A recent BBC documentary entitled The Secret World of Lewis Caroll produced some fairly strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the answer is a qualified yes.
There was also argument to suggest that he was only a “repressed paedophile”and arguments (from those not wishing to see Caroll’s reputation sullied) that the attitude towards young children and their budding sexuality was far more liberal in the Victorian age.
Broadcaster and journalist Martha Kearney noted that in Victorian times the “fascination with the innocence of young girls was widespread”. So here are the images demonstrating Dodgson’s fascination with the innocence of young girls.
The one that is cited most frequently is the photograph of Alice, taken in the family garden. It’s difficult not to see this as anything other than a highly sexualised portrait of the very young child. Certainly this looks more like a Victorian street urchin than the daughter of a Dean at Oxford University.
It worth contrasting this particular photo with another, altogether more demure one, that Dodgson took of Alice. It’s very easy to read too much into a single photograph. But there is an element within Dodgson’s photographic work that we would now interpret differently with a modern sensibility about the nature of the sexual relationships between older men and young girls.
There is no doubt that Alice is a precociously beautiful young girl and it is worth contrasting two photographs by famous American photographer Sally Mann of her daughter Candy. Like Alice, Candy is a precociously beautiful young girl. But the photos of Candy show young girl playing grown-ups and offer an important insight into the way in which an adult world of impinges on a child’s world.
Sally Mann is clearly a much better photographer than Dodgson ever was and her work has a far more confrontational aspect than Carroll’s but nonetheless in the first photograph of Alice, we have a young girl who appears to have been dressed up by the photographer to fulfil some idea ( fantasy?) of the photographer rather than to reflect the child at play or in some natural setting as is the case in much of Mann’s work.
Then there’s the picture of Alice kissing Dodgson. Again, the picture has highly sexualised overtones. To the modern sensibility this is inappropriate behaviour and it’s certainly naive to be photographing it. But perhaps that’s it. Perhaps Dodgson was simply very naive.
However, it is puzzling to understand why Dodgson would have taken such a photo in the first place and how and why it became public. It would be difficult to imagine that he would be likely to show a photograph like this to Alice’s parents. It is also unlikely that they would have agreed to it being in the public domain, especially given that her father was the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, presumably a pillar of respectable society.
Then there is a series of photographs that he had published in the late 1870s.
Beatrice Seated Before the White Cliffs
This is a photograph of Beatrice Sheward Hatch, taken with the knowledge and consent of her mother, Evelyn, who moved in “stimulating circles”. One can assume that the other two photos of Beatrice’s sister, also Evelyn, with similarly taken with her mother’s consent. So perhaps this is as innocent as the Caroll supporters would argue.
Annie and Frances Henderson
One of the legal tests for defining pornography is “redeeming artistic merit”. In my opinion these pictures fail on this particular count and you could probably say that they are slightly on the wrong side of tacky but just short of purient.
But then at the end of the BBC programme came the stunning revelation. The programme’s producers had discovered some of Dodgson’s photographs of Alice’s sister, Lorina, in a French museum one of which is a full frontal nude.
It’s difficult to argue that this is anything other than child pornography.
It is well known that there was a break between Dodgson and the Lindell family. The reasons for it have been open to speculation. The most widely accepted is that the Liddel family found out about Dodgson’s infatuation with Lorina. However, they may also have found out about photographs like this one. It’s difficult to imagine any parents being pleased about this.
So where does this leave us in our assessment of Charles Dodgson?
On balance, its likely that by our modern definition, he was engaged in taking child pornography. And possibly there will be revelations of other work that is hidden away in archives that will confirm this over time.
Coming close on the suggestion that Dodgson was a pornographer is the suggestion that he was also a paedophile. There is nothing to suggest that this was the case, no rumour, no innuendo. But more importantly there is nothing in the commentary of the women he photographed as children to suggest that it was any sexual element in his relationship with them.
The case of Dodgson in many ways a similar case of Woody Allen. For those who accept the veracity of the claims against Allen, they constitute a significantly negative element in the assessment of his work.
Lewis Carroll’s standing as a writer of children’s literature is far more significant than Allen’s as a film producer. However, it will be difficult from now on to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland without the shadow of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson falling across the page.