It’s one of the paradoxes of both history and human nature that the man who wrote some of the most enduring literature for children has been accused of pedophilia. I refer to Lewis Carroll — that is, the Rev. Mr. Charles Dodgson — author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.” The notion that Carroll had improper relations with under-aged girls evolved from his real relationships with females in general and young girls in particular — neither of which was entirely consistent with the norms of Victorian England — and his career as an amateur photographer, which included photographing naked young girls.
This characterization of Carroll has been debunked in the past, but it persists in the popular imagination, probably because the popular imagination would find a pedophile more interesting than the person Carroll seems to have been in reality. The issue is examined again in a new book by journalist Jenny Woolf, “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.”
Based on her research of primary and secondary sources — and a certain amount of logic and common sense — Woolf comes to the conclusion not only that Carroll was not a pedophile, but that the most prominent features of his life and his mind militate against such a thing — that, in fact, he had a horror of abuse of women and children that was consistent with his horror of sin in general.
Woolf emphasizes a point about this issue that is useful to remember when we are reflecting on any historical figure. She points out that those who have charged Carroll with every crime from adultery to murder — one author even wrote that Carroll and a confrere were jointly Jack the Ripper — have often tried to interpret his behavior and his work without taking full account of the Victorian context in which he lived. The most telling evidence she presents, in fact, is that neither the children whom Carroll photographed nor their parents thought of the sittings as anything but proper, and that some of those children grew to adulthood and even old age with only the highest regard and affection for Carroll.
This is not to say that Carroll’s life was without its complications, including sexual ones. One important aspect of his life was odd even for that time, and it has to have figured prominently in some of the behavior that contributed to rumors about him then and since. Carroll took a position as a mathematics instructor at Christ Church, one of the colleges at Oxford. The school continued a medieval discipline in which a man accepting that position must receive holy orders as an Anglican deacon and remain celibate until he was ordained a priest, at which point he would take a parish, marry and begin a family.
Although it was expected of him by everyone beginning with his father, a priest himself, Carroll postponed and eventually opted out of priestly ordination, which meant that — unless he gave up his position, which he could not afford to do — he opted out of married life and, therefore, sexual relations. At the same time, while he outwardly kept up the grim image of a Victorian college don, he maintained a lively social network, more often than not conducted in the company of women. He loved women, and he didn’t disguise that, and they were charmed by him. On one hand, these relationships — including private tet-a-tets in Carroll’s rooms, were not usual in Victorian England. On the other hand, Woolf explains, there is no evidence at all that any of them crossed the lines that everyone in that time and place knew to be unmovable.
Still, Woolf shows convincingly that Carroll at a certain point in his life began to grieve over some unstated offense that he perceived he had committed, and this guilt ran head-on into the strict sense of morality that he measured himself by throughout his life. It was this crisis, Woolf thinks, that at least in part inspired Carroll’s cultivation of friendships with young children, and especially young girls, who — in Victorian society — were regarded as the antithesis of sexual. In these relationships, Woolf argues, Carroll could have beauty and affection without the complicating ingredient of sexual attraction. And, of course, he could indulge in his lifelong fascination with word games and fanciful stories and children’s playthings.
One of Woolf’s frustrations — and she is hardly alone in this — is that Carroll and his family seldom talked about his private life, not an unusual scruple for the time, and significant documentation of his life, including some of his diaries, were either redacted by his survivors or simply vanished.
Woolf does write about the possibility, or the likelihood, that the much-discussed rift between Carroll and the family of Alice Liddell — at whose request he committed the original “Alice” story to writing — may have had to do with his attention, not to Alice but to her attractive older sister Lorina. Marriage in those days often had little to do with romance, and the Liddell family may have had bigger plans for Lorina than a liaison with a math lecturer, and a mediocre one at that.
The Boston Globe’s review of Jenny Woolf’s book, which treats many aspects of Carroll’s life and work, is at THIS LINK.
February 27, 2010
So Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” opened in London, and Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail says it’s long on visuals and short on story. Tookey’s take — get it? — is that Linda Wooverton diluted the project with her attempt to write a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books instead of re-telling the original stories — or, at least, one of them. So everybody — including Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen — looks great, but has nowhere to go.
“The story becomes a very different beast from the ones Lewis Carroll created,” Tookey writes. “It’s a tale of feminist empowerment, with an entrepreneurial, pro-capitalist ending that is unlikely to endear it to readers of the Guardian.” In other words, it’s a 3-D version of the health-care summit.
According to Tookey’s account, a central issue in this tale is that the Red Queen has enlisted the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch as enforcers in her reign of terror. In Carroll’s dream within a novel, of course, these were characters in a poem, not “real” creatures. Alice reads about them in a looking-glass book, which means a book in which the print is backwards so that one has to hold it up to a mirror in order to read it.
This poem, which Carroll meant as a parody of overblown poetry and pointless criticism, has been subject to so much serious study that it’s a shame Carroll didn’t live to see it. G.K. Chesterton remarked on this in 1932: “Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.”
“Jabberwocky,” incidentally, is a particular challenge to translators who want to make “Alice” available to the non-English-speaking world. There’s a French version that begins: Il brilque: les toves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave …. A German translation begins: Es Brillig war. Die schlichte Toven / Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben ….
Chris Tookey’s review of Tim Burton’s film is at THIS LINK.
October 26, 2009
We watched “Phoebe in Wonderland,” a 2008 fantasy written and directed by Daniel Barnz.
This film is an off-beat tale about a nine-year-old girl, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who is brilliant and creative, but who confounds her parents and her rigid teachers and principal with outbursts of inappropriate remarks and behavior.
Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman as a brunette), is frustrated by her inability to find time — amid housekeeping and raising two little girls — to convert her academic dissertation on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels into a book. With her mother’s encouragement, Phoebe has immersed herself in Carroll’s fanciful neighborhoods to the point that she has frequent imaginary encounters with his characters. The competing forces in Phoebe’s psyche are effectively portrayed by Barnz through the blurring of identities between people in Phoebe’s real life and Humpty Dumpty, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter
Coincidentally — or not, depending on your point of view — Miss Dodger, the new, idiosyncratic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is mounting a musical production based on Carroll’s stories. This enterprise becomes a kind of sanctuary for Phoebe — the one place where she can overcome her compulsive outbursts. But there is too much amiss with the little girl, and with her parents, and with the management of the school, to stave off a crisis and an unexpected if not totally comfortable resolution.
Like the film “Millions” which I wrote about here on October 19, this is not for viewers who take things literally or insist on reality in their movies. The film is blessed by a talented cast — also including Bill Pullman as Peter Lichten, Phoebe’s father, and Bailee Madison as Olivia, Phoebe’s sister. The beautiful Tessa Albertson has a brief but haunting non-speaking role as Alice.
This film argues that a person cannot be defined by one or two aspects of her personality. The world around Phoebe — her parents, her siblings, her peers, and most of her teachers — failed her as long as they embraced only the “acceptable” parts of the girl or hoped to make the whole girl acceptable to them by badgering or ridiculing her.
The inscrutable Miss Dodger and the fleeting figure of Alice — who may be better acquainted than they let on at first — provide the only unqualified reassurance Phoebe receives that she, with her strengths and her weaknesses, is a person of value.
When I learned last night that Michael Jackson had died, I was at a fair – kiddie rides, foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes – in a town in Bergen County. I drove about an hour and half to get there — not for the hot dogs, which were fine, but to listen to Noise from the Basement, a band in which my son plays keyboard. I would do it again.
When I got home and checked my blog here on wordpress, I saw that traffic on my journal had already soared beyond the normal number of daily visits – by a factor of eight. This was caused by the death of Farrah Fawcett. Her passing apparently sent many people scurrying to a search engine, and some of their searches tripped over two entries I have made in the past couple of months complaining about the way some of the media and some of the public were reacting to her illness.
It might be fortuitous for Farrah Fawcett’s memory that she and Michael Jackson died almost simultaneously. Because of the complicated life that Jackson led, there is likely to be an endless stream of speculation about the nature of his death, and even some serious commentary on the meaning of his life.
I have to say that Michael Jackson meant nothing to me, one way or the other. I didn’t pay close attention to the coverage of his life, but I did see and hear enough to know that the difference between fact and fiction was difficult to discern. If the far more sedate lives of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Sir James Matthew Barrie are any example, some of the questions about Jackson’s behavior will never go away.
One small issue in Jackson’s life that did get my attention was the report in 1987 that he had offered to buy the remains of Joseph Carey Merrick, known in popular culture as “John” Merrick, the “elephant man,” a 19th century Englishman who was severely deformed by a disease that has not been conclusively identified. I have spent far more time learning about Merrick than I have ever devoted to Michael Jackson, because I have been interested in Merrick’s determination to achieve some sort of human dignity despite a condition that, through no fault of his own, made it impossible for him to live in society. In fact, he had to be protected from the public. It’s worth noting that Dr. Frederick Treves, who was principally responsible for providing Merrick with a home at London Hospital, had misgivings about his own role in making Merrick something of a darling of British society, including the royal family.
My initial reaction when I heard that Jackson had tried to buy Merrick’s remains was disgust. I couldn’t imagine any legitimate purpose to such a thing, and I felt strongly that Jackson would be violating Merrick’s memory by removing what remains of him from the hospital that gave him the only true sanctuary he ever knew. Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s “bones,” my reading indicates that it never happened. Some have claimed that Jackson himself deliberately spread that rumor after having viewed the remains in London, but I haven’t found any substantiation of that idea. The bizarre tones and the uncertainty of this bit of Jackson’s history or legend is a microcosm of the odd and often mysterious biography that will be written and re-written for years to come.
Peter Conrad wrote an interesting essay in The Guardian about Michael Jackson in anticipation of Jackson’s appearance in London next month. It’s at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/michael-jackson
Tammy Paolino — the name is no coincidence — also wrote an insightful piece about the impact of Jackson’s death. It’s at http://blogs.courierpostonline.com/mamadrama/ in an entry dated June 26.
April 29, 2009
The death of character actor Peter Dennis calls to mind the seemingly inexhaustible appeal of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. Although, I often wonder how many people know Milne’s characters – which have been thoroughly exploited – without knowing them in their original context. Peter Dennis used to tour with a one-man show that consisted of him reading from the Pooh books and other works by Milne. He maintained – and the large crowds he drew seemed to confirm – that Milne’s stories weren’t just for children. That’s certainly true. Superimposed on the tales themselves is a kind of harmonic of humor and philosophy that only adults are likely to perceive. The same is true of Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows.” It is so much true of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books that there probably is more for adults in their pages than there is for children.
Or, at least, there would be more for adults if adults are still reading these books. It’s prophetic that in the last scene of the second Pooh book, Christopher Robin tells Pooh that they can’t continue their previous relationship because “they won’t let you” – the “they” being humorless grownups. There is a similar passage in another of Graham’s books, “Dream Days,” in which a family of children go out in the dead of night and bury in the yard some toys that the adults – the narrator calls them Olympians – have packed away because the children, in the view of grownups, have outgrown them. “As we turned to go,” the narrator says, “the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and so it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a goodfellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence.”