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Lewis Carroll reputation 'cleared' by members of Woodland Shakespeare Club

February 19, 2007
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

“Lewis Carroll: A Biography” by Morton N. Cohen
Vintage Books, 1995
Paperback, $17

Anyone who has followed literary scandals knows that much is being made of the Rev. Charles Dodgson’s infatuation with Alice Liddell, the girl who became immortalized in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865).

When the Woodland Shakespeare Club decided to read biographies this year, the program chair, Sandy Briggs-Howell, included an in-depth look at Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll. The club read “Lewis Carroll: A Biography” by Morton N. Cohen.

(Naturally, the club is reading a biography of Shakespeare, too: “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” by Stephen Greenblatt.)

Club members voted overwhelmingly to give Dodgson the benefit of the doubt, based on the biography and a program presented by Alice fanatic Briggs, past president of the club.

“ ‘Alice’ was my first passionate favorite book and remains in my Top 10 favorites today,” said librarian Briggs.

“The controversy regarding Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson was a surprise ­ a shock -- to me. Given my esteem for both the books and the author, it was necessary for me to personally conduct extensive research on the subject in order to either confirm or dismiss the allegations,” she said.

“It would be impossible for me personally to continue to hold the author in esteem if the allegations were true,” she added. “I believe that everyone has a personal responsibility to conduct their own primary research in matters of importance. Based on my research, I find the claims absurd and groundless, and I am able to continue to hold Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll in the highest esteem.”

A cloud settled over Carroll’s reputation for a variety of reasons, each of which Briggs feels comfortable dismissing.

Dodgson was an obsessive diarist throughout his entire life. But at his death someone, presumably a maiden sister, cut 11 pages out of his diaries.

“There has been an extraordinary amount of speculation about what the 11 pages contained,” said Briggs. She suggests that the pages could have been removed for any variety of reasons short of a scandalous admission or fantasy. More upsetting to modern readers today, however, is the fact that Dodgson took photographs of nude children.

Briggs says people upset by this fail to understand the Victorian period.

Dodgson was one of the earliest Victorian photographers and quite accomplished by modern standards. He took more than 3,000 photographs, many of children but also many of adults. Permission was obtained and a governess or adult chaperone always accompanied the children to Dodgson's studio, as was the custom. It seems that around a dozen of the 3,000 photographs were of nude children.

“The photographs came to light via the descendants of those children -- no nude photographs emerged from Dodgson's collection during or after his death. Those that we have today are the result of the families who possessed them and obviously valued them enough to save.”

Briggs points out that it was not uncommon to see nude children featured prominently in the fine art of the greatest painters of the time.

“It was simply a romanticized and idealized vision of childhood prevalent in the Victorian era,” she said.

She also says there was never a hint of scandal or impropriety alleged by parents of his young friends during his lifetime.

Dodgson’s nephew published the only authorized biography of the writer/Oxford don/mathematician and was the only biographer who had access to all the original material as well as first-hand reports of family and friends. However, hundreds of biographies have been published since then.

“It appears that one of the early biographers, Langford Reed in 1932, emphasized Dodgson's interest in children (and particularly female children) as a metaphor for Dodgson's impeccable character and interest in higher/spiritual matters,” Briggs added.

“Needless to say, the Freudians have had a field day with this. In fact, Dodgson enjoyed the company of adults, particularly women, all of his adult life. The fact that many of them were actresses and/or artists may have scandalized his maiden sisters.

“I am comfortable in my continued esteem of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll,” she added.

And the club membership voted overwhelmingly to continue honoring the famous author.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

For More Information, Visit These Links:
Lewis Carrol Biography at Biblio.Com with reference to Langford Reed
Lewis Carroll at Wikipedia

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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