In 1998, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, a newspaper journalist pointed out that parents today still happily passed on his classic books to their children — but they wouldn’t have wanted the author to be the one reading them to the kids. Alice and her adventures have survived into the 21st century, inspiring video games, theme-park rides, Japanese fashion and, most recently, Tim Burton’s movie adaptations — 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and this weekend’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (which Burton produced). But Carroll’s reputation has suffered. He liked little girls like Alice, that much is clear from the books — but now it’s rumored that he liked them too much and in the wrong kind of way. A quirky bachelor who amused children with puzzles and games, wrote them long, affectionate letters and took photographs of them in costume — and, sometimes, without much costume at all — may have been charming to the Victorians, but to our modern sensibilities, Carroll might seem like a creepy uncle at best and, at worst, a criminal pedophile.
Can we continue to enjoy his work, in light of these troubling claims? The good news is that those rumors tend to dissolve and disappear, like the surface of a looking glass, once we get close and look more carefully. Did Carroll enjoy the company of young girls? Yes, but he also made friends with young boys, with grown women and with men. He wasn’t the shy, stammering scholar we like to imagine; he was also a socialite who mixed with royalty and the greatest artists and poets of the day. Did he take photographs? Yes, over 3,000; he was one of the pioneers of the new technology. Did he take nude photographs of children? Yes — four of those 3,000 images were hand-colored pictures of children, as innocent and kitsch as today’s Anne Geddes portraits or anything you’d find on the walls of a local studio. Did he write affectionate letters to his young friends? Yes, and they’ve been published — they are works of clever wordplay and humor, as witty and generous as the Alice books. In 2016, when most of our messages are 140 characters, we might think it’s obsessive and creepy to write long letters to amuse children — but what if we’re the ones with a problem, not him?
It’s easy to speculate about Lewis Carroll, who was — like many Victorians — a private man who gave little of himself away. In our age of celebrity gossip, we are tempted to fill the gaps in his life with scandal. He never married? Then he must have been in love with Alice all his life. The truth, as his personal diaries reveal, is more mundane. He writes about the pleasure of photographing an interesting fish skeleton, not about unrequited love. His prayers to God are about becoming a better Christian, not guilt-ridden confessions. His letters to Alice Liddell, who inspired his greatest work, became properly formal, polite enquiries once she grew up and found a husband. If Carroll had a sin, it was that he could be uptight and priggish, until he relaxed with people he knew and trusted.
No, we might not want to hang out with Carroll today. He was a man of another age, who apparently enjoyed nothing stronger than a glass of sherry — the Alice books are not drug hallucinations, either — and was offended by the slightest off-color joke about religion. The kids of 2016, with their freedom and energy, would quickly wear him out. But we can still pass on his wonderful books to them, without any qualms. Compared to some of our celebrities — the sportsmen, film directors and singers who commit real crimes like assault and abuse and are still welcomed back by fans — Lewis Carroll was a regular saint.
Will Brooker is the author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture and a professor at Kingston University in London.