The Man Who Loved Little Girls

We live in paranoid times. Maybe it's the millennium, maybe it's political correctness, maybe it's the bleak techno-industrial landscape, but motives are forever suspect, conspiracies forever assumed. Lewis Carroll, an unmarried and eccentric man from the Victorian era whose life revolved around the entertainment and portrayal of little girls tends, therefore, to make people nervous. At the same time, Alice in Wonderland is one of the most quoted books in the western world, and Carroll has been called one of the best photographers of children in his century. Now, 100 years after Carroll's death, UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) is exhibiting its stellar collection of Carrolliana in "Reflections in a Looking Glass: A Lewis Carroll Centenary Exhibition."

Arranged chronologically and thematically on the fourth floor of the Flawn Academic Center (on the West Mall), this exhibition contains a treasure trove of letters, photographs, books, and various miscellany, including puzzles Carroll invented and an explanation and sample materials of the photographic process in which Carroll worked during what has been referred to as the "Golden Era" of 19th-century photography. The gallery hall is dimly lighted to protect the hundred-year-old pictures; disconcertingly large wooden cut-outs of Alice in Wonderland characters point around every corner and at each turn the displays reveal Carroll in all his magical contrariness. The out-of-the-way location of the gallery, above UT's undergraduate library, makes the encounter all the more surreal. If you go at the right time of day, it's just you and the five-foot-tall cartoon characters looking at photographs in the dark. It's probably best to learn about Carroll this way, because he was a strange man, so antithetical to our modern era and so very complicated.

Lewis Carroll was his pen name, but in other contexts he remained the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a highly respectable, profoundly reserved Oxford Don. Though Carroll is best known as the author of the Alice books, the vast stores of material that UT has put out in this exhibit give some indication of just how versatile the man was. At once a bastion of propriety and a paragon of humor, of logic and absurdity, of art and science, Carroll was both an eccentric and very much a product of Victorian times. On the one hand, he charmed the little girls he met on trains with puzzles and games; on the other, he taught university-level logic. He adored absurd puns -- "'Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn't one?' 'We called him Tortoise because he taught us.'" -- and was at the same time so proper as to put other Victorians to shame. One of the curators, Richard W. Oram, marvels over Carroll's dazzling ability to go from the left to the right brain. Rational almost to a fault (numbering every letter he ever received), Carroll could be equally silly, writing ditties with lyrics such as: "The further off from England, the nearer is to France/Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance."

Perhaps because of his intellectual versatility, many of Carroll's staunchest fans are academics in various fields. This was a source of woe for G.K. Chesterton, who bemoaned in "A Defense of Nonsense" the academic's analysis of such delightful, unpretentious books as Carroll's. "Poor, poor little Alice!," Chesterton writes. "She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others." Chesterton goes on to give examples of some of the questions which scholars have to face, beginning with "(1) What do you know of the following: mimsy, gimble, haddocks' eyes, treacle-wells, beautiful soup?" With that caveat about over-scholasticizing this figure of childish whimsy, it is safe to say that the five curators of the Leeds Gallery exhibit have done an excellent job of showing the man without an abundance of footnotes on such matters as why the Cheshire cat's grin is a good analogy for pure mathematics (it is, you know). The dearth of overtones in Carroll's work prompted the brilliant mathematician Martin Gardner (who wrote The Annotated Alice) to say that the violence and double-talk in the Alice books probably does no harm to children, but the novels "should not be allowed to circulate indiscriminately among adults who are undergoing analysis."

In any case, the curatorial team -- Roy Flukinger, senior curator of photography and film; John O. Kirkpatrick, curator of modern British and American manuscripts; Sally Leach, associate director of the Ransom Center; Richard Oram, head librarian; and Richard Taylor, manuscript cataloger and archivist -- have stayed away from that side of things and focused on Carroll's life story and polymathic brilliance. Five curators makes for a great many (i.e., 10) hands in the pie, but they are quick to say that having four other sources of information enriched everyone's work, as through e-mail exchanges they often solved each other's problems. The Ransom Center, Flukinger says, is great that way, with scholars from a variety of different disciplines separated by only a floor or two. When it comes to Carroll, the HRHRC collection is one of the major ones in the world, second to none in photography save Oxford itself and perhaps Princeton. Texas has this rich stock of Carroll material thanks, Flukinger says, to its good fortune in having purchased the collection of Helmut Gernsheim, credited with rediscovering Carroll as a photographer in the 1950s.

Gernsheim was among the first but far from the last to point out that Carroll was, in fact, a real artist. Flukinger says that although Carroll called photography a "pastime," it is clear from looking at the high-quality photographs on display that he was devoted to the medium and in his meticulousness excelled at getting pictures well-lighted and clear. If he got a bad image, it was not unlike him to scrape off the emulsion and start again. While photography at that time was still a difficult process mastered by few, Carroll, a self-proclaimed amateur, favored dense images, often going in for close-ups from which other amateurs would shy away. Flukinger admires the naturalism of Carroll's images and the way in which he grouped sitters in meaningful relation to one another (see especially the picture of Alexander Munro and his wife staring at each other). With long exposures, it was rare to see subjects looking anything but dazed and frozen, but Carroll's images are rich and decidedly alive. If you look long enough, Flukinger says, you can make out the relationships of everyone in the picture to one another and Carroll's relationship to them. At the same time, Carroll's multiplicity extended to his photography, as he alternated between displaying vast sophistication and marked sentimentality.

Perhaps because he insisted on photography being merely his hobby or because of his retiring nature, Carroll exhibited only once at the Royal Photographic Society, after which he decided that albums (of which UT has several) were the better way to display his pictures -- in an intimate setting, over tea, where they could be properly discussed and inspire new models to volunteer for him. Much of Carroll's photographic work took the form of these albums, in which he placed portraits of acquaintances, later along with their signatures. He also had an album in which he collected the work of other photographers he admired. Though Flukinger stresses the talent apparent in Carroll's groupings, his most famous images are those of children, specifically little girls, which raises the oft-asked question of Carroll's relationship with his beloved child-friends.

This aspect of Carroll's life raised a few eyebrows in his day, but speculation about it has intensified with the passing of time. Certainly Carroll idolized girls, wrote his stories down because they told him to, photographed them frequently. A brilliant and talented man, Carroll nevertheless had difficulty interacting with anyone who had hit puberty. He had a bad stutter around most adults and surrounded himself with armies of little girls. He is famously quoted as saying, "I am fond of children (except boys)," and photographed many pretty little girls -- some languidly stretched out on a bed, some nude. As a result, Lewis Carroll has a vaguely icky aura about him in some people's minds, leading to pop-culture references of a nasty nature. Dreamchild, the perverse British movie about the centenary of Carroll's birth written by Dennis Potter and starring Ian Holm, paints the Reverend Dodgson as painfully, all-consumingly in love and lust with the real-life Alice. Alice in Wonderland was translated into Russian by none other than the ultimate novelist on pedophilia, Vladimir Nabokov. The international kiddie porn ring recently in the news was named (what else?) "The Wonderland Club."

The rumors of Carroll's illness are, however, fantasy on the part of a modern psyche obsessed with dark inner thoughts, says Morton Cohen, a preeminent Carroll scholar who will be lecturing on this and other matters at UT on the evening of October 8. The only indication of any untowardness from Carroll himself is the occasional diary entry referring to "unholy thoughts" or "unwanted thoughts." Though Cohen holds the view that Carroll is very likely referring to a certain passion for his young friends, Carroll nevertheless remained beyond reproach in his behavior and the girls without exception seem to have adored him. In interviews that Cohen conducted in the 1960s with some six or eight of the little old ladies who were once Carroll's child-friends, none of them ever said anything (even when pressed for the gory details) but that he was the nicest, the most gentle, charming, delightful, etc., etc., man they had ever known. Though Cohen believes that Carroll may indeed have wanted to marry one or more of the girls at various times, they came of age and it never happened. By all accounts, Carroll died celibate.

So why does this sense of Carroll as pedophile persist? According to Morton Cohen, it has a lot to do with the suspicious era in which we live. It's simply assumed these days that if an old man likes spending time reading to, playing with, and photographing little girls that he must be a sick human being. But Britain in the mid-19th century is a far cry from contemporary America, and there and then such things were not seen in the same light. It's important to remember that Carroll entered the scene on the heels of Blake, Dickens, Coleridge, and Tennyson, all of whom in one way or another helped replace the 18th-century idea of the sinful child with a 19th-century glorification of the child as a symbol of purity and innocence. Children, once thought of as merely little adults, fully capable of sin and factory work, were suddenly revered as angels. Romanticism idealized children, especially girls, as symbols of virtue, innocence, and purity. If mankind was pure before the Fall, girls were pure before they were "besmirched" by sex and marriage. With his sensitive aesthetic sense, Carroll the artist was drawn to the radiantly non-sexual beauty he saw in children.

The nude form Carroll found especially inspiring, and while the HRHRC exhibit contains none of the nude photos themselves -- most of the few that survive reside at Princeton -- there are in the exhibit seven letters which Carroll wrote to Mrs. Annie Wood Gray Henderson between the years 1879 and 1881 about using her daughters Annie and Francis as nude models. In one, Carroll writes: "Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred." There was at the same time a reluctance to use boys in the same context. The girls' younger brother posed early on but in another of the letters Carroll said that the boy was not invited back to sit the next year because "a boy's head soon imbibes precocious ideas ... It is hard to say how soon the danger might not arise."

This sense of the child, particularly of the female variety, as the ultimate in purity is found even in the greeting cards of the era. Two such cards in the exhibit portray nude girls on the cusp of womanhood, showing that naked girls were stock images of ideals with no sexual overtones. Of course, this worship of young girls as symbols of innocence was not purely a British prerogative; in America, even Mark Twain had his own "child-friends." At the end of his life, a lonely widower estranged from his daughters, Twain began to "collect" girls as "pets." He took the girls on trips, had them to his house (which he renamed "Innocence at Home" in their honor), and wrote them some 300 letters. By all accounts, Twain considered the girls, whom he called his "angelfish," his "chief occupation and delight." "The Aquarium Club" correspondence is full of a smart kind of silliness highly reminiscent of Carroll's letters. Both men, though distinguished and highly intelligent, turn into geysers of affection and admiration when addressing themselves to these schoolgirls, often begging them to write back and to visit. The Angelfish adored Twain for his devoted attention, as Carroll's child-friends adored him.

Much of Carroll's mysterious aura, particularly with respect to this "little girl matter," comes from the cultural chasm between British Victorian society and modern-day America. In the end, separating myth from reality with respect to Carroll reveals at least as much about modern sensibilities as it does about Victorian mores and Carroll's own behavior. Neither Carroll nor Twain, Cohen says, would be permitted the same access to children today because since Freud we are too aware, preoccupied, obsessed with subconscious motive. Maybe, as Cohen suggests, in this sense Carroll lets us think ourselves back to a time more content with the outward appearance of things, when a naked 10-year-old girl inspired gasps of admiration -- as in "Oh, what a pure, pretty child!" -- rather than an immediate assumption of impropriety.

While Victorianism is not to be emulated in all its repressive grandeur, still there are lessons to be learned here about the nature of children and the suspicious times in which we live. Just as Carroll the adult believed there was much to be learned from his innocent child-friends, so too there is some sense in which we can learn from this pre-Freudian era of innocent, utterly unself-conscious afternoons on rivers and little girls in billowing dresses. Carroll lived at a time when he could be both the dutiful Victorian, slaving away at Christ Church, and the irrepressible romantic, writing poems such as "I'd give all the wealth that years have piled on/The slow result of life's decay,/To be once more a little child/For one bright, summer-day." If nothing else, this exhibit shows that the motives of this complicated, multi-talented man might in fact be the strangest thing imaginable to our modern mind -- just as they appear.

"Reflections in a Looking Glass: A Lewis Carroll Centenary Exhibition" runs through December 11 at the Leeds Gallery, on the fourth floor of the Flawn Academic Center, UT campus. Call 471-8944 for more info.

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