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Biographers disagree over what kind of man Charles Dodgson really was. (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson / SSPL / Getty Images)

Lewis Carroll's Shifting Reputation

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

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The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a teacher of mathematics at Oxford and a deacon of the Anglican Church. Some colleagues knew him as a somewhat reclusive stammerer, but he was generally seen as a devout scholar; one dean said he was “pure in heart.” To readers all over the world, he became renowned as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice was popular almost from the moment it was published, in 1865, and it has remained in print ever since, influencing such disparate artists as Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, just released in movie theaters nationwide, is only the latest of at least 20 films and TV shows to be made from the book. But if Alice has endured unscathed, its author has taken a pummeling.

Since the 1930s, biographers and scholars have questioned the nature of Dodgson’s relationship with the 10-year-old girl to whom he first told the story, and since the 1960s his work has been associated with the psychedelic wing of the countercultural movement. When some of Dodgson’s photographs—he was an accomplished portraitist—were exhibited in 1999, a New York Times reviewer quoted Vladimir Nabokov (who had translated Alice into Russian) as saying there was “a pathetic affinity” between the photographer and the pedophilic narrator of Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Tim Burton recently described Dodgson’s stories as “drugs for children” and Wonderland as a place where “everything is slightly off, even the good people.”

The decades of interpretation and reinterpretation have created a widening chasm between how modern readers perceive the author and how they receive his work. “Lewis Carroll is treated like a man you wouldn’t want your kids to meet,” says Will Brooker, author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, “yet his stories are still presented as classics of pure, innocent literature.” As Burton’s movie beckons us down the rabbit hole once again, it might be wise to ask: How did we arrive at this curious state of affairs?

Charles Dodgson was born in 1832 in Daresbury, a village in northwest England, the third child (and first son) of Charles Dodgson, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Frances. As the household grew to include 11 children, Charles did not lack for company. “He told his brothers and sisters stories, made up games and wrote magazines with them,” says Edward Wakeling, who spent 12 years annotating Dodgson’s diaries. Later in life, “he really enjoyed entertaining children, and they loved him in return.”

After enrolling at Oxford in 1850, at age 18, Dodgson became a “senior student”—the equivalent of a fellow—at the university’s College of Christ Church. According to college rules, senior students had to be ordained as priests and take a vow of celibacy; Dodgson evaded the ordination rule and lived at the college unmarried, until his death in 1898, less than two weeks before his 66th birthday.

Like many Victorian bachelors, he became a sort of uncle to his friends’ children, making up stories and games and taking them on short trips; the role ensured him a warm welcome in many homes. In 1855, dean Henry Liddell arrived at Christ Church with his wife, Lorina; their son, Harry, and daughters Lorina (or “Ina”), Alice and Edith. (The Liddells would have five more children.) Before long, Dodgson struck up a friendship with Harry, then 9.

“He taught Harry rowing and arithmetic, spent time with him and took him on outings,” says Wakeling. As Harry’s sisters grew older, he says, “Dodgson also took them under his wing, with their parents’ blessing.”

Dodgson particularly liked to pack a picnic lunch and take the Liddell children boating on the Thames, with adult friends or family to share in the rowing. On a July afternoon in 1862, he took the three Liddell sisters on a stretch of the river between Oxford and Godstow and told them the story that would become Alice. Alice Liddell, then 10, was delighted that the main character bore her name and asked Dodgson to write down the story.

At this time, Dodgson was taking photographs. Although the camera was still a relatively new technology, he had been an early enthusiast, starting in 1856, and he found no shortage of friends who wanted him to make likenesses of them or their children. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, England’s poet laureate, befriended the then-obscure don and let Dodgson photograph him after becoming impressed by one of his child portraits. “You, I suppose, dream photographs,” he said.

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