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Why Scholars Debate Lewis Carroll's Photography

“Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep.” —Henry VI, Part II

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, is best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Dodgson was a mathematics lecturer at Oxford and an Anglican deacon. He might never have written his most famous book except for the pleadings of a 10-year-old girl, Alice Liddell.

Dodgson met the Liddell family at Oxford, where the father was a dean. Soon he became a frequent visitor in the Liddell's home and an ersatz uncle to the Liddell children. He was particularly fond of Alice and her two sisters. Sometimes Dodgson joined the family on picnics or boat trips down the Thames, and on one of these outings, he entertained the Liddell sisters with the story of Alice’s adventure down the rabbit hole. Alice Liddell was so thrilled by this story and the character which bore her name that she begged Dodgson to write it down.

When Dodgson and Alice Liddell first met, she was 6, and he was 24. He published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she was 11. But by the time the book went on sale, Dodgson and the Liddells were no longer on speaking terms. Something had caused a major rift between them.

Dodgson’s Photography

Many people are not aware that Dodgson in his time was known as much for his photography as his literature. He began taking photographs in 1856 when the technology was new. Consider how remarkable photography must have seemed at a time when the only means of memorializing a loved one’s likeness was a painting or drawing. Capturing the actual image of a person at various stages of his or her life must have seemed as remarkable to them as cell phones and wifi seemed to us when newly introduced.

About half of Dodgson’s photographs featured children, and many of those were fully or partially nude. There are examples that have been deemed tame enough for posting on the Internet.

The Case For and Against Attributing Dodgson’s Behavior to Pedophilia

Because of these photographs and other mitigating factors, some historians have suggested that Dodgson was a pedophile. Factors thought to support this idea include the following:

Dodgson habitually cultivated friendships with children throughout his adulthood. Many of these he photographed either unclothed or semi-clothed. From these facts, one might surmise that he used people’s fascination with photography to lure children and their unwitting parents into a position of feeding his sexual fetish. In that time of comparative innocence, Dodgson’s status as an Oxford lecturer and Anglican deacon may have been sufficient to shield him from suspicion.

He never married nor is there any record of a long-term, romantic relationship with an adult.

After years of friendship with the Liddell family, the relationship abruptly ended just as Alice was on the verge of puberty. One theory postulates that Dodgson sought the parents’ permission to marry Alice. Whether or not he did so, Alice’s sister told a biographer many years later that Mrs. Liddell felt compelled to warn Dodgson about his overly fond attentions to the girl.

Following Dodgson’s death, his diary was found. Several pages from the time of his rift with the Liddells were ripped out.

Among the factors pointing away from pedophilia are the following:

Aside from Dodgson’s overly fond attention to Alice, there is no record of his friendship with children straying beyond the merely platonic.

Over half of Dodgson’s photographs were of children, and presumably, these were taken with parents’ knowledge and consent. There is no record of Dodgson having behaved lewdly while photographing any children, no parents raised a public warning, and Dodgson continued to be sought out by parents for child photography throughout his career.

While we may judge nude photographs of minor children by modern standards, in mid-nineteenth-century England naked children were likely to be regarded as innocent and unspoiled, not victims of sexual exploitation. Parents allowing nude photographs of their children to be taken may have regarded this as innocuous as the naked photograph of a newborn baby.

In the nineteenth century, it was an accepted practice to take photographs of the dead—often posed as if they were still alive. These images would likely seem weirdly unsettling to many of us today.

But consider the context: Photography was new and expensive. A death photograph might be the only opportunity for a family of modest means to obtain a likeness of a loved one they will never see again. Viewed in the context of the times, this practice may be interpreted as more loving than morbid. If one applies the same contextual thinking to Dodgson’s photographs of nude children, they might conclude that Dodgson’s art was an attempt to romanticize the innocence of youth rather than serving a lurid purpose.

Whether Dodgson was a pedophile will likely never be known with certainty. Weigh the evidence come to your own conclusion. But remember that humans cannot control who we find attractive, and that includes people with paraphilias. Pedophilia is a type of paraphilia.

What we can do is manage our urges and impulses. Being attracted to children is no excuse for yielding to that attraction. Many people (usually men) who are sexually aroused by children never molest a child. However, pedophiles are particularly prone to commit an offense when their personalities include enough of the dark triad traits—Machiavellianism, psychopathy, or narcissism, which embolden them with a sense of entitlement and invincibility.

“I’m not crazy, my reality is just different from yours.” —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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