“I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” — Lewis Carroll

March 8, 2010

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice

It’s one of the paradoxes of both history and human nature that the man who wrote some of the most enduring literature for children has been accused of pedophilia. I refer to Lewis Carroll — that is, the Rev. Mr. Charles Dodgson — author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.” The notion that Carroll had improper relations with under-aged girls evolved from his real relationships with females in general and young girls in particular — neither of which was entirely consistent with the norms of Victorian England — and his career as an amateur photographer, which included photographing naked young girls.

This characterization of Carroll has been debunked in the past, but it persists in the popular imagination, probably because the popular imagination would find a pedophile more interesting than the person Carroll seems to have been in reality. The issue is examined again in a new book by journalist Jenny Woolf, “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.”

Lewis Carroll and his camera, 1863, in a portrait by Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander

Based on her research of primary and secondary sources — and a certain amount of logic and common sense — Woolf comes to the conclusion not only that Carroll was not a pedophile, but that the most prominent features of his life and his mind militate against such a thing — that, in fact, he had a horror of abuse of women and children that was consistent with his horror of sin in general.

Woolf emphasizes a point about this issue that is useful to remember when we are reflecting on any historical figure. She points out that those who have charged Carroll with every crime from adultery to murder — one author even wrote that Carroll and a confrere were jointly Jack the Ripper — have often tried to interpret his behavior and his work without taking full account of the Victorian context in which he lived. The most telling evidence she presents, in fact, is that neither the children whom Carroll photographed nor their parents thought of the sittings as anything but proper, and that some of those children grew to adulthood and even old age with only the highest regard and affection for Carroll.

This is not to say that Carroll’s life was without its complications, including sexual ones. One important aspect of his life was odd even for that time, and it has to have figured prominently in some of the behavior that contributed to rumors about him then and since. Carroll took a position as a mathematics instructor at Christ Church, one of the colleges at Oxford. The school continued a medieval discipline in which a man accepting that position must receive holy orders as an Anglican deacon and remain celibate until he was ordained a priest, at which point he would take a parish, marry and begin a family.

Lorina Liddell, in a portrait by Lewis Carroll. Lorina was an older sister of Alice Liddell, the namesake for the title character in Carroll's most famous works.

Although it was expected of him by everyone beginning with his father, a priest himself, Carroll postponed and eventually opted out of priestly ordination, which meant that — unless he gave up his position, which he could not afford to do — he opted out of married life and, therefore, sexual relations. At the same time, while he outwardly kept up the grim image of a Victorian college don, he maintained a lively social network, more often than not conducted in the company of women. He loved women, and he didn’t disguise that, and they were charmed by him. On one hand, these relationships — including private tet-a-tets in Carroll’s rooms, were not usual in Victorian England. On the other hand, Woolf explains, there is no evidence at all that any of them crossed the lines that everyone in that time and place knew to be unmovable.

Still, Woolf shows convincingly that Carroll at a certain point in his life began to grieve over some unstated offense that he perceived he had committed, and this guilt ran head-on into the strict sense of morality that he measured himself by throughout his life. It was this crisis, Woolf thinks, that at least in part inspired Carroll’s cultivation of friendships with young children, and especially young girls, who — in Victorian society — were regarded as the antithesis of sexual. In these relationships, Woolf argues, Carroll could have beauty and affection without the complicating ingredient of sexual attraction. And, of course, he could indulge in his lifelong fascination with word games and fanciful stories and children’s playthings.

Alice Liddell, for a time one of Carroll's child friends and the namesake for his most famous literary character. Carroll's portrait of her as a beggar girl has been used by some of his critics as evidence of peversion.

One of Woolf’s frustrations — and she is hardly alone  in this — is that Carroll and his family seldom talked about his private life, not an unusual scruple for the time, and significant documentation of his life, including some of his diaries, were either redacted by his survivors or simply vanished.

Woolf does write about the possibility, or the likelihood, that the much-discussed rift between Carroll and the family of Alice Liddell — at whose request he committed the original “Alice” story to writing — may have had to do with his attention, not to Alice but to her attractive older sister Lorina. Marriage in those days often had little to do with romance, and the Liddell family may have had bigger plans for Lorina than a liaison with a math lecturer, and a mediocre one at that.

The Boston Globe’s review of Jenny Woolf’s book, which treats many aspects of Carroll’s life and work, is at THIS LINK.

A page from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with Carroll's own sketch of the title character.


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7 Responses to ““I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” — Lewis Carroll”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    A very enjoyable post, and a perfect review of Woolf’s work ~ that is, a review which makes me want to read her book.

    I had the usual childhood acquaintance with Alice which faded until Jefferson Airplane re-awakened it with “White Rabbit”.

    It’s nice to see the work stir interest again, and to have some new explorations of Carroll himself.

  2. Jenny Woolf Says:

    I’ve just spotted your post which explains what I have written very accurately. There have been many reviews of the book but none has been as precise and balanced as this. Thanks.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Thank you. Some years ago I reviewed a book about the Princeton collection of Lewis Carroll’s photographs, and I became acutely aware of the need for balance in writing about him and his work. I am due to file a review for several newspapers here in New Jersey; unfortunately, it will be somewhat shorter than what I wrote here. In fact, I’ll probably condense this post for that purpose. Thanks again for your reply.

  3. Contrariwise Says:

    Jenny of course would want to mention the Association for new Carroll studies, of which she is a member:

    http://carrollmyth.com/contrariwise

    and perhaps the first book to explore the Carroll Myth – “In the Shadow of the Dreamchild”

    http://karolineleach.com/shadow/thebook.html

  4. zarah Says:

    mi pregunta esque si la niña que aparece en la imagen es alicia ummh si pueden contestar con palabras en español se los agradecere mucho grasias

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Alicia en el país el libro fue el nombre de Alice Liddell, quien fue un amigo de Lewis Carroll. En ese sentido, la niña de la foto es Alicia.

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