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Lewis Carroll - a pedophile or a decent person?

For good intentions, or towards Wonderland through the distorted mirror of "Christian values"

By Bozhan BozhkovPublished 12 months ago Updated 12 months ago 12 min read
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I believe everyone is familiar with the saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, even if they haven't experienced it personally. There may be no better example of the truth behind this proverb than the fate of Charles Dodgson's memory, the man who became historically known under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

When it comes to Lewis Carroll, most people immediately associate him with "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and perhaps "The Hunting of the Snark." However, it is worth noting that he authored other books and even published several love poems.

Who is Charles Dodgson? Who is the real person behind the author best known for the timeless children's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?

A quiet, modest, God-fearing, shy man who lives in isolation and can speak without stuttering only with children, an extremely clean man, alien to any sexual attraction?

Or a muff latent pedophile?

Neither one nor the other.

The first of these two images was carefully constructed by his family and Victorian biographers. The second one was based on the first and emerged with the rise of Freudianism. While the second image appears more logical than the powdered and unnatural Victorian image, it's equally false as it's entirely built on the first one, and lacks any supporting documentary evidence.

Both images of Dodgson are based on myths that have been perpetuated over time with new figments. However, Dodgson documented his life well in a diary and many notes. So why does this myth persist?

The main problem is that almost a century after his death, all of Dodgson's papers and correspondence have been hidden from biographers attempting to write a comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll. These documents were jealously guarded by his successors, and biographers were forced to rely on oral retellings instead.

It was only after the death of Dodgson's two nieces, Menella and Violet, in 1969, who were the main contributors to the construction of the "Carol" myth, that the remaining diaries were sold to the British Library. Unfortunately, four of the diaries, along with a significant portion of his letters and notes, have been lost. Despite gaining access to these primary sources, well-constructed myths still persisted, and it took nearly twenty years for researchers to timidly draw facts from the primary source, instead of relying on older biographies and research that lacked access to these primary sources.

The documentary book of Karoline Leach

“In the Shadow of The DreamChild”

first published in 1999 is the first fully document-based biography of Lewis Carroll. Leach became familiar with Charles Dodgson's diaries and discovered documents that had somehow escaped notice by earlier researchers, despite being duly cataloged after the documents were made public. She aimed to uncover the true identity of the man behind the name Charles Dodgson, and shed light on the origins of the myths surrounding Lewis Carroll—both the Victorian myth and the later, "modern" myth of the twentieth century.

Leach's book is meticulously researched, with each claim backed up by a quote from either Dodgson himself or his contemporaries. There is no room for assumptions or guesswork in the book. There is no "maybe" in her book. Instead, every assertion is supported by documented evidence, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of Dodgson's life and the myths surrounding his legacy.

Why and by whom was the myth of the "pure and righteous" Lewis Carroll created? The myth's roots lie within Dodgson's own family. What could have been their motivation for concealing the true nature of the author behind "Alice"?

Charles Dodgson's family was deeply religious, with his father serving as an archdeacon in the Church of England. He held conservative views and did not hesitate to accuse fellow priests of heresy for any statements that contradicted his beliefs. His authority over his children was so immense that all but one of his sons dared to step away from the family and take control of their lives. Some of them only started families of their own after the archdeacon's death.

The sole rebel who mustered the courage to break free from his father's control and live by his own beliefs was Charles. It's ironic that the very individual who faced criticism for shyness and an inability to mature was the only one among the archdeacon's children who chose to distance himself and lead a truly independent adult life. However, this was not Dodgson's most significant act of defiance.

It turns out that he was not only a talented writer, but also a very pleasant conversationalist and very attractive to women. A trait he has consistently taken advantage of, which quite annoyed Victorian moralists. Moreover, he also had affairs with married women – something that is still reprehensible today, but was especially scandalous for that era. All these claims are supported by documents in the Leach study.

According to the virtuous and deeply religious family of Dogston - most of the men in the family have ecclesiastical careers, his behavior was a disgrace to the family. They are working hard to build the myth of the pure and blameless Lewis Carroll, which will ultimately lead to the obliteration of the memory of Charles Dodgson.

The first biographer of Lewis Carroll was his nephew Stuart Collingwood. He is the only biographer who had access to all the diaries and who knew Charles Dodgson personally. From his biography, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, began the creation of the myth (more precisely, the first myth, the Victorian myth) about Lewis Carroll. Collingwood carefully avoids Carroll's relationships with older women, laying the foundation for the illusion that the writer preferred to communicate with children rather than adults. However, Collingwood has left hints that Carroll also had an interest in mature women and that the real Dodgson was at odds with the glossy image he was building. In one place he says:

“To write the life of Lewis Carroll as it should be written would tax the powers of a man of far greater experience and insight than I have any pretension to possess, and even he would probably fail to represent adequately such a complex personality.”

Unfortunately, subsequent biographers of Carroll, who copied from Collingwood due to a lack of access to the original documents, completely ignored the hints he left behind.

That Carroll has communicated successfully with older women can be seen from the biography written by Collingwood. For example, he quotes the memories of Mrs. Bennie, wife of the Rector of Glenfield near Leicester, in which she tells how she met him in a restaurant in Whitby and they talked all evening (for which she was reprimanded by her relatives present at the dinner), after which he became a family friend, with whom they often saw each other. She describes him as a very pleasant conversationalist, with broad interests and literary tastes close to her own.

Although Collingwood described this and similar incidents, he persistently twisted the facts to make it appear that Carroll preferred the company of children, and more so girls. Many of the female names with some kind of connection to Carroll, he presents as girls aged 12, 12, 13, but not 14 and over. According to Victorian understanding, girls up to this age are considered "pure". After this age, they are already seen as sexual objects, and unregulated relationships with them are considered "vicious".

Leach tracked down the names in question. It turns out that many of them were over twenty years old. Others were 17-18 years old - a mature age for the Victorian era. Added to this "collection" are the names of ladies who claim to have known Carroll when they were 11-12 years old. Leach has researched the story of each and retells it, one with more words, another with less. It turns out that the ladies are 22, 23, 27 years old. Why did these women distort the facts? Because they wanted to fit into the Carroll myth and earn their seconds of fame.

The more interesting question is, why did Carroll's relatives try so hard to "attitude" their famous relative? Have they not considered how far things could go?

The problem is that they had no idea what kind of bomb they were planting. Pedophiles have always existed, but during the Victorian era, they were not given much attention. Pedophilia was noted as a pathology only in the 1880s by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, but serious attention began to be paid to it only in the 1930s. In the Victorian era, with its cult of children and "childlike innocence", Carroll's relatives saw fit to cover up what they thought was indecent behavior in a way that is perfectly illustrated by the Bulgarian proverb "instead of filling in his eyebrows, they took out his eyes".

Yes, Carroll was good at communicating with children. As the eldest of ten children – three brothers and seven sisters, he mastered this skill. Indeed, when conversations with adults bored him, he went to entertain their children. He often used his child communication skills to pique the interest of their mothers or governesses. But at the same time, he communicated freely with all kinds of elderly people – both academics and actresses.

Caroline Leach traces the story of Carroll's biographies, highlighting how he becomes portrayed as a recluse who can only interact with children. His later biographers increasingly deviate from the only primary source they have and add new "facts" that further distort the image of Carroll. For example, Collingwood writes that as a student, he was good at fist fighting and knew how to defend his rights. In later biographies, it is told about the confused Carroll, who was beaten daily by his classmates like a rented mule.

The situation became especially bad after the appearance of Freudianism. This led to the emergence of the second myth about Carroll as a pedophile.

Indeed, Carroll's biographers did not have access to the documents until 1969. Leach tells of biographers who met with the two "secret keepers," nieces Menella and Violet, who relayed what was allegedly in the diaries, further reinforcing the distortion of history.

After making the diaries, or what remains of them, available to the public, researchers could now draw on the primary source. Unfortunately, nearly twenty years later, the previous stories continued to be reprinted. It wasn't until the end of the 80s of the twentieth century that new biographers began to refer to the diaries and letters, gradually, as if with fear, retreating from the well-known myths. This could be due to fear of how they would be received by readers, or fear of breaking the myth with which they had lived for so many years.

In her book, Caroline Leach delves into many aspects of Charles Dodgson's life, the myths associated with them, and the documents that disprove them. I will briefly mention two more points from Leach's extensive research.

1. Photography. Dodgson photographed many children, some of them naked - Food for the imagination of Freudians. However it's important to note that he did it for a fee, as was common among famous photographers of that era such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Rejlander. Leach also highlights the Victorian era's cult of "purity" and "innocence" of the child's body and the prevalence of naked child photographs and drawings during that time. Dodgson himself owned pornographic photographs, which shocked the Puritans, and he also took scandalous photographs of mature women, but he mostly kept these pictures to himself. Surviving letters from Dodgson to women he trusted reveal that he requested swimsuits and gymnastic costumes for his models.

2. Carroll's "love" for Alice Liddell, the inspiration for his famous book "Alice in Wonderland." Despite the countless works of fiction, novels, plays, and movies that depict Dodgson as a creepy man obsessed with Alice, Leach's examination of his diaries reveals that Alice is only briefly mentioned, and he did not give her any special attention. While Dodgson did write dedications to Alice in both volumes of "Alice in Wonderland," he also wrote similar dedications to other children in his other books, suggesting that he did it more as a customary gesture than out of any special affection for Alice.

Caroline Leach's research also sheds light on the rift between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family, which has been a subject of speculation. According to the documents she discovered, Dodgson's relationship with Henry Liddell, the dean of the college where he worked, remained good. Despite refusing to take ordination, which was mandatory for professors at that time, Henry Liddell allowed Dodgson to live on campus for the rest of his life.

The myth of Carol is a typical example of how a myth feeds on itself and develops further. His supporters, in their desire to confirm him, go so far as to distort his words. For example, one of his biographers, Robert Greene, claims that Dodgson wrote in a specific letter that:

“It was Alice Pleasance Liddell who led him into Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a hundred years ago …”

And

“Dodgson once said that talking with Alice was ‘next to what conversing with an angel might be”.

Leach quotes exactly what Dogston wrote:

“Permit me to offer you my sincere thanks for the very sweet verses you have written about my dream-child (named after a real Alice but nonetheless a dream-child) and her Wonderland. That children love the book is a very precious thought to me, and next to their love I value the sympathy of those who come with a child’s heart to what I have tried to write about a child’s thoughts. Next to what conversing with an angel might be – for it is hard to imagine it – comes, I think, the privilege of having a real child’s thoughts uttered to one. I have known some few real children (you have too I am sure), and their friendship is a blessing and a help in life. “

As you can see, “there is a nuance".

This is also the place to point out a modern forgery - two photos that first appeared on Pinterest a few years ago and are making the rounds on the Net. And don't forget - "Not what it seems. Read on.”, as it says under the first picture.

In conclusion, Calerlein Leach's book is a great illustration of how history is rewritten for religious or ideological reasons (Ideology is, after all, a substitute for religion and uses the same tricks).

No, Calerlein Leach does not draw that conclusion. It imposes itself. That is why the cries for "primordial and unique and irrevocable Christian values" are ridiculous. There are universal human values, born of the need to live in society - not to harm one's neighbor, to act together for the common good, etc. They are the same for Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. Yes, atheists share the same values.

Charles Dodgson himself had similar views:

“He would profess a tolerance for all expressions of religion,become fervent in his avowal that even atheists would find their place in the heaven of the God he believed in. ‘More and more it seems to me,’ he wrote in1886, ‘that what a person is is of more importance in God’s sight than merely what propositions he affirms or denies.”

In the case of Carroll, we witness the unjust vilification of a decent individual due to false religious pseudo-morality. In today's society, only the most fanatical believers would condemn a consenting relationship between adults based on someone's sexual life.

Values associated with a specific religion often emerge in response to the particular circumstances and cultural context of the time and place they were adopted. Over time, as these conditions change, outdated "values" can persist as dogmas and taboos, devoid of their original purpose and interfering with normal life and interpersonal relationships.

Some of these "values" are not rooted in necessity but rather arise from societal attitudes, such as the Victorian cult of children. As highlighted by Karoline Leach, in a society much more deeply religious than the present day, Humbert's affection for Lolita, as depicted in Nabokov's work, would not have generated significant attention based on the Christian values of that time.

Caroline Leach's research is of high academic quality, supported by numerous references and citations, as well as a solid bibliography. Her writing style is clean and easy to read, yet at times scholarly, a welcome contrast to many writers who obscure their ideas with complicated language and convoluted expressions. In her work, Leach effectively communicates her ideas and arguments without sacrificing clarity, making her research accessible to a broad audience.

First published on Bulgarian language in my blog.

HumanityScienceHistorical
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About the Creator

Bozhan Bozhkov

Hi, dear readers. I'm Bulgarian. I used to be a physicist, that's my education, but now I work as a network administrator. For many years, I have been writing a blog, and have also written several fairy tales and short stories, and a novel.

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  • Novel Allen10 months ago

    Wow. You really researched to great depth into the life of Lewis Caroll. Alice in Wonderland has puzzled right up to now. Now reading about the author has suddenly completed the puzzle and i have a complete understanding of the story. Well done,

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