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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“We are reasonably sure that the little girls substitute for incestuous love objects,” wrote New York University professor Paul Schilder in 1938. The meaning of an illustration of a long-necked Alice is “almost too obvious for words,” psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn offered in 1947. Similar analyses would appear as the literature on the Alice author grew.

In 1945, Florence Becker Lennon advanced the case that Dodgson had had an unhealthy attraction to Alice with Victoria Through the Looking Glass, the first modern critical biography of him. “People have wondered what he did with his love life,” Lennon wrote. “Now it can be told. He loved little girls, but, like Peter Pan, he had no intention of marrying them.” But Alice, she wrote, “was the first and most favoured of his girl friends,” and she speculated about the idea that Dodgson precipitated the rift with the Liddells by proposing “honourable marriage to [Alice] directly or through her parents” in 1863. Alice was 11 then—too young, even by Victorian mores.

Lennon’s basis for the assertion may have seemed sound: Ina was one of her sources. (Alice did not talk to Lennon because, her sister said, she was ill.) But in a letter to Alice, Ina wrote, “I tremble at what I said” to Lennon about the Liddell family’s supposed rift with Dodgson. “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.” Ina had also told Lennon that she, Ina, was 10 at the time—but she was 14, or old enough to entertain formal suitors.

Whether Ina was mistaken, duplic­itous or confused when she spoke with Lennon, her letter to Alice does not say. (One conjecture is that she lied to conceal Dodgson’s interest in her, or hers in him; given his finances and prospects at the time, her parents would have discouraged the match.)

The idea that Dodgson had an unhealthy involvement with Alice has persisted, although there is no evidence to support it. Three major biographies published in the 1990s, by Donald Thomas, Michael Bakewell and Morton Cohen, suggested that he had pedophilic urges but never acted on them.

Lennon acknowledged that she wrote without the benefit of Dodgson’s diaries, which were published in abridged form in 1954 and in full, with Wakeling’s annotations, beginning in 1993. But even they are an imperfect source. Four of the 13 volumes are missing—as are the pages covering late June 1863, when his break with the Liddells occurred. A Dodgson descendant apparently cut them out after the writer died.

But if the diaries offer nothing about his romantic interests, other documents do.

One is a note, purportedly written by one of Dodgson’s nieces, summarizing what was in the missing diary pages from 1863: “L.C. learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess—he is also supposed...to be courting Ina,” it reads, meaning that the children’s mother told him that people were gossiping about him, saying he was courting either the Liddells’ governess or their eldest daughter.

In addition, Dodgson’s surviving letters suggest that he had a keen interest in women—and worked to circumvent the Victorian proscription of mingling between unmarried adults of the opposite sex.

“I wish you could come and stay here a bit!” he wrote to 22-year-old Edith Rix in 1888. “I believe the ‘Mrs. Grundy’ risk might be altogether avoided by simply arranging 2 or 3 visits to be paid consecutively.” (Mrs. Grundy was British society’s fictitious guardian of morality.) In 1879, he asked Gertrude Thomson, a new acquaintance in her late 20s, “Are you sufficiently unconventional (I think you are) to defy Mrs. Grundy, and come down to spend the day with me at Oxford?” (She was, and did.) In a 1967 memoir, the stage designer Laurence Irving, a son of one of Dodgson’s friends, summarized Oxford gossip from previous decades in dubbing him a “greying satyr in sheep’s clothing.”


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