer
In 1856, Dodgson took up the new art form of photography; first under the influence of his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge, and later his Oxford friend Reginald Southey and art photography pioneer Oscar Rejlander.
Dodgson soon excelled at the art, and it became an expression of his very personal inner philosophy; a belief in the divinity of what he called beauty, by which he seemed to mean a state of moral or aesthetic or physical perfection. He found this divine beauty not simply in the magic of theatre, but in the poetry of words, in a mathematical formula and perhaps supremely, in the human form; in the body-images that moved him.
When he took up photography he sought with his own representations to combine the ideals of freedom and beauty into the innocence of Eden, where the human body and human contact could be enjoyed without shame. In his middle age, he was to re-form this philosophy into the pursuit of beauty as a state of Grace, a means of retrieving lost innocence. This, along with his lifelong passion for the theatre, was to bring him into confrontation with Victorian morality and his own family's High Church beliefs. As his main biographer Morton Cohen noted... "He rejected outright the Calvinist principle of original sin and replaced it with the notion of inborn divinity."
His favorite subjects for photography were little girls, both with and without clothing. These make up just over fifty percent of his surviving work. His favorite model was Alexandra Kitchin ("Xie"), whom he photographed around fifty times from the age of four. Most of his girl subjects would write their name on the corner of the print in coloured ink. Later, Dodgson either destroyed or returned the nude photographs to the families of the girls he'd photographed. They were long presumed lost, but four nudes have since surfaced. Dodgson's practice of photographing or sketching nude girls has added to speculation that he was a paedophile; see below. There is a clear difference between Dodgson's girls and depictions by other Victorian artists; in almost all of his solo portraits of girls they are depicted unburdened by the heavy weight of Victorian symbolism, and are simply and strongly themselves.
He also found photography to be a useful entrée into higher social circles. Once he had a studio of his own, he made portraits of notable sitters such as John Everett Millais, Ellen Terry, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He also made some landscapes and anatomy studies.
Dodgson abruptly ceased to photograph in 1880. Over 24 years he had completely mastered the medium, set up his own studio at the top of Tom Quad in Christ Church College, Oxford and created around 3,000 images. Less than 1000 have survived time and deliberate destruction. He spent several hours each day creating a diary detailing the circumstances surrounding the making of each photograph, but this register was later destroyed.
With the advent of Modernism tastes changed, and his photography became forgotten from around 1920 until the 1960s. He is now considered one of the very best Victorian photographers, and is certainly the one who has had the most influence on modern art photographers.
Charles and Lewis
In 1856 he published his first piece of work under the name that would make him famous. A very predictable little romantic poem called "Solitude" appeared in The Train under the authorship of 'Lewis Carroll'. This pseudonym was a play on his real name, Lewis being the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll being an anglicised version of Carolus, the Latin for Charles.
The ruin of Godstow Nunnery. In the same year, a new Dean, Henry Liddell, arrived at Christ Church, bringing with him a young wife and children, all of whom would figure largely in Dodgson's life over the following years. He became close friends with the mother and the children, particularly the three sisters Ina, Alice and Edith. It seems there became something of a tradition of his taking the girls out on the river for picnics at Godstow or Nuneham.
It was on one such expedition, in 1862, that Dodgson invented the outline of the story that eventually became his first and largest commercial success, the first Alice book. Having told the story and been begged by Alice Liddell to write it down, Dodgson was evidently struck by its potential to sell well. He took the manuscript, at this stage titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground, to Macmillan the publisher, who liked it immediately. After the possible alternative titles Alice Among the Fairies and Alice's Golden Hour were rejected, the work was finally published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 under the Lewis Carroll pen-name Dodgson had first used some nine years earlier.
With the immediate, phenomenal success of Alice, the story of the author's life becomes effectively divided in two: the continuing story of Dodgson's real life and the evolving myth surrounding "Lewis Carroll." Carroll quickly became a rich and detailed alter ego, a persona as famous and deeply embedded in the popular psyche as the story he told. To him belongs a large part of the image of little girls and strange otherworldliness that we know from the author of Alice.
Alice Under Skies
As an epilogue to Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll included a nostalgic poem recounting his memories of the boat trips he had taken with the Liddell sisters during which he had first told the fantastic tales he later wrote down in book form. The poem forms an acrostic of Alice's name and expresses the depth of his feelings for Alice, who haunts him even in his sleep.
A boat, beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July -
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear -
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream -
Lingering in the golden gleam -
Life, what is it but a dream?
- Lewis Carroll, 1871
Lewis Carroll as a Minor Attracted Person (MAP)
The Sexologist Erwin J. Haeberle gives Lewis Carroll as an example of a celibate pedophile which contemporary MAPs (pedophilic, hebephilic, etc.) could emulate. Carroll loved to be in the company of children, and he devised Alice in Wonderland to entertain Alice (10), Lorina (13) and Edith (8) Liddell on a boating trip, wrote it down at Alice’s request, and presented the first manuscript to her less than two years later. Carroll’s attraction to females before puberty is established in a number of biographies, especially Cohen (1996).
Carroll had hundreds of little girl friends throughout his life — he once remarked “children are three-fourths of my life.” Among them, Alice was the most important. In his diary, Carroll marked “special day[s] which had given him great pleasure” with a metaphorical white stone. Carroll marked all but one of the days he met Alice with a white stone. However, in 1863, when Alice was eleven, something occurred that caused a rift between Carroll and the Liddell family. Several pages in his diary, likely detailing these events, were cut out. Carroll would later be informed by Ms. Liddell that he was no longer allowed to take her daughters rowing, and Ms. Liddell destroyed all of his letters to Alice. Cohen argues that the rift was caused by a failed marriage proposal to Alice (Cohen, 1996, p. 101):
The fact that Alice is Charles’ “ideal child friend”, that she sparked his creative energy, that he devoted so much of his time to her and fashioned his two remarkable fantasies with her as heroine is proof enough of a deep attachment, certain affection, even a kind of love. That he might desire a holy union with her is understandable.
Two contemporaries of Carroll are quoted to support this. The first is Margaret Woods, who claimed that “when the Alice of his tale had grown into a lovely girl, he asked, in old-world fashion, her father’s permission to pay his addresses to her.” The second is Lord Salisbury, an “archenemy of gossip” who Cohen considers particularly reliable; he reported “they say that Dodgson has half gone out of his mind in consequence of having been refused by the real Alice (Liddell). It looks like it.” (Cohen, 1996, p. 100-101). Cohen also points to an 1866 diary entry:
On Saturday Uncle Skeffington dined with me, and on Sunday I dined with him at the Randolph, and on each occasion we had a good deal of conversation about Wilfred, and about A. L. — it is a very anxious subject.
At the time, Carroll’s brother Wilfred had fallen in love with 14-year-old Alice Jane Donkin. Cohen believes that Carroll is here comparing the experience of Wilfred to his own with A. L. — Alice Liddell (Cohen, 1996, p. 101). Lorina Liddell commented on the rift in a 1930 letter to Alice, after being interviewed by a biographer:
I suppose you don’t remember when Mr. Dodgson ceased coming to the Deanery? How old were you? I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it, and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again, as one had to give some reason for all intercourse ceasing. I don’t think you could have been more than 9 or 10 on account of my age! I must put it a bit differently for Mrs. B’s book. I had no idea my words were to be taken down! Mr. Dodgson used to take you on his knee. I know I did not say that! Horrible being interviewed if your words are taken down.
Lastly, when Carroll asked to meet the youngest daughters of Mrs. Liddell in 1891, he made this telling comment (Cohen, 1996, p. 101): “I am close on 60 years now, and all romantic sentiment has quite died out of my life: so I have become quite hardened to having lady-visitors of any age!” That suggests, of course, that Mrs. Liddell had reason to worry about his romantic sentiments.
Carroll’s diaries record that he was tormented by unwanted thoughts. He wrote his book of puzzles Pillow Problems to distract the reader from “unholy thoughts, which torture, with their hateful presence, the fancy that would fain be pure.” Cohen argues that these unwanted thoughts were about children because the feverish appeals to God for help in his diaries cluster around his visits with the Liddells (Cohen, 1996, p. 207-210).
Carroll was a prolific photographer of children, some of them nude. Carroll instructed that all of his nude photography be destroyed at his death. Only a few pictures survive, the most erotic being prepubescent Evelyn Hatch’s 29 July 1879 photo. (In 2015, it was reported that a full frontal nude of Alice’s pubescent sister was discovered). Mavor (1996) explores the “obvious sexuality” of Carroll’s photographs from a feminist perspective. Carroll put considerable effort into convincing parents to allow nude photography of their daughters, but always ensured that all involved were comfortable with nudity; one of his letters reads (Cohen, 1979, p. 253-254):
If you should decide on sending over Gertrude and not coming yourself, would you kindly let me know what is the minimum amount of dress in which you are willing to have her taken? With that information, will then be guided by her likings in the matter: children differ very much — with some that I know (Londoners chiefly) I would not venture to propose even taking off their shoes: but with a child like your Gertrude, as simple-minded as Eve in the garden of Eden, I should see no objection (provided she liked it herself) to photographing her in Eve’s original dress. And I think, if you were here and could see the photographs I have done of children in that primitive costume, that you would agree that it is quite possible to make such a picture that you might frame it and hang it up in your drawing-room. But, much as I should myself like to have such a picture of her, if you at all object, or if she has changed her mind since I saw her (she was quite willing to be taken so, last September), of course I give it up, though I do not, once in a hundred cases, get so well-formed a subject for art.
Some scholars have attempted to deny Carroll’s pedophilia on the specious grounds that:
(a) “Carroll had some attraction to adult women.” Exclusive attraction to children is rare among pedophiles; his passion was still for little girls, and he met his most important adult friends when they were children. And,
(b) “nude photography and appreciation of girls was common in Victoria England.”
The problem with this argument is that Victorian culture eroticized sexual innocence in children. Some of the most prominent figures in the Victorian “cult of the child”, like John Ruskin and Ernest Dowson, did not even hide the romantic nature of their love. Why should we assume that Carroll’s love was chaste just because some contemporaries were equally blatant in their adulation of small girls? All it proves is that pedophiles of the era were free to express themselves through artistic sublimation, if not more: For most of Carroll’s lifetime, the Age of Consent was 12 or 13, a context in which “the pre-pubescent body of the 12-year-old girl was an entirely legitimate object of male sexual desire.” Finally, even during Carroll’s life, rumors circulated about his photography and some parents were suspicious of his requests for nudity (Cohen, 1979, pp. 337-343).
- Sexologist Erwin J. Haeberle - Approach Pedophilia with Caution (Freespeechtube video)
- Cohen M.N. (1996). Lewis Carroll: A Biography. Vintage.
- Dick K. (1954). “The Case of Lewis Carroll“, The Spectator, 10 December, p. 29.
- Mavor C. (1996). Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. I.B.Tauris.
- Kincaid J.R. (1994). Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. Routledge.
- MacLeod K. (2008). “M. P. Shiel and the Love of Pubescent Girls: The Other ‘Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 51 (4): 355-380. Cited in our page on M. P. Shiel.