Responding to The Secret World of Lewis Carroll

On 31st January the BBC broadcast a programme to “celebrate” the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  With a girlishness reminiscent of Professor Umbridge, pink clad, blonde haired Martha Kearney began what seemed to be a delightful whimsical documentary, with charming forays into the actual sites around Oxford that Dodgson had known. Animations of his characters interacted with Martha and she reacted with childlike delight as an “Alice” but it all inevitably darkened as her kitten teeth and claws drew with unsubstantiated claims upon Carroll’s “true” character. As the programme progressed, it turned into something quite as monstrous as Umbridge’s “special” quills of punishment: the destruction, or the attempted destruction of an innocent man’s reputation. We are in this country innocent until proven guilty and “broadcast” is the operative word here, for without judge or jury, the programme put forth “objective analysis” for the prosecution.

The BBC are world leaders in “broadcast”, they have the farthest reach and influence, and so must hold this responsibility of adhering to the truth very carefully. We are told Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into over 60 languages and Carroll is the most quoted author after The Bible and Shakespeare. This programme would then (and will continue to) attract a vast number of viewers many of whom will trust the evidence and authority put before them by the BBC. But even before the actual broadcast, Dodgson’s reputation was slammed in the damning promotion of the programme: “Was Lewis Carroll the Victorian Jimmy Savile?” and although presented as a “fair trial” the programme bore a demonstrable slant towards his supposed guilt. The strongest and most earnest voices, those of the undeniably intellectual Will Self and Carroll’s biographer Morton N. Cohen, argued far more clearly and diligently for Dodgson’s guilt, than the quieter, more cautious academics could argue for his innocence. Throughout Martha Kearney looked saddened, convinced and acquiescent and did little to offer the objective scrutiny one might associate with the BBC. In a matter as serious as this, justice for a man’s reputation, surely we needed a Paxman? Her presentation was almost that of an actor, acting the part of an objective witness, but one who was prepared and who sought to be shocked. When an unknown expert from Oxford described Dodgson’s chaste ritual of kissing his little girl friends as him demonstrating the purity of the relationship, Ms Kearney leapt in to suggest the alternative “Or as a very repressed man this was as far as he dared to go”. This is hardly objective or fair. The voices of the defence seemed to be quieter and more cautious, with a silent Ms Kearney. It was a silence which offered nothing but doubt for his innocence.

With the level of numbers attracted to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the broadcast capabilities of the BBC I find it difficult to understand why the BBC would take such tenuous evidence as the photograph found in France, labelled as “Lorina Liddell”, to confirm its sensationalist headline that Lewis Carroll was a repressed paedophile. One can quite easily see with the naked eye that the photograph looks nothing like Lorina Liddell and it seemed odd that the BBC did not approach the descendents of the Liddell family (who they had interviewed) to confirm this girl’s identity. If they did it was not included in the programme. Look at the eyebrows. Lorina’s, even in childhood were proudly arched. The image found in France, although labelled Lorina Liddell looks quite different: the brows are horizonal and flat, the eyes hooded and slightly lazy. Even the colour of the eyes looks different, Lorina’s slightly cold blue eyes bearing little resemblance to the darker sultry eyes of the naked pubescent.

Lorina Liddell 1858

Lorina Liddell by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson  1858

Lorina Liddell by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson 1870

Lorina Liddell by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson 1870

The image the BBC presented as Lorina Liddell.

The image the BBC presented as Lorina Liddell.

And even if this is a photograph by Dodgson, his other photographs of children are well known, and as has been argued for some time, they are part of a larger culture which represented innocence (as well as many other personnified virtues) as children, frequently naked. The New Sculpture Movement headed by figures such as Sir George Frampton, Alfred Drury, Hamo Thornycroft and Albert Toft presented Victorian city centres with monuments charged with “Victory”, “Courage”, “Industry”, where the human figure came to represent these things. It was common practice for these figures to be in loose classical clothing or to be nude. The naked child was an extension of this aesthetic and a brief flick through a Royal Academy catalogue shows just how popular a trend it was.

A FantasyThe Piper and the Nymphs IMG_6928 IMG_6930

Julia Margaret Cameron is frequently cited as a comparative artist to Dodgson, both were using photography to make works comparable with the paintings of the day. Cameron’s echo the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Rossetti and Millais.

Julia Margaret Cameron

Angel by Julia Margaret Cameron

Gareth and Lynette by Julia Margaret Cameron

Gareth and Lynette by Julia Margaret Cameron

Dodgson, like many other creatives, including members of my own family, was keen to experiment with photography as a creative medium and tool. He took photographs of naked children and sent them to artists to tint and paint in landscapes. In her reception of the works by Dodgson, which are wholly in keeping with painting compositions of the day, Martha Kearney was aghast at these in particular, exclaiming: “these are disturbing”.

Ms Kearney also presented Dodgson as a “dry” maths academic. In reality he was the vibrant son of a family of 11 siblings, he had 3 brothers and 7 sisters and being the eldest he led amazing games for them. At the rectory at Croft on Tees, it was possible to see the Darlington and Stockton railway from the garden. Inspired, Charles made a miniature railway out of carts for his younger siblings to ride in, with a station and proper tickets. He and his siblings also published a newspaper for the household. He was constantly creating entertainments for them, games, tricks and puzzles. When he left school and started at Oxford it is clear he missed them greatly and possibly dreamt of having his own family. We know little of his relationships with women as any such correspondence was destroyed after his death by his family.  This buzzing and loving person was completely devout. In twenty-first century speak this frequently means “repressed”, but I disagree.

Charles Dodgson had high values, high morals and high standards in everything he did. When he pours into his diary about guilt, I doubt very much he is referring to any improper exchanges with children, it is more likely he had drunk too much wine, or indulged in a wicked thought about a grown woman, married or unmarried. Reading Cohen’s otherwise brilliant biography it strikes me that the meetings with the Liddells always involved Mrs Liddell at first, meeting at the art gallery, at their house, etc, so isn’t it possible Charles held “improper” feelings for a married woman? Or the nanny? The Victorians were so strict about behavourial codes, and Charles could be so nervous that isn’t it possible he couldn’t find an opening with a grown woman and always ended up talking to the children because he knew how to talk to them and how to amuse them? It was after all something he had spent the first twenty years of his life practicing. His mother had died when he was still a teenager and the women he knew best of all were his younger sisters. I think he quite simply missed being an elder brother. Missed his family. There were trains but they lived a very long way away in the North and living in Oxford, where even now the train route is convoluted, he would not see them often. It is quite telling how much he loved his sisters in the way he purchased a massive house for them all to livein in Guildford after his father’s death. This placed them within easy visiting distance.  The expert from Oxford in the programme corroborates this view to some extent in the idea that Charles Dodgson somehow inhabited the character of Alice – as a return to childhood. However he goes on to say “he basically picks them up”. This has such unfortunate connotations, for “to pick up” suggests sexual intent, when it is surely clear that there is no such intention.

Ms Kearney puts on her best Professor Umbridge voice to say:

“The picture though gets complicated, because Carroll not only collected children, he photographed them in his studio and in some of those images, the children are naked. To modern eyes this certainly seems questionable.”

“That is quite disturbing. That’s a little girl in a very adult pose.”

An Oxford Dodgson expert suggests it is an unconscious pose of a child, and quite possibly it is, but this is also a pose associated with another painting by Goya, (see below) which possibly makes one read certain things about it.

“Or,” slavers Umbridge, “it could be putting little girls into an overtly sexual pose”.  The film shifts to Will Self who is adamant, without discussion, that “Dodgson, himself was a heavily repressed paedophile. Without doubt”. This is admittedly fairly countered by a Dodgson expert (who is sadly less famous and more cautious than Will Self), “There are people who misunderstand Lewis Carroll because they haven’t done their homework”. It is a quieter voice. And this is my stance.

Kearney makes one last unconvincing elegiac as a “great fan”, reluctant to look at Dodgson’s “dark side”, and this is unfair as it asserts that Dodgson’s own dark side, (and we all have one) is already identified as being a paedophile. She goes on to simper that although images of naked children were more “widespread” in Victorian times,  “there’s no doubt that” and here the camera shows her flicking through the book of painted child nudes “some of the images are really quite disturbing”.

As an artist, I know that when I draw nudes, they become as bowls of fruit, the pose just an order of limbs, and order of objects which one then synthesises into the communication one wants to make. It becomes a technical composition, and if one is lucky to have a model one can ask them to pose how you want. Who knows what artistic intention Dodgson was trying to achieve. The child nude painting which Martha Kearney finds disturbing echoes and mirrors another painting, Goya’s La Maja Desnuda. It is possible (and looking at his character everywhere else, highly probable), that Dodgson was attempting to prove exactly the opposite of what is being supposed by Martha Kearney – that when a child poses like this, what do I feel? Nothing. Innocence.

Dodgson was great friends with the Tennysons and knew the Rossettis. He photographed them all at length and they clearly talked much about poetry and art. It was all interwoven and Dodgson’s compositions must be put into this context. Dodgson was impressed by Dante Rossetti’s piece “Found”, a picture “of a man”..”finding, in the streets of London, a girl he had loved years before in the days of her innocence. She is huddled up against a wall, dressed in gaudy colours … trying to turn away her agonised face, while he holding her wrists , is looking down with an expression of pain and pity, condemnation and love…”. What is this but an appreciation of a fellow artist’s depiction of the loss of innocence?


8 thoughts on “Responding to The Secret World of Lewis Carroll

  1. Hi there! Thank you very much. I haven’t but I’ve read a lot of good things about it and it’s been on my “To read” list for ages!

  2. An excellent article. I was particularly interested to read your comments on Dodgson’s relationship with Lorina Liddell (sr) – have you read Karoline Leach’s ‘In the Shadow of the Dreamchild’?

  3. Thank you so much for commenting on this post. From what I’ve heard from you (here and on The Lewis Carroll Society Facebook page as well as from Sarah Stanfield at The Lewis Carroll Society, it all sounds very underhand and as if the programme makers had their own agenda to fulfil. I’m so pleased that you have exposed what really went on regarding that photograph. I’ve also heard that the interviews with Edward Wakeling were heavily edited and much of the information he gave was ignored. Vorpal swords (pens mightier) at the ready! L

  4. Thank you for this. As you probably know, Will Self hasn’t done any research into Lewis Carroll, so his opinion is entirely personal – just like that of the two experts hired by the BBC, whose PROFESSIONAL opinions were both that no link could be made between the photo and Dodgson – although you might have rather missed that interesting fact because of the misleading presentation! As a biographer of Carroll, I am saddened to see this really slovenly work – it undoes so much of what I have spent years examining in an honest way.

    Much has been made of Martha Kearney’s reputation as a respected journalist. But she is also getting on a bit and has been stuck in the World at One ghetto on radio 4 for ages, and one could understand that she might be pretty desperate to escape it. In that case, when fronting a major “documentary” she would have said what she was told to say, and the other people who made the film (some of them were very good) might have been in the same situation. Doesn’t exactly enhance their professional reputations but my suspicion is that one needs to look a little further up the food chain to see why this programme came out the way it did. Jenny

  5. A most well-written critique. Thank you. The Industrial Revolution and Age thrust upon humanity….the nude form took front and center in defense of the Revolution, as part of the natural world in the arts and sensibilities with writers, artists, and photographers. In combination with religiosity that was conventional, holding on to the world given man by their maker was what a person of morals might do. This is what I see being part of Dodgson’s world…I’ve read several bios on him, and have gained much insight further than the typical, less learned individuals who seem to stand on the ‘outside looking in’ at Dodgson/Carroll.

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