If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?
– Lewis Carroll
On January 27, 1832, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born in Daresbury to Charles and Frances Dodgson. The younger Charles was the couple’s fourth child—though, their first son—out of a dozen. He was a bright child who was first educated at home and then went on to Richmond Grammar School, Rugby School, and, finally, Christ Church College at Oxford, where he would remain, earning and holding the Mathematical Lectureship position for twenty-six years. It was during his tenure at Christ Church that Charles embarked on the endeavors that would make him a household name and that would influence literary and popular culture to this day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Charles Dodgson—as a proper Victorian (an Oxonian during the Victorian era, at that!) and an Anglican deacon—was not terribly keen on drawing a great deal of attention to himself nor did he much enjoy the prospect of losing aspects of his privacy, which is why he wrote under the pseudonym “Lewis Carroll.” The use of a pen name notwithstanding, Dodgson did little to discourage the open secret that he was the author of the Alice novels. As noted by a recent biographer: “’Carroll would strike up a conversation with a family, bring out the games and puzzles he kept in his little black travelling bag, and follow up their meeting by sending the child a signed copy of an Alice book.’”
And, with that, we should address the Jabberwock in the room: Dodgson and his “child-friends.” To modern sensibilities, Dodgson’s enjoyment of the company of children—specifically little girls—is very alarming; especially so when you read that he was photographing those little girls (including the girl who was the inspiration for Alice), sometimes having them pose nude. It is particularly upsetting to learn about during the cultural moment we find ourselves in, as an avalanche of revelations** hit the media about the sexual harassment and abuse suffered very near universally by women and girls.
**Sweatpants note: These are not really “revelations.” As Melissa Harris-Perry said: “The abused, the raped, the harassed, the trafficked have not been silent. Our nation has been deaf.”
On the one hand, his behavior was not all that uncommon for the times and no one looked askance at it. Even the nude photos weren’t all that unusual: it was actually considered a legitimate, artful study. As one writer attempting to grapple with reconciling Dodgson’s character with our modern outrage rightly points out: we are attempting to fit Dodgson’s sexuality into a category shaped by modern understandings of sexuality—which is ahistorical and disingenuous. Moreover, Victorians generally understood “childhood as a separate realm”** and, as such, children “could never be objects of desire.” There is also the issue that the insinuation that Dodgson was sexually attracted to little girls actually came about in the 1930s and was based on a Freudian psychoanalysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by a writer who may have been joking, so… take the accusation with a grain of salt.
**Sweatpants note: It is important to note that the understanding of “childhood as a separate realm” was really only applicable to middle and upper class (and most definitely white) children, as this was also an era during which poor and working class children were sent to work in mines, factories, domestic service, and so on.
On the other hand, there are a good number of things that were considered perfectly normal in the past that are we now understand as being the very heinous things that they were: like literally insisting that other human beings were really more like property than, you know, people. So, no, there is no firm evidence that he was a pedophile. But we do know that he did have many “child-friends” and the subjects of a good chunk of his photography were little girls, so I’m going to stick with being really not cool with this whole taking-photos-of-nude-girls aspect of Dodgson’s life.
So, there we are. Charles Dodgson: mathematician, author, fastidious record keeper, logician, Anglican deacon, and a photographer with some pretty questionable interests. His literary works have inspired and will continue to inspire so many writers and artists and acknowledging those things about him and his life that are decidedly less inspirational does not take away from that. The Alice books are wonderful explorations of a beautifully nonsensical place and take readers on an adventure and, if the reader is willing, brings them into philosophical engagement. They introduced a number of new words, including chortle and, of course, jabberwocky. And they gave readers puns. So many puns. And puns are totally worth celebrating!
Happy Birthday, Charles Dodgson! Thank you for Lewis Carroll and thank you for Alice!