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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In 1999, Karoline Leach published yet another Dodgson biography, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, in which she quoted the summary of the missing diary information and argued that her predecessors, misunderstanding the society in which Dodgson lived, had created a “Carroll myth” around his sexuality. She concluded that he was attracted to adult women (including Mrs. Liddell) after all.

The reaction among Dodgson scholars was seismic. “Improbable, feebly documented...tendentious,” thundered Donald Rackin in Victorian Studies. Geoffrey Heptonstall, in Contemporary Review, responded that the book provided “the whole truth.”

Which is where Dodgson’s image currently stands—in contention—among scholars if not yet in popular culture. His image as a man of suspect sexuality “says more about our society and its hang-ups than it does about Dodgson himself,” Will Brooker says. We see him through the prism of contemporary culture—one that sexualizes youth, especially female youth, even as it is repulsed by pedophilia. The nature of his relationships with Alice, with other girls and with women may never be established with certainty. But then, uncertainty is a consistent theme in the Alice books.

Jenny Woolf, a London-based journalist, is author of the recently published The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.


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