The man behind Alice In Wonderland is much like the tales he wrote: an enigma that straddles the line between childlike innocence and darkness. Like Alice and her topsy-turvy adventures, much of Lewis Carroll’s life story is what we make of it. Biographers tend to paint Carroll as one of two characters: an odd but gentle fellow, or a drug-addled pedophile. And, just like with Alice, we can’t be certain about the truth within the mythology. What we do know for sure is that there are some surprising details that — while more morbidly fascinating rumors than damning evidence — are part of an accurate portrait of the man.
150 years after Carroll brought the character of Alice into the world, Alice Through The Looking Glass — the sequel film to the Tim Burton-directed adaptation starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, and Helena Bonham Carter — is bringing Carroll’s wondrous world back to the big screen. So we’re revisiting the question: Is there something sinister behind all the whimsy? Down the rabbit-hole of fact and fantasy we go.
Who Was Lewis Carroll?
There’s no such person, actually. Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, born in England in 1832. One of 11 children, Dodgson was a shy and sickly child with smarts and a stutter. At 18, he attended Christ Church, a college at Oxford University, on scholarship, and remained there for over 20 years — first as a student, then as a professor and mathematician. He also became a deacon of the Church of England and was on the path towards priesthood before he decided it wasn’t for him. He invented the pseudonym Lewis Carroll during his residence at Oxford in order to publish children’s books without ties to his academic career. Dodgson never married, and there are no indications that he ever had a relationship as an adult.
He Loved Children
By all accounts, Carroll felt most at ease around children. He cultivated relationships with the children of his friends and acquaintances, spending large amounts of time with them (with their parents’ permission) and keeping up correspondence. “Extra thanks and kisses for the lock of hair,” he once wrote to a 10-year-old girl. “I have kissed it several times — for want of having you to kiss, you know, even hair is better than nothing.” It is quotes like these, coupled with his close relationship with Alice and his penchant for photographing children, that spark accusations of pedophilia.
Alice Was A Real Girl
Henry George Liddell was the dean of Christ Church at Oxford, and Carroll became very close with Liddell’s young daughters — Lorina, Edith, and, of course, Alice, for whom Carroll developed a particular soft spot. The girls — often accompanied by their governess, who inspired the character of the Red Queen — spent a lot of time with Carroll, who charmed them with fantastical stories and drawings.
Carroll Photographed Naked Children
Carroll was an avid photographer, and according to the Smithsonian, he took over 1,500 photographs of children — including 30 nude or semi-nude studies, such as a full-frontal nude of Alice’s sister Lorina, as reported in the BBC documentary The Secret World Of Lewis Carroll. Alice is 6 years old in the famous series of her wearing a tattered dress. “I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures,” Carroll once wrote of his penchant for photographing young girls. “They always seem to me to need clothes: whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be coverd [sic] up!”
He Never Meant To Write Alice
On July 4 in 1862, Carroll and a colleague took the three girls on a rowing trip and picnic along the Thames. To entertain the girls, Carroll told them the tale that would become the Alice in Wonderland we know today. “[I]n a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore,” Carroll wrote in his diary, “I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” With encouragement and editing, he published the book in 1865. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along with the sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, became the best-selling children’s book in England by Carroll’s death in 1898.
There Was A Falling-Out
In 1863, Carroll’s relationship with the Liddell family mysteriously ended after years of close friendship. He eventually resumed communication with Henry and his wife. Their daughters, however, never spent time alone with Carroll again. We don’t know why. There is a page missing from his diary that year, which some believe discusses the cause of the falling-out. It has been speculated before that Carroll proposed to Alice. A disturbing possibility, but not unheard of at the time (the age of consent was 12, and men frequently married very young women). Also noteworthy? Carroll’s diary from the time “chronicles his anguished battles with sin, and begs God for strength to resist it,” as the New York Times puts it.
So, there you have it. Mysteries and incriminating evidence abound, but there’s nothing concrete to prove the worst of the accusations.