TIME movies

Documentary Questions Lewis Carroll’s Relationship With ‘Alice’ Inspiration

Alice Liddell  -   taken by Lewis Carroll
Lebrecht Authors / Getty Images A photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll in 1858

But is there any scholarly evidence of Carroll’s perceived pedophilia?

History Today

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

The screening last week of a new BBC documentary, The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, attracted eye-catching headlines: ‘The Victorian Jimmy Savile’ and ‘repressed paedophile’ being among the more dramatic examples.

Presented by journalist Martha Kearney and timed to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the documentary explored the controversy surrounding Carroll’s friendship with children and his obsession with photography.

The question that has dogged Carroll’s more recent biographers is one mired in Victorian sensuality and sexuality. Are the photographs he took of young girls simply, as he maintained, an exploration of innocence? Or is there a darker, more dangerous motivation behind them?

The programme makers have a clear agenda: to make their viewer aware of the possible subtext behind Carroll’s work and attempt to provide the evidence for it. Interestingly, almost all the experts interviewed either deny or were noncommittal on their interpretation of the evidence for Carroll’s supposed sexual deviance. The only person who seemed in agreement with the idea of Carroll’s paedophilia was the author, Will Self, who, in surprising contrast, has written of his own anger at the perceived culture of paedophile hysteria, which caused him to be questioned by police while out for a country walk with his son.

The idea that the third most quoted literary work in the world, behind only Shakespeare and the Bible, was authored by a man harbouring a dangerous intent towards his young friends is obviously an attractive prospect for television. But, in a world where history is presented as popular culture, just how accurate do programme makers need to be?

Martha Kearney makes it clear that she does not want to believe the rumours surrounding Carroll and the young Liddell girls. We are told not to judge the Victorians by the morals of today; that the age of consent was only 12; that there was a Victorian photographic school that focused on the depiction of nude children. But this is all done with a firmly persuasive hand, impressing on you that while we may not be able to prove Carroll definitely was a paedophile, we also can’t definitely prove that he wasn’t either – and this question hangs over the entire programme, constantly returned to by expert and fan alike.

So where were the revisionist historians? The Karoline Leaches, The Jenny Woolfs? Both authors have, in new studies into the ‘Carroll Myth’, exposed our reliance on the biographers of the 1930s who, in an attempt to play down Carroll’s relationship with young women, reduced the age of his young friends to such a degree that their – and his – innocence would supposedly be assured. They did not expect, it seems, that, to modern biographers, this merely served to further enflame the rumours surrounding Carroll.

To help their case, the producers ignored specific contextual information. There was no mention that Carroll became friendly with the Liddells through their son, Henry, rather than the three girls, or that in 1857, six years before the supposed break with the Liddells that anti-Carrollians take to be a sign of his inappropriate behaviour, Carroll recorded in his diary that his friendship with the children had resulted in rumours of a supposed attachment to their governess, Miss Prickett. He is mortified and records in his diary that he has resolved not to see the children again.

There was no mention either of his donations to charities that rescued and aided children who had been sexually exploited. Although this new research has only been recently revealed by Jenny Woolf’s 2011 book, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, it was well known to the programme’s consultant, Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.

The sudden shoe-horning in of a photograph held in a French archive at the very end of the programme smacks a little of desperation, a desire to prove unequivocally that Carroll’s relationship with at least one of the Liddell girls was not wholly innocent. As the interviewed experts were not invited to comment on it, the programme ends with the uncomfortable feeling that no matter what we may want to believe, Carroll’s world was not the innocent childlike wonderland he would want us to imagine. However, the programme makers have again left out a key piece of information. Carroll stayed in contact with the Liddell girls for many years, even sending their mother a heartfelt inscription to the 1886 edition of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground which read: ‘To Her, whose children’s smiles fed the narrator’s fancy and were his rich reward: from the Author. Xmas.’ The crushing ‘break’ seems to have little to no lasting effect.

Popular culture is dangerously good at historical myth making. If recent research is to be believed, Carroll’s perceived paedophilia seems to have little scholarly evidence. Although this documentary raises important questions about Carroll and Victorian ideas of innocence, childhood and sexuality, it does so on scant evidence and fails to fully engage with the record of Carroll’s own diaries and the personal testimonies of those around him.

Fern Riddell is a contributing editor at History Today.

TIME viral

Read Roald Dahl’s Tear-Jerking Letter Urging Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids

Roald Dahl
Ronald Dumont—Getty Images British writer Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990) on Dec. 11, 1971

Dahl's daughter died from the measles as a child

As the recent measles outbreak in the U.S. grows, fueling a debate about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, a 27-year-old letter written by beloved author Roald Dahl explaining his passionate stance on the issue has gone viral.

Dahl, who wrote classics including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, penned a letter in 1988, two years before he died, begging parents to not deny their children vaccinations “out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear.” Dahl explained:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

Olivia, to whom James and the Giant Peach and The BFG were dedicated, died in 1962 — before there was a measles vaccine. More than two decades later, Dahl told British parents that their refusal to vaccinate their own children was “almost a crime” and called for mandatory immunization.

Read the full letter on Roald Dahl’s website here.

TIME Media

Read a Stunningly Frank 1948 TIME Letter On Truman Capote and Sexuality

Truman Capote With His Dog
Mondadori / Getty Images Truman Capote with his dog in 1950

The author was unafraid of being frank about his homosexuality, but it made TIME uncomfortable

When Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote died in 1984, TIME’s obituary remarked that he was famous “for his lyrical, funny and gothic” writing, and for being “as much a member of the glitterati as the literati.” When his posthumously published Answered Prayers came out in 1987, the magazine wrote that he had been “on his way to a spectacular best seller, an irresistible piece of malicious mischief.”

But this magazine wasn’t always so kind to Capote, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday this Sept. 30.

When Other Voices Other Rooms, the novel that made his name, was published in 1948, the review was skeptical of the publishing-world brouhaha that had surrounded its release, and somewhat harsh to its author. He was probably “safe from smothering in laurels,” wrote TIME’s critic, because the book was merely “a literary contrivance of unusual polish.” And the critic didn’t stop at that. The following letter, which shines a light on the magazine’s practices of the era, appeared in the Feb. 16, 1948, issue in response to that review:

Sir:

You seem to advocate tolerance for the customary things discriminated against: race, color, creed, religion, etc. However, I do not believe you have ever made a reference to homosexuality (a perfectly legitimate psychological condition) without going specially out of your way to make a vicious insinuation, caustic remark, or “dirty dig.”

Your review of Truman Capote‘s Other Voices Other Rooms (TIME, Jan. 26) concludes . . . : “For all his novel’s gifted invention and imagery, the distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.”

I have seen a great deal of Spanish moss in a lot of places . . . and I must confess that some of it is quite beautiful. . . .

R. E. BERG

San Francisco, Calif.

The editor’s response? “It gives TIME the creeps. — ED.”

The tone of that snarky retort, and of the review itself, has faded into history, as has that attitude toward homosexuality. TIME’s Letters section is now generally snark-free, the magazine’s review of a 1988 biography of Capote called Other Voices Other Rooms “well written and convincingly atmospheric, with no word out of place” — and recent TIME covers have featured prominent LGBTQ activists and issues.

Truman Capote is still noted as having been ahead of his time in his openness about his own sexuality. R.E. Berg, in his or her willingness to speak up for that openness, remains noteworthy too.

Read TIME’s original review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, in the archives: Bad Little Good Girl

TIME remembrance

Watch: Maya Angelou’s Most Powerful Quotes in 2 Minutes

A collection of the poet and author's most memorable speeches, poems and interviews

Maya Angelou, a woman of many professions, was known primarily as a wordsmith: in poems, books, and speeches.

Angelou became an author at the age of 41 when she wrote her memoir I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, which was followed by various works, ranging from autobiographies to children’s books and song lyrics for a musical. “I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time,” Angelou told TIME in 2013.

Angelou became the first black and first female inaugural poet in 1993 for President Clinton and left behind a strong legacy as a teacher and civil rights activist.

Watch above for some of Angelou’s most memorable quotes.

TIME viral

Watch an Animated Version Of George Saunders’ Amazing Commencement Speech

Just a reminder to be kind

Be kind.

That’s the gist of the speech that author George Saunders delivered to the graduating class of Syracuse University last year. In his commencement speech, the author urged the students to be kind to each other. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” Saunders said in the speech. “To the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”

The sentiment echoes both Kurt Vonnegut’s line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind”) and, of course, George Carlin’s sage saying in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (“Be excellent to each other”). It’s advice that resonated with the graduates and the world at large thanks to a reprinting in the New York Times that helped the speech go viral.

Now, the heartwarming speech has been animated in new video by Above Average and may spread across the internet again, which is just fine, when it comes to reminding people to be kind (especially in internet comments).

MORE: Be Kind: George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates Goes Viral

MORE: George Saunders Wins Folio Prize for Literature

 

TIME 10 Questions

10 Questions With Maya Angelou

“I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time,” Angelou told TIME in 2013

Mom & Me & Mom is your seventh autobiography. How many more will you write?

I’ll be celebrating my 85th birthday [on April 4]. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time.”

Your mother sent you away when you were 3 and — except for a brief period with her when you were 7 and her boyfriend raped you — you didn’t see her again until you were 13. Yet this book is full of love for her. How did that happen?

I didn’t know her. I didn’t trust her. But I began to like her because she was kind. I said, “I’d like to call you Lady.” She told everybody, “Call me Lady from now on.” Amazing. And she was kind to people, all sorts of people — white ones and black ones and Spanish-speaking ones. If they needed something, my mother was the one.

You endured some really horrible things, mostly at the hands of men. Have gender relations progressed?

No, I think men are as crazy as they were and women as crazy as they were. I think it’s wise when women say what they like and don’t like and will and won’t take. Men ought to do the same. I’ve never had a dislike for men. I’ve been badly treated by some. But I’ve been loved greatly by some. I married a lot of them.

At 15 you were the first African-American conductor on a cable car in San Francisco. Why that job?

The women wore beautiful uniforms, and they had this change belt — click, click, click, click. I went to apply. No one would even give me an application. My mother said, “Take one of your big Russian books and sit there. I did, for two weeks — I hated it. But I didn’t want to go home and tell my mother I wasn’t woman enough. Finally, a man asked me, “Why do you want this?” I said, “I like the uniforms. I like people.” I got the job.

You’re friends with Nichelle Nichols, who most people know as Lieutenant Uhura. Did you watch Star Trek?

I loved Star Trek. I spoke to her. I spoke right to the television. “Hi, Nichelle!”

Did you inherit your mother’s fondness for guns?

I like to have guns around. I don’t like to carry them.

Have you ever fired your weapon?

I was in my house in North Carolina. It was fall. I heard someone walking on the leaves. And somebody actually turned the knob. So I said, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now!” Boom! Boom! The police came by and said, “Ms. Angelou, the shots came from inside the house.” I said, “Well, I don’t know how that happened.”

Are you optimistic about the future of poetry?

Oh, yes. All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers. I listen to country-western music. I write some country music. There’s a song called “I Hope You Dance.” Incredible. I was going to write that poem; somebody beat me to it.

Your mother asked you to talk to her last husband, who wasn’t keeping up in the boudoir. How did that go?

Oh, it was terrible. It was so embarrassing. But my mother asked me to do it. She said, “He won’t take care of business. He’s afraid he’s gonna have a heart attack.” So [after she went out], I call. I said, “Papa, you say that Mom’s appetites are good.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Now, Papa, please excuse me. But all her appetites are good. And there’s one that only you can handle.” Oh, gosh. So many white people don’t know that black people blush.

Do you have any unfinished business?

I’ve still not written as well as I want to. I want to write so that the reader in Des Moines, Iowa, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, South Africa, can say, “You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.”

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com