Lewis Carroll's Shifting Reputation

Why has popular opinion of the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland undergone such a dramatic reversal?

Biographers disagree over what kind of man Charles Dodgson really was. (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson / SSPL / Getty Images)
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Of the approximately 3,000 photo­graphs Dodgson made in his life, just over half are of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude. Some of his portraits—even those in which the model is clothed—might shock 2010 sensibilities, but by Victorian standards they were...well, rather conventional. Photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on postcards or birthday cards, and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art studies, as they were in the work of Dodgson’s contemporary Julia Margaret Cameron. Victorians saw childhood as a state of grace; even nude photographs of children were considered pictures of innocence itself.

In discussing the possibility of photographing one 8-year-old girl unclothed, Dodgson wrote to her mother: “It is a chance not to be lost, to get a few good attitudes of Annie’s lovely form and face, as by next year she may (though I much hope won’t) fancy herself too old to be a ‘daughter of Eve.’ ” Likewise, Dodgson secured the Liddells’ permission before taking his now-famous portrait of Alice at age 6, posing as a beggar child in a tattered off-the-shoulder dress; the family kept a hand-colored copy of it in a morocco leather-and-velvet case.

Dodgson’s relationship with the Liddells apparently hit some kind of pothole in June 1863: he stopped seeing both the children and their parents for several months. And although he resumed socializing with the dean and his wife, he never took their daughters out again. In 1864, however, he did give Alice a present: a bound manuscript titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

The next year an expanded version of the story was published as a book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It quickly made the name “Lewis Carroll” famous. He published a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in 1871, and a long-form nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, in 1876.

Dodgson’s identity as Alice’s author was an open secret, and the author gathered about him a large circle of affectionate children and their parents. His slight air of mystery added to his fame, which spread by word of mouth. Eventually he was invited to entertain two grandchildren of Queen Victoria herself.

He retired from teaching mathematics in 1881. While visiting some of his sisters in Guildford, just outside London, in 1898, he became ill. He died there of pneumonia on January 14 of that year.

By then, Dodgson’s reputation as a merry, child-doting—and entirely proper—maker of nonsense needed little burnishing; the London Daily Graphic’s obituary noted that “like many bachelors, he was very popular with children and very fond of them.” Before the year was out, Dodgson’s nephew Stuart Collingwood published a biography that devoted two effusive chapters to Dodgson’s many “child friends,” including references to his hugging and kissing girls, and largely omitted references to his many friendships with women.

“The popular Victorian image of Lewis Carroll was of a sort of child-loving saint,” says Brooker. “It is an image which Dodgson himself helped to create, and it suited Victorian attitudes.”

In 1932, the centennial of Dodgson’s birth, Alice Liddell, then an 80-year-old widow, traveled with her son and sister to New York City to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University for “awaking with her girlhood’s charm the ingenious fancy of a mathematician familiar with imaginary quantities, stirring him to reveal his complete understanding of the heart of a child.” An informal group of his admirers commemorated the centennial by praising Dodgson as a “great lover of children” and raising the equivalent of almost $800,000 in today’s currency to fund a Lewis Carroll children’s ward at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. That may have been the last time he was so simply remembered.

The next year, a writer named A.M.E. Goldschmidt presented at Oxford an essay titled “Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed,” in which he suggested that Dodgson was suppressing a sexual desire for Alice. (Her fall down the well, he wrote, is “the best-known symbol of coitus.”) Goldschmidt was an aspiring writer, not a psychoanalyst, and some scholars say he may have been trying to parody the 1930s vogue for Freudian ideas. Whatever his intent, unambiguously serious writers picked up the thread.


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