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.”
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.
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.
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.
February 27, 2010
So Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” opened in London, and Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail says it’s long on visuals and short on story. Tookey’s take — get it? — is that Linda Wooverton diluted the project with her attempt to write a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books instead of re-telling the original stories — or, at least, one of them. So everybody — including Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen — looks great, but has nowhere to go.
“The story becomes a very different beast from the ones Lewis Carroll created,” Tookey writes. “It’s a tale of feminist empowerment, with an entrepreneurial, pro-capitalist ending that is unlikely to endear it to readers of the Guardian.” In other words, it’s a 3-D version of the health-care summit.
According to Tookey’s account, a central issue in this tale is that the Red Queen has enlisted the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch as enforcers in her reign of terror. In Carroll’s dream within a novel, of course, these were characters in a poem, not “real” creatures. Alice reads about them in a looking-glass book, which means a book in which the print is backwards so that one has to hold it up to a mirror in order to read it.
This poem, which Carroll meant as a parody of overblown poetry and pointless criticism, has been subject to so much serious study that it’s a shame Carroll didn’t live to see it. G.K. Chesterton remarked on this in 1932: “Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.”
“Jabberwocky,” incidentally, is a particular challenge to translators who want to make “Alice” available to the non-English-speaking world. There’s a French version that begins: Il brilque: les toves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave …. A German translation begins: Es Brillig war. Die schlichte Toven / Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben ….
Chris Tookey’s review of Tim Burton’s film is at THIS LINK.
October 26, 2009
We watched “Phoebe in Wonderland,” a 2008 fantasy written and directed by Daniel Barnz.
This film is an off-beat tale about a nine-year-old girl, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who is brilliant and creative, but who confounds her parents and her rigid teachers and principal with outbursts of inappropriate remarks and behavior.
Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman as a brunette), is frustrated by her inability to find time — amid housekeeping and raising two little girls — to convert her academic dissertation on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels into a book. With her mother’s encouragement, Phoebe has immersed herself in Carroll’s fanciful neighborhoods to the point that she has frequent imaginary encounters with his characters. The competing forces in Phoebe’s psyche are effectively portrayed by Barnz through the blurring of identities between people in Phoebe’s real life and Humpty Dumpty, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter
Coincidentally — or not, depending on your point of view — Miss Dodger, the new, idiosyncratic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is mounting a musical production based on Carroll’s stories. This enterprise becomes a kind of sanctuary for Phoebe — the one place where she can overcome her compulsive outbursts. But there is too much amiss with the little girl, and with her parents, and with the management of the school, to stave off a crisis and an unexpected if not totally comfortable resolution.
Like the film “Millions” which I wrote about here on October 19, this is not for viewers who take things literally or insist on reality in their movies. The film is blessed by a talented cast — also including Bill Pullman as Peter Lichten, Phoebe’s father, and Bailee Madison as Olivia, Phoebe’s sister. The beautiful Tessa Albertson has a brief but haunting non-speaking role as Alice.
This film argues that a person cannot be defined by one or two aspects of her personality. The world around Phoebe — her parents, her siblings, her peers, and most of her teachers — failed her as long as they embraced only the “acceptable” parts of the girl or hoped to make the whole girl acceptable to them by badgering or ridiculing her.
The inscrutable Miss Dodger and the fleeting figure of Alice — who may be better acquainted than they let on at first — provide the only unqualified reassurance Phoebe receives that she, with her strengths and her weaknesses, is a person of value.