Lewis Carroll’s Girls Play Dusty Charade In His Looking Glass

It’s no longer news that the Victorians, notwithstanding their reputation for prudery, propriety and sublimation, were possessed-like all human beings-of sexual appetites and the means of satisfying them in a wide variety of ways. If we ever doubted it, the historians and biographers who have lately devoted huge labors to the study of Victorian sexuality have relieved us of our innocence. Even figures known to have lived unexceptionably celibate lives have been arraigned on charges of harboring illicit sexual desires, for in the court of Freudian opinion everyone-the chaste no less than the debauched-is deemed to be guilty of some sort of sexual malfeasance until proven otherwise.

Take, for example, the case of the Victorian writer who is known to all the world as Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass . In the heyday of Freudian orthodoxy, his Alice books-beloved by generations of children and adults alike-were subjected to a full-scale battery of psychoanalytic interpretation. In support of this mission to establish Carroll’s deviant sexual interests is the huge archive of pictures he produced in his career as a devoted amateur photographer-a great many of these are photographs of Alice-like prepubescent girls whose company he relished and seems to have preferred to adults of either sex.

In a culture as besotted as ours now is with sexual imagery, sexual analysis and public debate about sexual difference, it’s probably impossible to bring an innocent eye to Carroll’s photographs of his favorite subject. In the exhibition called Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll , which was until recently on view at the International Center of Photography, carefully posed, highly theatrical pictures of little girls abound. There are many pictures of grown-ups as well, of course, and some of these-among them Reginald Southey and the Skeletons (1857), which predates Darwin’s incendiary revelations about the origin of species-have great historical interest. But it’s the pictures of the girls that dominate, not only the exhibition but our own curiosity. On the question of whether the prurient interest we now bring to photographs like Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid (1858) and Julia Arnold, Seated on Unmade Bed (circa 1872) is misplaced, the only thing that we may be reasonably certain of is that the Victorians, amazingly, appear not to have found such pictures even remotely salacious. On the other hand, we know from Carroll’s biographers that in certain instances, the parents of the girls he photographed were made uneasy-if not by the pictures, then by the kind of intense devotion he lavished on the girls themselves. We know, too, that he was sometimes able to arrange to photograph girls in the nude, presumably with their parents’ consent, though none of these pictures is included in the exhibition. (Some of the negatives are said to have been destroyed.)

Somehow it doesn’t help much to be told that for the Victorians, “the child personified a Romantic ideal of innocence.” The pictures suggest romance of another kind. And further complicating these questions is the fact that Lewis Carroll-or rather Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, his real name-was a man of multiple vocations, if not, indeed, multiple personalities. He was a highly regarded professor of mathematics at Oxford University and an ordained clergyman in the Anglican Church. I am in no position to assess Dodgson’s standing as a mathematician, but in the realm of artistic achievement, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is certainly his masterpiece, compared to which even the most accomplished of his photographs are, in my view, a good deal less masterly. I daresay, too, that if not for his literary achievements (that is, if we knew these photographs only as the work of a mathematics don at Oxford), they would not command the attention they now enjoy.

In this judgment, I find myself in happy agreement with no less a connoisseur than Vladimir Nabokov, who translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Russian and was, of course, the author of Lolita . About the photographs of little girls, Nabokov observed: “I have been always very fond of Carroll ….ÊHe has a pathetic affinity with Humbert Humbert [the pedophile protagonist of Lolita ], but some odd scruple prevented me from alluding in Lolita to his perversion and to those ambiguous photographs taken in dim rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half dressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.” Amen.

Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll was on view at the International Center for Photography until Aug. 31, and now travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (October 2003 to January 2004). The exhibition was organized by Douglas R. Nickel, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.