17 February 2018

Charles Dodgson and Alice (Lidell) in Wonderland

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll 1832-98) was born in a NW English vil­l­age, third child of Rev Charles Dodgson. As the fam­ily grew to in­clude 11 children, Charles told stor­ies to his siblings, made up games and wrote magazines with them.

After enrolling at Oxford in 1850, Dodgson became a fel­low at Christ Church College. According to the rules, fellows had to be ordained, but Dodgson ignored the ordin­ation rule and lived at the college unmarried. He was a maths lecturer and a devout deacon of the Anglican Church.

Like many Victorian bachelors, he became an “uncle” to his friends’ children, taking them out. In 1855, Dodgson’s Dean Henry Liddell arrived at Christ Church with his wife, Lorina and their first four children. As the 3 sisters grew older, Dodgson took the girls under his wing, with their parents’ blessing. In summer 1862, he took the Liddell girls on the river in Oxford and told them stories. Alice Liddell (1852-1934), then 10, was delighted that the main character shared her name and asked Dodgson to write his stories.

Dodgson wrote to Gertrude Thomson, an artist who was sketching girl­ish nymphs: "I am fond of children ex­cept boys." And "I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures”. He took exq­uis­ite, melancholy photog­raphs of lit­tle girls. But it was Alice Liddell in particular who became his passion.

So why did the Liddells trust Dodgson with their precious daughters. I suggest a few significant reasons:

1. Harry Liddell was Dodgson’s dean and had a trusting professional relationship with him;
2. The Liddells had 9 children and were delighted when an adult offered to help keep them educated and amused;
3. Dodgson was a respectable Anglican deacon; and
4. The children loved Uncle Charles’ stories and activities.
Dodgson’s love for girls was elusive, and filled with yearn­ing. He wrote to a 10-year-old girl, thank­­ing her for her lock of hair. “I have kissed it sev­eral times - for want of having you to kiss, you know, even hair is better than nothing." There was a romantic intensity to the friendships, a hunger, of nev­er quite getting enough, want­ing more of Alice.
If the man did not ever literally shag a child, was he still culpable? Yes!! He carefully groomed the youngsters and he changed those girls’ lives forever.

The Queen of Hearts by John Tenniel
The queen was a foul-tempered monarch 
whose favourite line was “Off with their heads!"

He loved little girls, but, like Peter Pan, he couldn’t marry them. So Katie Roiphe asked if there were other famous C19th men who disliked overt adult phys­icality and who found them­selves drawn to children/teens instead.Yes! John Ruskin also fell under the spell of young girls he met, yet he couldn’t consummate his marriage to an adult woman. Anne Isba said Charles Dickens met his wife Cath­erine when she was 14; she had 10 children before being dumped for her young sister Mary (who died at 17) and the young teenage actress Nelly Ternan.

Victorian culture clearly had a very sen­timent­al view of young girls that could co-exist with disgust about adult sex!! There is no doubt that Dodgson was tor­m­ented by what HE called "the inclinat­ions of my sinful heart"; that his own thoughts were “unholy”. But Dodgson felt his er­ot­ic fascin­ation was under control; he was channelling his desires into a wild and lovely lit­er­ary univ­erse instead.

Although the camera was still new technology, in 1856 Dodgson had been an early and skilled portraitist. He found plenty of friends who wanted him to take family port­raits eg Engl­and’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. In total Dodgson took c3,000 photo­graphs, just over half were of child­ren, mostly dressed. Some of his portraits might offend us, but by Victorian stand­ards they were innocent. They were prais­ed as art studies, a la Julia Margaret Cameron. Yet modern critics have condemned the photos that showed his fascination with the immature female body.

One example will suffice. On the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the BBC made a documentary called The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, 2015. It expl­ored the nature of Carroll's relationship with children, and revealed a newly-discovered photograph of Alice’s elder sist­er, entirely nude. Although the picture was not 100% proven to have been Carroll’s, the uncomfortable pubescent model strong­ly suggested he was a somewhat rep­res­sed paedophile.

In 1865 a completed version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonder­land was published as a book, published with John Tenniel's unmistakable art work. Dodgson published a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in 1871, and a long poem in 1876.

He retired from teaching mathematics in 1881, and died in 1898 aged 66. At that stage, loving little girls was still acceptable. The London Daily Graph­ic’s 1898 obituary fondly noted his affection for girls. Also in 1898, Dodgson’s nephew published a biog­r­aphy that devoted two warm chapters to Dodgson’s child friends and their kiss­ing.

Now my final questions. There is a gulf between how modern readers perceive an author and how they perceive his work. Is a good work of art, created by a bad person, tainted forever? Would you still read his stories to your children, thinking of them as classics of pure, innocent literature?

Charles Dodgson photo, self portrait, 1857

Charles Dodgson photo, Alice Lidell dressed as a beggar-maid, 1858


Andrew said...

We can take refuge from many things by saying, that was years ago, different times, different places, different standards, different moral codes. Whether we should or not, is another matter. I kind of wish I hadn't read this post if you understand what I mean.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, We have had discussions like this before, over Dickens' treatment of his wife or Wagner's personal politics. I do believe that this diminishes their works because if we condemn them for their actions, then we must look at their art as hypocritical or simply diminished.

However, Dodgson was not convicted of any special act, even if he had to suppress (or not fully understand his desires. Today we have strange zero-tolerance attitudes about anyone who does not come up to our current standards in any way. Especially for historians, this results in a badly distorted view of how history and culture developed, and their value at different periods.

In the end, the Alice books are pure masterpieces, and further inspired Tenniel's great and iconic illustrations, which I understand were not in his usual style. I think that even now we are not even close to understanding what was going through Dodgson's head--perhaps it even makes the books the greater, as of course they can be read on many literary and psychological levels. The uncomfortable and weird aspects of Alice were brought out in Jan Svankmaker's wonderful semi-animated adaptation, simply called 'Alice' as well as in the short 'Jabberwocky.' This comment is getting too long to analyze these films, but everyone should see them to add their messages to the already odd brew instigated by Lewis Carroll.

Another Student said...

The Queen of Hearts was a nasty, potty mouthed woman. Lewis Carroll clearly did not like her.

WoofWoof said...

You say that Lewis Carroll "groomed" these girls and changed those girls forever. I don't believe there is any evidence that he caused any of them any harm at all - Alice Liddell went on to have a long and conventional life. Neither she nor any other girl ever accused Dodgson of any improper conduct. I think I'm right in saying that Dodgson was attracted to adult women. Cf John Ruskin. He met the young girl when she was 9 and although he did not declare himself until she was 16 (and no evidence that he did anything improper before that age), the intensity of his passion and her parents' understandable opposition led to severe mental issues for the young woman and eventually an early death. As for Dickens, I am not sure why you have chosen to tar him with the same brush. There is no evidence that he was attracted to young girls - he was immoral and unfaithful, very similar in fact to much of our present society. It's very easy to sit in judgement over the victorians while ignoring the huge damage that is done to children's innocence by our own society steeped as it is in licentiousness and lack of moral restraints.

Hels said...


quite right... we _read_ mid Victorian values and behaviours in the words used at the time. But we _understand_ those values and behaviours with 2018 brains. Right from the beginning of this post, I knew it was going to be painful for me to write, and for others to read.

Hels said...


the Alice books ARE still pure masterpieces! Furthermore his books spun off animated adaptations etc, as you noted, which modern children largely love. So it is historians in particular that struggle with "a badly distorted view of how history and culture developed".

But in Dodgson's case, he wrote everything down. We know from his own words that he felt terrible about his own desires and that he had to suppress them. Then consider Gauguin who was very different. He wanted to escape European civilisation and its artificial and conventional values. So for Gauguin to marry 13 year old Pacific island girls was not problematic at all.

Hels said...


when Mrs Liddell told Dodgson that he had to stop taking daughter Alice out, I assumed it was Mrs Liddell who became the model for the tyrannical and vulgar Queen of Hearts.

But one analysis suggested Alice's own governess was the model for the controlling Queen of Hearts. Mary Prickett worked in the family for 14 years and probably supervised all of Dodgson's interactions with young Alice. [And Prickett was an unfortunate surname, in this context].

Hels said...


thank you for a long and thoughtful response. I agree that it is very easy for us to sit in judgement over the Victorian generations, but we must never ignore the huge damage that is done to children (and women) by our own immoral society.

Dodgson being attracted to adult women was very possible, including Alice's mother, Mrs Liddell. But that came later in his life, after he regretted his earlier life and literature. Perhaps we would have known more, had his diaries survived intact.

mem said...

It was a very different time . I mean people were propping up their dead family and taking photos of them as a memorial to them , People were make jewelry out of dead peoples hair !!!
I also wonder if in times to come we will see pedophilia as something that is a very undesirable disability to have . A bit like being an alcoholic who MUST NOT drink . We often admire people who control their urges and maybe we should also respect his apparent ability to not give in to something which he was fascinated by . We are complex creatures and I believe that his literature is great but the writer perhaps a very flawed person . It doesn't seem to me though that he did anything with malevolence .

Hels said...


I have no problem with your view that Dodgson was a very flawed person who, at the same time, wrote memorable literature that has stood the test of time. My fear is that if we stop reading the literature, looking at the paintings and admiring the music of very flawed people, there won't be any artists left.

And what about a successful politician who has sex with the workers in his office? Barnaby Joyce may have the support of 80% of his constituents, but should he lose his seat in Parliament?

bazza said...

You have presented us with an insoluble moral dilemma Hels. Great men of the past have often been flawed. Albert Einstien, Pablo Picasso and many others are reputed to have treated women intolerably, but that hasn't really harmed their reputations. I think it is nigh on impossible to make certain moral judgements about a bygone age. Lewis Carroll is still very much loved today.
I find it difficult to watch anything with Kevin Spacey in it these days but I can't really say why and there is an American folk singer called Michelle Shocked, whose work I admired until she came out as a right-wing anti-gay Christian. What to do, what to do.....
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s tenebrific Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Until I added the unacceptable behaviour of Australia's deputy Prime Minister, and you mentioned the folk singer Michelle Shocked, I had largely been concerned with the inappropriate adult behaviour vis a vis their own children or other peoples' children.

But the moral dilemma is the same. I would never see a modern Mel Gibson film, for example, because he is a fall down drunk, an anti-Semite and rough with women. However I still admire Gauguin's paintings, presumably because he died so long ago.

Perhaps the dilemma can be put down to simple inconsistency. I won't eat sheep or cows because it would kill sentient animals. But I happily eat fish and eggs *sigh*

mem said...

I agree with you Hels , I dont like the puritanism which is around at the moment .I think the worst people are those who dont see themselves as they are .They are dishonest both to themselves and us and also tend to see what they want to see not what is in front of them . A Lot of that around at the moment . As for Barnaby , I dont care who he sleeps with but I do care about him putting himself into a situation which could be corrupt. I also have lost respect fro a man who talks up family values etc etc etc and then does what he has done. It very rare that we get a well rounded competent intelligent diligent and interesting parliamentarian who is above moral reproach !!!!

Hels said...


a well rounded competent intelligent diligent and interesting parliamentarian who is above moral reproach??? Apparently Chile and Russia both had a politician like that, once upon a time. But they were both assassinated :(

Like you, I do not care who a politician sleeps with, as long as the partner is old enough to give consent. "Moral" should cover accepting bribes, financial corruption, favouring one half of the community and ignoring the other half, physical violence etc etc