The Golden Afternoon

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” (1865)

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865)

“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and their names were Elsie, Lacie and Tillie, and they lived at the bottom of a well–”  –  Lewis Carroll

While Americans celebrate July 4th as Independence Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, it’s also the date of another anniversary:  Wonderland Day, the day of the rowing excursion during which the story which would become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first told.  I first wrote this essay for the 150th anniversary of the event in 2012, and I’d like to share it with Cliterati readers not merely because it happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, but also as a way of clearing up a popular misconception about the sexual kinks of its author.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a brilliant but shy mathematician and Anglican deacon who taught at Oxford and became a close friend of the family of Christ Church Dean Henry Liddell.  Dodgson grew especially close to Mrs. Liddell and the couple’s three daughters Lorina, Alice and Edith; he often took the girls rowing on the Thames, and though the Victorians were less evil-minded than modern people on the subject of adult men and young girls, they were always accompanied on these expeditions by at least one other adult.  One such excursion occurred on Friday, July 4th, 1862; Dodgson (then 30 years old) and the girls (13, 10 and 8 respectively) were accompanied by the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and as was their custom they stopped for tea upon reaching Godstow.  Typically, the three Liddell sisters would demand that Dodgson tell them a story of his own devising; years later he wrote, “none of these many tales got written down:  they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.”  The “little listener” was of course Alice Liddell, whose given name was attached to tale’s heroine (though she also had traits borrowed from Lorina, Edith, other girls they knew and even Dodgson himself); and though as he later told Duckworth he “sat up nearly the whole night” writing out what he could remember of the story, he was a perfectionist and so fussed over it, rewrote it and revised it for over two years before presenting the handwritten, self-illustrated Alice’s Adventures Underground to her in November of 1864.  A year earlier he had allowed the children of his friend George MacDonald to read the then-unfinished manuscript and they urged him to take it to a publisher; the first edition, with the now-familiar illustrations by Punch cartoonist Sir John Tenniel, was released by Macmillan in 1865 under the pen name “Lewis Carroll”, which Dodgson used to separate his works of fancy from his serious mathematical treatises.

Incidentally, the blonde Alice who appears in those illustrations (and whose image has become inextricably attached to the character) was not based on Alice Liddell, who appears dressed as a beggar child in this 1858 photo by Dodgson.  As you can see she was a beautiful child, and she grew into a beautiful woman; another photo taken in 1872 by Julia Margaret Cameron depicts King Lear and his three daughters, with Cordelia (far right) portrayed by the 20-year old Alice (the other two are Edith [center] and another sister, Marina).  Dodgson was not the only person who was extremely fond of Alice; a number of contemporary letters and diaries speak highly of her charm and intelligence.  But he loved her very deeply, so much so that Mrs. Liddell eventually became uncomfortable with his attentions and took steps to discourage them after some mysterious incident in October of 1862 which is referred to in his diary only by the cryptic phrase “Lord Newry’s business”.

This does not mean that Dodgson was a pedophile, as he is so often portrayed nowadays; much has been made of the fact that he enjoyed photographing little girls nude, but this was actually a very common practice in Victorian England:  it was part of the “child cult”, meant to express innocence and purity, and was so mainstream that nude children even appeared on Christmas cards of the period.  And though it is true that he enjoyed the company of young girls, he also befriended many adult women, especially married ones.  In fact, a number of Carroll scholars (including Martin Gardner and Karoline Leach) have argued that he was in fact the exact opposite of a pedophile:  not a man who was sexually attracted to children, but rather one so deeply uncomfortable with his own sexuality that he preferred the company of little girls precisely because he was not attracted to them.  His well-documented friendships with married women and the oft-repeated prayer in his diaries to be delivered from the “sin of David” point to an entirely different kink:  King David coveted the beautiful Bathsheba and sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to die on the front lines of battle so he could possess her.  It therefore seems likely that the desire which troubled him so was a fetish for other men’s wives, possibly consummated about 1853, which drove him to avoid temptation by socializing with girls too young to be objects of carnal desire.  We can even guess the type of woman to whom he was sexually attracted, yet found emotionally repellent:  both Alice books and a number of his other writings feature strong, castrating, dominatrix figures (such as the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen) with weak, ineffectual husbands.  Alice’s mother may have been one of these:  a bit of student doggerel from the 1860s goes, “I am the Dean and this is Mrs. Liddell/She plays the first, and I the second fiddle.”

Alas, the time which gave Alice’s adventures to the world was as mortal as a bread-and-butter-fly; only three months later Mrs. Liddell began to cool toward Dodgson, and on June 27th of the following year she told him about gossip linking him with either their governess or Lorina (who was 14 and therefore marriageable).  The rumors caused a break in their close relationship, and though they remained cordial the rowing trips became a thing of the past.  He befriended many other girls in the next four decades, but none of them ever truly replaced Alice in his affections:  in a letter he sent her soon after her marriage in 1880 he wrote, “I have had scores of child-friends since your time, but they have been quite a different thing.” She was also his muse for 1871’s Through the Looking-Glass, and no subsequent work dedicated to another girl can match the two Alice books in genius or wit; they are the enduring legacy of that “golden afternoon”, now a century and a half gone, so it is only proper that the occasion be commemorated by those who love them.

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