It's a timeless classic of children's literature and the third most-quoted book in English after the Bible and Shakespeare. But what lies behind the extraordinary appeal of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to generations of adults and children alike? To mark the 150th anniversary of its publication, this documentary explores the life and imagination of the man who wrote it, the Reverend Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Broadcaster and journalist Martha Kearney delves into the biographies of both Carroll himself and of the young girl, Alice Liddell, who inspired his most famous creation. Kearney's lifelong passion for Carroll's work began as a young girl, when she starred as Carroll's heroine Alice in her local village play. She discusses the book with a range of experts, biographers and distinguished cultural figures - from the actor Richard E Grant to children's author Philip Pullman - and explores with them the mystery of how a retiring, buttoned-up and meticulous ...
The judging of Victorian morals has tended to face all one way - exposing hypocrisy and bogus virtue, wrenching aside one discreet lace-curtain after another. More tricky is the rescuing of reputations that have been tarnished by over-cynical interpreting of episodes that may have been quite innocent. And on this score, surely nobody has divided the critics as sharply as Lewis Carroll.
There is no doubt, it can look bad for Carroll. An unabashed love of photographing small girls, including the daughters of his patron, the Dean of Christ Church. A sudden, unexplained rift with that whole family. And then - most suspicious of all - certain pages torn out of his voluminous diaries, covering exactly this period. No wonder so many scholars have speculated on what lay beneath the surface of this outwardly dull, dry bachelor don, studying for the priesthood. In the present 1-hour BBC documentary, the commentators include Alice's great-granddaughter and Carroll's great-great-grandniece, yet there is no fudging of the issue here.
The consensus seems to be that he was a repressed pedophile, apparently confirmed by reports of him giving away games and puzzles to children on trains. But even this may qualify as "trying to impose modern values on a very different age", as the family-friendly Martha Kearney puts it. And in any case, investigation shows that there was more than one possible explanation for the crisis, other than emotional obsession with Alice. One was her mother's over-protective attitude, which may have led to conflict. Another was a possible infatuation with the children's governess, who would certainly have been off-limits to the priesthood. And then there was the business of elder sister Lorina, since she was over the age of consent, which (incredibly) was only twelve in those days. If the experts are right, a recently discovered nude photograph of someone who was almost certainly Lorina, and looking thoroughly ill-at-ease, was taken by Carroll.
But the one who always looked most ill-at-ease was Carroll himself. Pedo or otherwise, that word 'repressed' is him all over; nobody ever seemed less happy or well-adjusted. In the few photos he ever permitted, we note the starched solemnity, perhaps covering over a mass of frustrated longings. Remembering that he also suffered from a speech impediment, sometimes causing him to pause open-mouthed while no sound came, it may be that only with children could he exchange free, fluent dialogue.
Oddly enough, it's the famous Tenniel illustrations that have always left me feeling a shade uncomfortable. That perfect adult hair-style is wrong for the nine-or-ten year old that Alice is meant to be, and I can too-easily imagine some men finding it titillating.
For my money, Carroll is innocent. I think he was a lonely and frustrated man, with a strong psychological need to create an alternative world of wonder and magic, and in so doing, he enriched children's lives beyond anyone's expectation.
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