Alice in Wonderland (4)

When discussing Lewis Carroll, though, there are always issues which need to be dealt with, other than the quality of the books that he wrote, books which are surely among the best known, most widely translated and most familiar books in history. Have no fears. Alice will be outselling Harry Potter fifty to one in a hundred years’ time:

Whenever I have said how much I like that druggy golden afternoon, though, I am invariably assailed  by some deep thinker’s blunt statement “He was a paedophile”.

Well, as far as we know Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was not a paedophile, and as long as there is no documented proof, that is how it must stay. It is only too easy to throw stones at a man who died more than a century ago.

For me, the most important thing is to remember that the world of the 1860s, say, was very, very different from that of today.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

(LP Hartley in The Go-Between )

The sharp differences between 1860 and now will invariably be reflected in the relationships between a single man and single young girls or women. In 1860, for example, the minimum legal age for marriage, with the consent of the parents, was only twelve for a girl and merely fourteen for a boy. In the 1861 census, 175 women in Burnley had married at 15 or less. In Burnley, the figure was 179. The Orange Arrow points at Burnley and, an inch or so further on, at Bolton.

On that golden afternoon of Friday, July 4th 1862, Lorina Liddell was thirteen years old. Another year, and it would have been completely reasonable and wholly acceptable for young gentlemen to be calling round at her house to pay court to her.

Last time, I spoke about the sudden break in the relationship between the Liddells and Dodgson and the missing page in Dodgson’s diary. Supposedly it read:

“L.C. learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be paying court to the governess—he is also supposed by some to be courting Ina”

At the same time though, there are plenty of biographers such as Morton N. Cohen who think that Dodgson merely wanted to marry Alice when a few years had passed. Alice Liddell’s biographer, Anne Clark, writes that Alice’s descendants were certainly under the impression that Dodgson wanted to marry her, but that “Alice’s parents expected a much better match for her.” Mrs Liddell, for example, was aiming rather high perhaps, at the somewhat gormless looking Prince Leopold of Belgium:

Such “spring and autumn marriages” as Dodgson and Alice would have been, were actually quite common. John Ruskin the leading English art critic of the Victorian era was looking at one point to marry a twelve year old girl, while Dodgson’s younger brother sought to marry a 14-year-old, although he eventually postponed the wedding for six years. This is what Dodgson might have done. Wait five years, say, until Alice was sixteen or seventeen, and marry her then, when Dodgson was thirty five or so. Hardly outrageous, even by the standards of today.

A general pattern emerges with these “spring and autumn marriages”. The man usually falls in love with the girl when she is between ten and twelve years of age, and they are then married by the time she is sixteen or eighteen. Sometimes the little girl falls in love, but this was a lot less common.

We often tend to forget that the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a teacher of mathematics at Oxford University and a deacon of the Anglican Church. Some colleagues knew him as a somewhat reclusive stammerer, but he was generally seen by everyone as a devout and serious scholar. One college dean said he was “pure in heart.”

Supposedly, Dodgson took around 3,000 photo­graphs in his life.

Supposedly 1500 are of children of whom only 30 are depicted nude or semi-nude. A great deal will depend on what is meant by “semi-nude”, of course. Here is Alice as “The Beggar”. Is she semi-nude? She is certainly not nude. All our attention is drawn, of course, to her enormous feet and weird toes:

Dodgson had the permission of both Liddell parents for this photograph and they were so pleased that they kept it in a beautiful Morocco leather case. Dodgson soon became so well thought of that he was invited to entertain two of the grandchildren of Queen Victoria herself.

Taking photographs of children was viewed in a very different way some 150-odd years ago. Here is the very sentimentalised, “The Prettiest Doll in the World”:

Victorians saw childhood as a state of grace; even nude photographs of children were considered pictures of innocence itself.

Such photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on postcards or birthday cards, and nude portraits—skilfully done—were praised as art studies.  Probably the most famous of society photographers at the time was Dodgson’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron. As well as the rich, famous and beautiful, though, Cameron also took photographs such as” Nude child with hands folded” or “Venus Chiding Cupid And Removing His Wings “. Here she is, looking worryingly like a man, possibly even a man who has played 344 games of Rugby League for Wigan Warriors:

There was certainly no shortage of parents quite happy to have their children photographed nude by Dodgson, who was regarded as a top class photographer who had produced a large number of superb quality portraits of adults. And Dodgson was not the first Victorian to photograph nude children either. Wigan prop forward, Julia Margaret Cameron, among many others, predated him by at least three or four years. She was the most gifted artistically in this field. Dodgson’s nude photographs “by Victorian standards were, well, rather conventional.”

When he died, Dodgson left very few nude photographs behind him. As he grew old, he himself destroyed the majority of the negatives and prints of his nude studies. He asked the executors of his will to destroy any others that he had missed and this appears to have been done. This was not because the photographs were obscene. Every set of parents had already been given their own set of the photographs he took (and had posed no objections, in fact quite the opposite), so that was not the problem.

In 1881 he wrote to Mrs Henderson:

“Would you like to have any more copies of the full front photographs of the children? I intend to destroy all but one of each. That is all that I want for myself, and, though I consider them perfectly innocent in themselves, there is really no friend to whom I should wish to give photographs which so entirely defy conventional rules.”

The Hendersons (the father, incidentally, was a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford) had enormous  admiration for Dodgson’s work and were completely happy to for him to photograph their children nude. They left the children with him, unsupervised, and picked them up later. And there were no problems whatsoever.

Two families, the Hatches and the Hendersons, have passed down to us the only pictures we have which were taken by Dodgson of little girls in the nude. They were Beatrice Hatch, age 7, Evelyn Hatch, age 8, Ethel Hatch, age 9, Annie and Frances Henderson, ages 7 and 8. Anybody who finds them on the internet can see just how innocent they were, particularly in that world where:

“Victorians saw childhood as a state of grace; even nude photographs of children were considered pictures of innocence itself.”

The whole issue has perhaps been exacerbated by the fact that Dodgson died suddenly on January 14 1898. Before 1899 arrived, Dodgson’s nephew Stuart Collingwood wrote and had published, the biography of his uncle which contained two chapters on his friendships with little girls and yet no mention whatsoever of the many women that Dodgson counted among his friends:

Overall, my conclusion would be that the ball is very much in the court of the accusers. They have looked at Dodgson, a strange man admittedly, seen some of his photographs, and, without bothering to put them in the context of the age, cried “Foul”! It is now up to them to come up with irrefutable proof, something which nobody has done in over 120 years.

And don’t be fooled by the way, by the fake photograph of Alice supposedly kissing Dodgson. And above all, a full frontal of a young girl of fourteen or fifteen, supposed to be Lorina,  found in a French museum. Again, the burden of truth is on the museum is to prove its veracity.

And don’t forget, it wasn’t that many years ago that a French museum claimed to have found the real Beast of Gévaudan in its stuffed animal section.

They explained that they had “lost it”.



Filed under Criminology, History, Literature, Personal, Writing

16 responses to “Alice in Wonderland (4)

  1. A good balancing article, John

    • Thank you, Derrick. There always seem to be lots of experts about when Lewis Carroll is mentioned but they seldom have any knowledge of the attitudes of the time. And, of course, it’s always dangerous to rush to judgment about the way people thought and behaved 150 years ago.

  2. People do tend to forget that when we speak historically, the conventional rules and customs were different than today. It often makes me wonder what people will think of us 100 years from now.

    • Indeed they were different, although I always think that if people claimed to be Christians you would expect them to show evidence somewhere of following Christ’s teachings. Personally, I don’t think we will come out of it too well when the people of the future assess what we have done. Burning the Amazon forests, for me, is one of the worst things, along with this unbelievable desire to accrue money, often just for the sake of it. Why on earth don’t these people do something with all that cash? Billions and billions. Have they not heard that sentence about the camel and the eye of the needle?

  3. A wonderful post. These days there is this this tendency of people passing judgements on writers of earlier times. I think it is so wrong. And they are not here to defend themselves. Being racists and feminists and so on. I have read comments on Enid Blyton being racist and Isaac Asimov being sexist. In the beginning I used to respond, then I stopped, such a waste of time 🙂 This happens in Facebook. I ignore them.

    • Thank you so much! And you are right to ignore all those vicious yet anonymous people on Facebook.
      It is very difficult to know what to do when we find out that Enid Blyton, for example, was supposedly a racist. In those days, I suspect that most white people were a lot more racist than they should have been. I suppose they were taught by their parents when they were little. And if that was happened, perhaps they are less guilty than others who actively joined, say, the Nazi Party, when they were twenty years old.

  4. John, thanks for another of your informative and intriguing articles on the life and world of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). It’s quite clear that we cannot judge a book or its author in terms of our current norms.

    • My pleasure. It’s a very difficult question about whether we can judge a person in the past when they have opinions which are the same as everybody around them, and yet are not acceptable to us.
      There’s a lot to be said for the old idea of “Cut them some slack” which is an English expression meaning to give somebody the benefit of the doubt. Generally, though, authors are not the problem. They stick to writing or even pontificating, but seldom go out there and shoot people.

  5. Wow, this post is chock full of information, John. I fascinating read! To even think of someone marrying at the age of 12 or 13 today seems out of the question, yet as you pointed out, in different times, people acted differently.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it ! I tried quite hard to find a modern person who married a very young bride, but the only one I found was Elvis Presley who met Priscilla Presley when she was only 14 but waited until she was 21 to marry her. That is very different to a Victorian society where a girl could marry at 12 if her parents agreed. I suspect that this had something to do with the huge numbers of women who died in childbirth and an overall life expectancy of only 35-40.

  6. Chris Waller

    I have to say that I was not aware that the legal age for marriage, with parental consent, was so low in 1860. That does surprise me. But then, as you say, life expectancy in those times was less than half the current figure. The late American rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis had to end his British tour in the late 1950s when it was discovered he had a wife (his cousin) aged 13 (perfectly legal in Tennessee). “O tempora! O mores!”

    • Thanks for that, Chris. I had forgotten about Jerry Lee Lewis.
      I must admit, I find the whole question a rather bizarre one. I suspect that with Lewis Carroll his photographs of nude children were probably connected with some kind of “standards to be attained to be a top society photographer” and that lots of the best photographers took them. Certainly, the ones by Carroll I have seen on google images are not erotic and are really no different from having the cherubs and cupids of the 18th century presented as a photograph.

  7. An excellent post John really putting the scenario in perspective which people often ‘choose’ not to do. As with many of the comments, the life expectancy then was very much shorter and the social acceptances were also very much different. I’m no expert but in some religious groups with arranged marriages, their ages can be very young yet it is accepted as the norm for them. We have to keep history in perspective, so many people jump on ‘fashionable ‘ band wagons to outlaw some aspect of history because they don’t feel it meets the standards of today. It happened, we accept it and we learn from it. They’ll be burning all Lewis Carroll’s books next unless they read your post.

    • Thank you. I think you are absolutely right. I have always thought that there are two no-nos in writing about history. Don’t criticise in retrospect, a speciality of politicians, who always want to know why the Mayor of Saffron Walden hadn’t anticipated the vast cavern full of live mammoths which has opened up in Aldi’s car park. Secondly, don’t criticise by the standards of a different era, such as “Isn’t Nelson wearing a silly hat and why don’t his trousers go down to his ankles?”
      Having said that, though, there are lots of people in this country who have made piles of money through slavery and it would be nice if they could give some of it back to their family’s victims. The only example of this I know is the bank in Canada which financed a hospital in Jamaica. Lots of institutions and top people in Britain could afford to do something like this.

      • An excellent idea John. Some of these wealthier businesses, who have their origins in slavery, can afford some gesture towards improving the lives of those who have suffered previously. One lives in hope.

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