What's the Straight Dope on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known to millions as Lewis Carroll, and his unusual interest in prepubescent girls? Was he a … well … you know? What can you tell us about his relationship with Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Alice in Wonderland? And what was going on with those photographs he took, anyway? Does Newt Gingrich know about this?
Paul H. Henry, Lawrence, Kansas
If you’re asking whether Lewis Carroll was a … well … Republican, I confess I don’t know. He was shy, eccentric, and seemingly incapable of having a mature relationship with a woman, but that can’t be said of all members of the GOP. Newt sure wasn’t shy.
But perhaps what you’re asking is whether Dodgson was a deve. His interest in little girls was such that he probably wouldn’t be the first guy you’d think of to put in charge of your daughter’s Brownie troop, but for the most part he seems to have been harmless. A lifelong bachelor with a stammer, he was uncomfortable among adults and could relax only with little girls, who were amused by his stories and games.
Dodgson’s biggest crush was on Alice Liddell, daughter of a dean at Oxford, where the author of “Jabberwocky” taught mathematics. Dodgson saw her often over a ten year period but drifted away after she reached puberty — a typical pattern for him. Some believe he asked her parents for permission to marry her and was rebuffed, but that seems out of character, like a proposal from Mister Rogers. Whatever his intentions, on the surface he was always the proper Victorian gent.
Then again, we do have those nude photographs. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Dodgson took thousands of pictures, many of them portraits of his little friends. Everybody was clothed at first, but in the late 1870s, when Dodgson was in his mid 40s, he tried to shoot some of the girls in the buff — not an easy thing to arrange. He did a few nude studies of young female models and went prospecting among the families of his friends and acquaintances.
In 1879 Dodgson sent several curious letters, republished a while back in Harper’s, to the family of Andrew Mayhew, an Oxford colleague. He asked permission to take nude photographs of the three Mayhew daughters, ages 6, 11, and 13, with no other adults present. When the parents nixed the idea of no chaperone, Dodgson lost interest. He did succeed in doing nudes of other girls, but usually by agreeing to let their moms hover nearby.
In 1880 Dodgson gave up photography forever. Too much heat? Nobody knows, although around the same time he got flak for kissing one of his girl friends. At any rate the nude photos and plates were returned to the families of the subjects or destroyed on his death. It was long thought that none survived.
But then four turned up. For this we can thank Morton Cohen, who unearthed the photos and published them in his Lewis Carroll: A Biography (1995). One is of a little girl named Evelyn Hatch in a pose that, were Evelyn older or Cecil weirder, would be seductive. As it is I can imagine Evelyn’s parents thinking: that Rev. Dodgson, he is one amusing fellow. But he’d better keep his mitts to himself.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.