Many Wonderlands

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The image of Alice, whether in Wonderland or no, is a powerful and pervasive one in our culture. Certainly the proper, purified Disney version of the spunky blond in the blue dress and white stockings is the overwhelming standard these days, followed closely by the lurid, hysterical view of Alice as a poor, shattered slave to Dr. Dodgson’s repressed, twisted pedophilia.

To say that either is solely true is to betray a lack of understanding of the Victorian culture Dr. Dodgson and his subjects existed in as well as a very superficial reading of the books themselves. Only over the last few years has a more mainstream appreciation for the nuances and subtleties at word “through the looking-glass” reared it’s head.

To a great degree these reinterpretations have focused on restoring the wonder and horror to Wonderland (sometimes excessively so) as well as freeing Alice from both her role as either Victim or Paragon and the image of her as Dodgson’s one and only subject, his obsession. Scholarship is helping, as well as the application of fresh creativity to the time honored ideas and images.

Before we know it, we may begin seeing Wonderland far differently.

The following excellent article is reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lewis Carroll’s Little Girls

It was very nice to be one of his little girls.

— Winifred Holiday

This is the year of Lewis Carroll’s little girls. They are the subjects of three recent or forthcoming films, a Marilyn Manson CD, a play written for the Yale School of Drama, a photography exhibition, a graphic novel, and a commemorative symposium at Columbia University. Scholars and biographers, of course, have exhaustively studied the life and art of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (he was always Dodgson to his “child-friends”), and his Alice books provide perpetual pop-culture fodder ranging from Disney merchandise to Gwen Stefani songs. In recent years, scholars including Morton N. Cohen, Roger Taylor, Edward Wakeling, and Douglas R. Nickel have persuasively argued for the artistic merit of Dodgson’s photographs of Victorian notables and little girls as well. Yet the lives of the child-friends whom Dodgson entranced with stories and photographed in various states of exotic undress — Alice Liddell, Alexandra (Xie) Kitchin, Irene MacDonald, and Evelyn Hatch, among many others — have yet to get their due. Who, exactly, were these little girls, and why was Dodgson so besotted with them?

It is time for the subaltern nymphet to speak. Examining the lives of Dodgson’s child-friends and the images he took of them forces us to re-evaluate his vision of childhood, the murky line between art and pornography, and the perennial appeal he has for popular culture.

Many of the children Dodgson photographed were also the offspring of famous writers and painters of the day, such as John Everett Millais; Arthur Hughes; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and George MacDonald. It must have been fascinating to grow up listening in on the conversations of some of the greatest minds of the Victorian era and to be exposed to the new science and art of photography, posing for a stuttering and yarn-spinning “Lewis Carroll.” One of Dodgson’s models and friends, Effie Gray Millais, had not only a Pre-Raphaelite painter for a father, but also a famous former nymphet as a mother, a woman also called Effie, who had been married to John Ruskin until their scandalous annulment — probably because he was horrified to learn that women, unlike statues and little girls, have hair underneath their clothes. Another of Dodgson’s child-friends was Irene MacDonald, a forthright young girl with an unwavering gaze who inspired both her father’s beloved The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie novels as well as Dodgson’s photographic fantasies. She posed for him on several occasions, including a famous one with hair wild and wiry as an untamed Pre-Raphaelite child, one strand corkscrewing through her hand. She reclines on leopard and bear skins with a wolf-tail pillow under her head, her upper body covered only with a paisley shawl, her face half-drugged with sleep, “dreaming through the twilight,” as Christina Rossetti put it.

In our time, people are arrested just for getting such photographs in the mail. We live in an age of paranoia, and to our millennial eyes, Dodgson’s photographs of his girl acquaintances seem like evidence used against Pete Townshend — although some of Townshend’s photographs would probably seem too chaste for the English professor Ellis Hanson’s “Sexual Child” class at Cornell. While Dodgson’s cartes de visite would not necessarily have titillated or disturbed in the Victorian era, they look like kiddie porn to us. We worry that Wonderland was a Neverland Ranch, that there was something sinister in Dodgson’s invitations to girls and young women to visit him at the sea or to go to plays in London. Yet to understand the nature of his friendships with little girls, one must see his outings and photographic sessions in the context of the Victorian era — one that also, for example, posed and took pictures of dead children. (Some of Dodgson’s photographs of children “sleeping” on a fainting couch resemble those.)

I recently took a wet-plate-collodion class with Heather Wetzel, a co-founder of the laboratorium, a bastion of early photographic techniques in an age of digital imaging. As I re-enacted Dodgson’s photographic process — pouring collodion onto the glass plate, plunging it into silver nitrate in near darkness, capturing the image before the plate dried, then developing, rinsing, and fixing it in hypo — I quickly realized that diddling one’s subject during a wet-plate session would be impossible. An ill-timed flick of the wrist, a streaky coat of sensitizer, or an unlucky splash of developer meant photographic failure, and Dodgson was exacting about his art.

What startles contemporary viewers about Dodgson’s photographs of little girls is their disconcerting directness, erotic innocence, and divergence from the Disneyfied vision contemporary readers tend to have of Wonderland. Although Disney helped keep the text alive in the 20th century, the pop-culture image of Alice it has bequeathed to us has both estranged many readers from Alice as Dodgson saw her and focused attention on one of his child-friends at the expense of others, obscuring friendships with countless other children and making it seem as though he had an unwholesome obsession with Alice Liddell. The one film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that does confront Dodgson’s photographs, Jonathan Miller’s Alice (shot in black and white in 1966 and released on DVD in 2003), was purposely lit to be “consistent with the late daguerreotypes of the 1850s and the early photography of people like Julia Margaret Cameron and even Fox Talbot and Carroll himself,” as Miller reveals in his DVD commentary. In this film, one can see that the seeming disjunction between Dodgson’s photography and his writing is a false one.

Indeed, writing, child-befriending, and the “black art” of photography (so dubbed for the stains it left on the hands) were frequently interdependent in Dodgson’s life. His most famous muse, Alice Liddell, recalled, “When we were thoroughly happy and amused at his stories, … he used to pose us and expose the plates before the right mood had passed.” Looking through Dodgson’s vast assemblage of photographs, over 2,000 in all, one sees a kinship between them and the stories he immortalized in his books. We cannot sweep the photographs under the carpet, nor should we. They are not fetishistic embarrassments by a beloved author, but inextricable from his aesthetic vision of childhood. In his photography, he frequently captured people engaging in Wonderlandesque activities, like playing chess, doing sports, sleeping on couches or under trees, eating forbidden fruit, emerging uncannily from woods where nothing has a name, and reading in sisterly clumps on hazy afternoons. Take the image titled “It Won’t Come Smooth,” featuring Irene MacDonald in a nightie, with bare legs and preternaturally untidy hair. Her body looks oddly stunted in the long white nightgown, her nose and lips too broad to be beautiful, her face as round as her mirror, mouth cracked. She seems half grown up and half grown down, a portrait of the White Queen in her youth battling with a wayward brush.

Even the controversial photograph of Evelyn Hatch sans habille, which Dodgson later had colorized, could reside — somewhat startlingly, perhaps — in the margins of the “Pig and Pepper” chapter. Nina Auerbach calls her a “beautiful little odalisque” who is “both animal and dreamer, pig and pure little girl.” Indeed, one could easily imagine putting out yet another edition of the Alice books illustrated with Dodgson’s own photography.

I first encountered these photographs of Lewis Carroll’s little girls in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Victorian Textures” class at the CUNY Graduate Center. The photos charmed, unsettled, and haunted me, teasing me with glimpses of long-dead personalities and inviting me to resurrect the lives of the children. In “Photography Extraordinary,” Dodgson imagines “a mesmeric rapport” among the photographic subject, camera lens, and specially treated albumen paper that could capture and develop thought. That is what I saw in his photographs of little girls. Here were children as they are seldom seen, their unwavering stares in part a result of the long exposure time needed in those days for collodion photography (45 seconds or more), but also bespeaking the children’s daemonic strangeness. Dodgson captured little girls thinking or playing with all the intense earnestness of youth at a time when — as with his Sylvie and Bruno — the wall between dream and reality is thin, and one can pass readily between them.

I remember being struck in particular by a series of images of “Xie” (pronounced Eck-sie) Kitchin sleeping, playing the violin, dressing up as a Chinese merchant, staring out from under a magnificent parasol, challenging the camera as Penelope Boothby in mob cap and black gloves, and reclining on one arm in a white nightgown, staring at the specter of insomnia. In all garbs — velvets, white furs, chemises — she seemed self-assured, uncannily direct, beautiful, and troubling. Dodgson once punningly described how he achieved excellence in photography: “Take a lens and put Xie before it.” Yet though he photographed her even more than Alice Liddell — nearly 50 times — and hung her portrait over his fireplace, and continued their friendship into her early adulthood, Xie has been largely forgotten, apart from footnotes in Carroll biographies. However, Justin Sherin, who recently finished a play for the Yale School of Drama about Xie’s relationship with Dodgson, dramatizes the don’s burning desire to photograph her, and the effect that he had on her life and she on his. “The Liddells were certainly a fertile part of his life,” said Sherin. “But Xie Kitchin insisted on being heard.”

Likewise, the Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou’s “Wonderland” resurrects Dodgson’s child-muses in color-drenched images featuring her daughter Olympia. Papapetrou describes how her daughter peppered her with questions about the lives of Alice Liddell, Irene MacDonald, and Xie Kitchin, wondering where they lived and how they died.

The girls in Dodgson’s photographs demand attention. They want to speak. They seem sometimes innocent, sometimes daemonic, adorable, fetishistic — and are a startling chance to see children as themselves, a quality Dodgson’s child-friends reputedly valued in his friendship as well.

Dymphna Ellis later recalled Dodgson’s photography sessions: “I feel sure I was a ‘favourite.’ He made every child that. … We cried when he went away. … We were absolutely fearless with him. We felt he was one of us, and on our side against all the grown-ups.” E.M. Rowell, one of Dodgson’s mathematics students, reported, “He gave me a sense of my own personal dignity” and “made me feel that I counted.”

Dodgson preferred to photograph children and young actresses in part for their “fresh beauty,” but also because they were able to be at home with playacting and not self-conscious before the lens. In his photographs, “the art itself is nature,” as Shakespeare put it. Dodgson preferred untidy hair, unposed hands, and natural expressions, but dressed or undressed his models in tableaux vivants. He valued his little girls not just because they seemed to embody the Wordsworthian idea of childhood as a time of lost innocence, as many critics have suggested, but also for the sense of children as born actors constantly playing at life, “As if [their] whole vocation / Were endless imitation.”

To contemporary eyes, Dodgson’s relationships with his child-friends and the images he made of them while making up stories seem like objects in the shop in Through the Looking-Glass, which elude the grasp and are never the same. Were they sinister or innocent, or something between the two? Dodgson left instructions for his executors to destroy all of his nude photographs and negatives of children after he died and was careful not to give away copies, “though [he] consider[ed] them perfectly innocent in themselves.” (The image of Evelyn Hatch is one of four exceptions that have survived — presumably because she wanted to keep the image.) The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 looked the other way from the private erotic collections of gentlemen, but it did snatch up lewd photographs sold in the streets and objected to mass production of images that might corrupt youth — something that also concerned Dodgson. “A boy’s head soon imbibes precocious ideas, which might be a cause of unhappiness in future years,” he wrote to one mother with a son to explain why he wished to stop photographing her daughters au naturel. Statues were nudes; photographs were naked. They depicted hair, moles, crevices, folds that the paintbrush blurred over. That is why Dodgson so vehemently assured parents that his photographs were artistic but for family and friends only, and that their girls were “as simple-minded as Eve in the Garden of Eden.”

Victorians viewed naked children as cherubim, yet Dodgson’s increasingly unchaperoned photographic sessions caused controversy even in his own day, although it was less the nude part and more the unchaperoned part that seems to have sent tongues wagging. Some speculate that’s why he gave up photography, although it may also have been because of the demise of colloidal photography or simply a lack of time. Yet despite what “Mrs. Grundy” muttered against such practices, Dodgson insisted that his child-friends of 12 and 27 alike visit him without the constraints of Victorian chaperonage. He craved what he called in Sylvie and Bruno “the innocent frankness of some angelic visitant,”unsullied by society’s “barbarisms.”

His muses seemed to enjoy participating in the dress-up sessions, and they seemed to retain fond memories of him into adulthood, mourning only when they were left behind for the next crop of “dream-children” (although he did maintain many friendships with women who retained their whimsy and naturalness into adulthood). Besides, Dodgson claimed that if any child exhibited “a modest shrinking (however slight, and however easily overcome) from being taken nude, I should feel it was a solemn duty owed to God to drop the request altogether.” A child wouldn’t necessarily know what would later disturb her as an adult, yet none of his child-friends seems to have complained later in life. They even showed off their “nudities” to their envious friends. After he died, they wrote fond and fictitious memories of being his very “last child-friend,” and they sometimes even claimed to have befriended him at a much younger age than they really did, adding fodder to the idea that he liked to converse only with preteens. The daughter of one child-friend later recalled, “I well remember how furious my mother was at the suggestion in some book about Mr. Dodgson that there was anything unhealthy in his interest in small girls.”

In the forthcoming film Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, however, the children are no longer on Carroll’s side. Directed, scored, and acted by the industrial-metal icon Marilyn Manson, Phantasmagoria features the specter of a vengeful Alice (Lily Cole) who haunts the guilty mathematician (played by Manson himself — Dodgson’s worst nightmare). The synopsis of the movie reads: “A haunted writer in an isolated castle is tormented by sleepless nights and visions of a girl named Alice. He finds himself becoming a symptom of his own invention. … He is Lewis Carroll. Terrified of what waits for him each night.” The idea of “Lewd Carroll” desperately trying to solve what he called “pillow problems” to exorcise his lustful fantasies of Alice is too good for popular culture to resist.

Alice did not linger in Dodgson’s life in later years except as a phantom creation, for he stopped seeing the Liddells regularly after a mysterious rift. Some have speculated that this was because he proposed to preteen Alice, or macked on her mother or governess, or upset the family’s notions of propriety by hanging around too much, or possibly simply because Dodgson, with his cumbersome photographic habit, was beginning to get a little tedious. Whatever the cause of the break, in the last photograph of Alice that he took, in her young womanhood, she appears to glower at the camera, head hung, eyes hooded and abandoned. It is the face of one who has once been into the magic garden of Wonderland but has grown too big to fit through the door.

Malice in Sunderland, a film currently in production and scheduled to be released in Britain in 2008, stars Mischa Barton as a disenchanted adult Alice, articulating the story of a remarkable woman whose biography has often been subsumed by her fictional counterpart. In yet another film titled Alice, based on the violent computer game American McGee’s Alice and set to be released in 2008, Sarah Michelle Gellar likewise plays an Alice all grown up who escapes into a warped Wonderland from the horrors of adult reality.

But those films are fictions, and the lives of the dream-children remain elusive, tantalizing us to discover more about their biographies and their value to Dodgson.

Anyone searching through Carrolliana to find more about them, however, will very likely be startled by the sense of little girls en masse. It is almost as though his dream-child stood between two looking glasses, reflecting her image into infinity. Alice wasn’t his only muse, and Alice Liddell was not his only Alice — there was another by the same name who claimed that she had inspired the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass, not to mention The Hunting of the Snark’s Gertrude Chataway or Sylvie and Bruno Concluded’s Enid Shawyer (née Stevens). There are too many child-friends to count; they blur into one another like the Hatch sisters (Beatrice, Evelyn, and Edith, or BEE collectively). Charlotte Rix wrote in a letter when she was a child: “It is quite absurd how fond he is of children — at least of girls(please tell the boys that) and whenever he saw the picture of one he flew to it. He has no end of little girls he has scraped up from all sorts of places.” Dodgson used to go to the seaside armed with toys, story ideas, and safety pins in case he met a charming young girl who wanted to pin up her skirts. He befriended hundreds of them.

Virginia Woolf suggested that Dodgson’s childhood “lodged in him whole and entire,” trapped in a moment of time like one of his photographs of little girls. It could also be that having been thrust into the position of eldest male child and caretaker of his family early on, in his adulthood Dodgson was looking for what Hart Crane called “an improved infancy,” a childhood he had never quite had. “Still she haunts me, phantomwise, / Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes,” he wrote about his fictional and photographic Epipsychidion, glimpsing her for a time in various child-friends. “The love of children is a fleeting thing,” he once wrote. Like Hardy’s Avice Caro (whose name reads like a portmanteau of Alice and Carroll, a vice and a love in one), she is a Platonic form briefly incarnated in various girls.

Dodgson once explained, “When people ask me why I have never married, I tell them I have never met the young lady whom I could endure for a fortnight.” But like Hardy’s sculptor Pierston, who likewise wanted to freeze his transient beloved in art, Dodgson apparently never sullied the honor of any of his protean dream-muses, although he did embrace them, bounce them on his knee, and kiss them. “When he stayed with us he used to sneak on the sly into my little room after supper, and tell me strange impromptu stories as I sat on his knee in my nightie,” said Winifred Holiday. “It was very nice to be one of his little girls.”

Ironically, it is likely that his heirs and friends expunged the Carroll/Dodgson record of any traces of adult desire apart from his chaste love of children. Little did they know. The early Freudian interpretations of his Alice books and the whiff of pedophilia they brought with them seems to have inspired Nabokov (though no fan of Freud) to write: “Some odd scruple prevented me from alluding in Lolita to his wretched perversion and to those ambiguous photographs he took in dim rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.”

Nabokov was most likely thinking of the famous photograph of Alice Liddell as Tennyson’s “Beggar-Maid,” dressed in clean and starched rags just raveling at the edges, as though they had been newly ripped for the occasion. She stands before a rough, lichenous rock and nasturtium leaves, between prison and garden. She looks as though she washed her hair the day before and cried an hour earlier; her nose both petite and delicately chiseled at the end, her clothes part sackcloth and part wood sprite. She has an impossible bit of sleeve like a band, and her legs are a little smudged with shadow or intentional dirt, her feet naked and vulnerably clean, as though they will be shredded on the rocks. She has an unsettlingly frank and direct look, half come-hither, half accusation. One hand cups a beam of light — as though holding a visionary coin — and the other is on her hip, contradicting her own imploring, signifying everything from impoverished angel to procuress. Her rags barely cover her. One sees the sharp line of a prepubescent breast muscle, the hint of a nipple in the dip in her dress. The toes of her left foot curl vulnerably at the bottom of the frame, as though reaching instinctively for the lowest step.

At least that is how she appears to me. Tennyson described it as “the most beautiful photograph he had ever seen,” while Nabokov read it as a scrawny little nymphet.

The other nymphets, however, were sad only that they were not the photo’s model. Edith Alice Maitland recalled: “And then there were the stories of the other little Alice who bore the same initials as myself, and who was so pretty and behaved so well: who sat before a wonderful photographing machine and came out a pretty little beggar girl! I am afraid I was rather envious of this child and a tiny bit jealous.”

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