I recently watched the BBC documentary, The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, made as part of the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Alice was based on a real Alice, Alice Pleasance Liddell. She was four years old when she met 24-year-old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll.
Dodgson was a newly qualified maths Don at Hogwarts, or rather the real venue, Christ Church at Oxford University. At the time, dons had to take holy orders which required celibacy. This life seemed to suit him as he remained a don for most of his adult life. Perhaps with a speech impediment and mild OCD he was a little shy.
Alice was the Dean’s daughter, and she and her two sisters Lorina and Edith were regularly entertained by Dodgson. As they grew older, Dodgson took them on outings.
The story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was conceived on a boat trip on the river on the sunny afternoon of the 4th July 1962 – Alice’s Day, which is celebrated in Oxford. The girls wanted to hear a story and Dodgson made one up on the spot, which grew and grew with each telling. Until he wrote it down and made it into a beautifully put together handwritten book which he illustrated himself and gifted to Alice. There are lots of little references to the girls themselves in the book. ‘Lacie’ is an anagram of Alice. ‘Elsie’ is represented in L.C., the initials of Lorina Charlotte Liddell. And Tilly is the nickname of Edith, the youngest of the sisters. It also included references to real places, like Treacle Well.
Some time later he decided to publish it. He controlled every aspect of publication, the colour of the cover (red) and the unusual concept of having illustrations nested in the text instead of on a separate page. When coming up with a title, Carroll briefly considered Alice’s Hour in Elfland. There are some differences between the original book and Macmillan’s published edition in 1865. There was no Mad Tea Party.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in an era of Victorian literature for children that also brought us Water Babies, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
After publication, Dodgson kept his alter ego a secret. He never wanted to be recognised or come face-to-face with fans.
Will Self says the book is ‘universal literature’. Lewis Carroll was one of the first to explore the world between dream and reality, before Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, which was also published by Macmillan.
For someone who seemed to embrace the rules, it seems odd that Dodgson could create rebellious Alice, though he indulges his mathematical side by making jokes about logic. It’s posited that he knew how to entertain children because he took it upon himself to amuse his sisters in childhood.
If like Richard E. Grant and Alice is your favourite book, having read it 50 times since age seven, then you may not want to continue reading.
Carroll kissing Alice Liddell
Charles Dodgson was an avid photographer. He took many photos of the young Liddell girls, Alice in particular. A few of his photos he sent off to be turned into paintings.
Alice and her sisters Lorina and Edith
“Alice Liddell” by Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures Underground (1861)
Images: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Some are chaste, like the ones above. Others are not.
There’s a full frontal nude, Renaissance-esque photo of prepubescent Alice Liddell shown in this documentary, which I won’t replicate here. This is her exact, overtly sexual pose.
“The Nude Maja” by Eugene Delacroi
Another full frontal nude this time of Alice’s sister Lorina, in her early teens, was recently found in a French museum. Although not 100% verified to be taken by Lewis Carroll, all of the experts in the BBC’s documentary agree that it’s an authentic photo taken in the 1850s or 60s, the subject is definitely Lorina and it fits Carroll’s style of photography.
“I Wait” by Julia Margaret Cameron
Lewis Carroll’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron, also took photos of naked children, although her subjects appear in child-like angelic poses which reveal very little to the camera, rather than in revealing sexual ones. In 1872, Cameron photographed Alice Liddell at age 20.
In addition to the photos, Carroll asked for a lock of Alice’s hair. His obsession with her may have been an indication he was in love with her. But he also wrote letters to hundreds of child “friends”. The letters were inventive, written in the form of a spiral, sometimes substituting a word for a little illustration. Whenever he met them in person they were almost always accompanied by an attendant such as a governess.
In June 1863 Charles Dodgson was inexplicably exiled from the Deanery. His diary pages from this period were torn out by his nieces. He notably ‘held himself aloof’ from Alice and her family, suggesting a rift. He may have been courting Alice’s elder sister Lorina or her governess, or he’d become too affectionate towards Alice. In Victorian times, the age of consent was twelve years old. Lorina was about fourteen at the time, while Alice was eleven.
Dodgson was invited back to the Deanery in December 1863, six months after he was exiled, but his relationship with Alice’s family became strictly formal. Later, Alice Liddell married Reginald Hargreaves, naming her son Carroll.
Will Self calls Carroll a ‘repressed paedophile’ obsessed with the innocence of childhood. ‘It’s a problem when someone writes a great book and they’re not a great person.’
Today, if you placed Michael Jackson and Lewis Carroll side by side, Carroll would definitely be going to jail. I find it highly disturbing in light of the Jimmy Savile scandal – the UK’s most prolific paedophile whose victims number in the hundreds, male and female – knowing Carroll had hundreds of “friends”. It’s chilling how both seemingly used their privilege to gain access to children all over the country in the guise of the charitable gentleman loved by all. Of course, there’s no concrete evidence of molestation. Victorian culture and law was far more lax in this regard, when crime by today’s standards and unethical behaviour was easier to get away with, and even accepted.
- Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Review: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll