In September 1857, the Oxford logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – better known to us by his pen name Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland – blagged his way into Monk Coniston Park, the Lake District retreat of a monstrously wealthy Leeds industrialist, James Marshall, in order to photograph his house guest – Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate. In the Marshall's drawing room, Dodgson set up his tripod and darkroom tent, whipped a wet collodion plate into his box camera and exposed it to the light.
As it turned out, his subjects were immortalised in a rather unwilling and suspicious mood. But the miracle is they let him into the house at all: snappers were always badgering the Laureate for a sitting; his image was one of the century's most circulated celebrity souvenirs. In the picture the poet slumps, sullen on the upholstery, a protective arm cradling his young son, Hallam. He looks wary, defensive, hostile – and yet has welcomed the camera into his host's private space.
Today, aside from the Alice books, Dodgson is best known for his photographic portraits of children; portraits which, since they were shot, have become a subject of controversy – one was seized by the Obscene Publications Squad as recently as 1993. This week, Princeton University Press is publishing a book that reproduces all of the extant photographs in its collection (some of them for the first time), and a comprehensive catalogue of those images known to exist beyond it. Flick through the album and the variety and quality of Dodgson's work is revealed more sharply than ever before. You'll see his friend Reginald Southey with his arm draped around a human skeleton; the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, leaning assertively into the frame, fist clenched.
The little girls are all here, too: Flora Rankin, grinning in front of the geraniums; Xie Kitchin, playing dressing-up; Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, inspiration for the heroine of rabbit holes and caucus races, perched by a potted fern.
How should we view these pictures today? With some knowledge of the context in which they were produced. Edgar Jepson, who was at Oxford during the 1880s, recalled the university's adherence to "a cult of little girls, the little daughters of dons and residents: men used to have them to tea and take them on the river and write verses to them." Such sentimental games may now seem naff and silly, but they were an important by-product of the process by which the very idea of what it meant to be a child was then being re-imagined.
Taking their cue from views first espoused by Romantic commentators such as Rousseau, the Victorians reformed long-held attitudes towards young people. Broadly speaking, the 19th century saw children removed from the economy – where they had been, scything and fetching and carrying, since time immemorial – and put them into schoolrooms and nurseries. The pictorial paraphernalia of this cultural shift – images of chimney sweeps, child labourers, cutesy paintings of children by John Everett Millais – were a salient feature of their visual culture. Six thousand engraved copies of Millais' Cherry Ripe were shifted in its first few days on sale; Victoria and Albert were keen collectors of O G Rejlander's photographs of child nudes. And it was a form of sentimentality that continued to flourish well into the 20th century. In the 1920s, the News of the World regularly printed photographs of topless eight-year-old girls with captions like "Springtime" and "Innocence". If the paper did it now, it would be obliged to report itself to its own readers.
That the popular press still felt totally comfortable with child nudity in the 1920s might help explain why Dodgson's reputation is so besmirched. In 1899, his nephew Stuart Collingwood became the Alice-author's first biographer, and, contrary to the evidence of the letters and diaries, insisted that his uncle's relationships with children were the most important in his life, and that these associations were customarily terminated with the onset of puberty. Then, around 1930, his nieces Menella and Violet Dodgson began to scissor pages from the diaries. As Karoline Leach's book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild (1999) has demonstrated, the memorandum of their excisions suggests that they were acting to suppress gossip about Dodgson's affairs with adult women. In time, these acts of obfuscation and obliteration created a vacuum into which modern commentators could import any fantasy they desired, particularly ones that seemed continuous with other prejudices about the period. It was a young Balliol scholar named Anthony Goldschmidt who, in Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed (1933), offered the inaugural diagnosis of Dodgson as a repressed paedophile.
From this small beginning, the popular image of Dodgson was nurtured: a creepy perpetual bachelor slobbering beneath the hood of his camera. Since the 1930s, and in the absence of contrary evidence from the Dodgson family, this image has enjoyed the tacit support of scholars, who, while not always actively advancing the claim that Carroll was sexually fixated upon children, have done embarrassingly little to refute it.
Thomas Jordan, in Victorian Childhood: Themes and Variations (1988), declares Alice "an abstraction from his feelings towards little girls. Our sophisticated century brushes aside the 'innocence' projected on to Victorian girls and considers the fantasies to be quite sexual." Richard Wallace, in The Agony of Lewis Carroll (1990), describes how Dodgson "published works of nonsense literature, not only as 'gifts' to children, but as constructs for hiding self disclosure along with explicit (primarily) homosexual erotic imagery, which focused on masturbatory, anal-erotic and pederastic fantasies and practices."
Morton Cohen, probably the world's most prominent Carroll authority, and author of the now-standard 1995 biography, asserts that "his sexual energies sought unconventional outlets"; that Alice in Wonderland "record[s] a suppressed sexuality". Small wonder that popular accounts of Carroll's life – Dennis Potter's film Dreamchild (1985), Katie Roiphe's novel Still She Haunts Me (2001) – have engaged with this idea so enthusiastically. Paedophiles themselves have made the most energetic use of these ideas: Dodgson's case is cited endlessly in their apologist literature, and his name and works have provided sobriquets for organisations involved in distributing child pornography: the Wonderland Club, the Lewis Carroll Collectors Guild.
That the newest studies of Carroll have sought to prize Dodgson away from such company – the new Princeton book, for example, insists that "there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim" – is mainly due to the campaigning work of Karoline Leach.
In the Shadow of the Dreamchild and subsequent articles, Leach has exposed the fragility of the evidence upon which widespread assumptions about Dodgson's sexuality are based. As her book points out, there were rumours about the nature of Dodgson's relationships with all three Liddell girls, their mother Lorina, and their governess Mary Prickett. The Dean himself is the only member of the household who seems to have remained untouched by speculation. If you took seriously all – rather than just some – of the gossip about Dodgson and the Liddells, then you'd have something closer to the Terence Stamp character in Pasolini's Teorema than the introverted child-fancier of popular myth.
There are simpler reasons why Dodgson might have wanted to gatecrash other people's family lives: his loneliness, his childlessness, and the awfulness of single-sex Oxford common room culture. Looking at the photographs in this new collection, it's impossible to dismiss the rare and luminous life of these images as the gloss of a genteel form of child porn. In comparison, much other work from the period can appear airless and taxidermal. Which might be why Julia Margaret Cameron jotted a bitchy letter to Alfred Tennyson, claiming that she had heard people describing one of Dodgson's Monk Coniston Park photographs of the poet as looking like "a sea monster fed upon milk". The stammering Oxford don might have chivvied the Laureate into posing for the camera, but he captured something seen by no other photographer: the poet and his young son; the love and terror expressed in their embrace.
'Inventing the Victorians', by Matthew Sweet, is published by Faber and Faber. 'Lewis Carroll: Photographer' is published by Princeton University PressReuse content