["'Lewis Carroll': A Myth in the Making" has been adapted with permission of author and publisher from the opening chapter of Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild (London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1999). E-mail: Antonia@peterowen.com. British Reviews of the book.]

decorative initial V iewed historically, it is almost tragi-comic, Reed's last stand for nineteenth century innocence, digging in the seeds of its own destruction with its endless anthem of purity and little girls. The time for such things was over. This was 1932. The Great War had come and gone, another war was threatening, Depression was biting, and Freud had written his books about dreams.

The Life of Lewis Carroll was not twelve months old in its brave red binding before the new age, asserting its own right to see its legends in its own way, had taken up the little girls, but thrown away the purity.

The Victorians had saints; the twentieth century has psychological disorders. And like every age, we take our own delusions as the proofs of our enlightenment. For us, locked in the prison of our materialism, disgruntled as a child who has just discovered the non-existence of Santa Claus and who knows presents will never be the same again, "Carroll" has become the proof that such aspirations are dangerous delusions. The twentieth century is too smart for innocence, it looks at purity with a smile and knows better. For the twentieth century reality means the worm in the bud. Things that spoke to the Victorians of naiveté and sweetness, speak to the twentieth century of hypocrisy and deviant, dangerous, repressed sexuality. The question of which of these images is the more 'real' is irrelevant. What is going on here has very little to do with reality.

Carroll as sexual deviant was ushered into existence by a young man called Anthony Goldschmidt. In 1933 he was an undergraduate at Balliol, a gifted student who had won himself an Exhibition. It was in that year that he turned his bright young attention to the Lewis Carroll of Collingwood and Reed and legend. He studied the man presented there, with his endless succession of "little girls," his social isolation, his apparent absence of any adult connection, and concluded that he was looking, not at a saint, or an ethereal being clothed for a while in mortal flesh, but at a repressed paedophile. What else, after all, was to be made of a man who, it was said, could only deal with adult women by post?

Goldschmidt published his views in a four page article in the New Oxford Outlook entitled "Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed." The hyphens and capitals testify to the awkward newness of such a concept. His theory was that the opening section of Wonderland was a kind of cryptic message from Lewis Carroll's subconscious. The incidents were signs and symbols that could be decoded in the face of modern psychoanalytical understanding, to reveal the inner workings of the author's mind.

The fall down the rabbit hole was a symbol of sexual penetration, the doors surrounding the hallway represented female genitalia. In selecting the little door in preference to the big, Alice (or rather Dodgson in the guise of Alice), was choosing to copulate with a female child instead of an adult woman. Ergo, said Goldschmidt, he was a paedophile. He continued:

It is difficult to hold that his interest in children was inspired by a love of childhood in general, and in any case based on a mental rather than physical attraction, in view of two facts: that he detested little boys...and that his friendships almost invariably ended with the close of childhood. (Phillips, ed., 331)

Goldschmidt perhaps could not be expected to know that both these "facts" were entirely baseless fallacies. But, that his arguments are still repeated today by biographers who ought to know it very well, is a thing less easy to explain or defend.

In 1933 there was no evidence to gainsay Goldschmidt's conclusions. There was hardly any evidence at all. So, with the publication of his seminal article, the myth of Carroll and his sexually empty life entirely given over to little girls became converted into a pathology.

Poor Collingwood, poor Reed; the lovingly constructed defences of a sacred reputation had become the snares of a worse infamy than they could ever have envisaged. The whole thing is given an air of added confusion and poignancy by the possibility that Goldschmidt may have meant his article as a joke. His friend and fellow Carroll scholar, Derek Hudson, claimed that his "tongue was halfway into his cheek", when he wrote it. (Hudson, xi). Certainly, the gentle up-sending of all things Freudian did have something of a precedent in the Oxford of the early thirties. The impact of this possibility is considerable. For even if Goldschmidt never believed in it, many others did.

If not for him then no one from the Freudian analyst Paul Schilder to the playwright Dennis Potter would have had their images to play with. The influence of Goldschmidt's article can be found in almost everything that has been said about Carroll and his work for the last sixty five years. If it was a joke then it was one of the best.

But, joke or not, the psychoanalysts had Carroll now, and with a little shaking, a little tenderising, like Quint's shark, they swallowed him whole. Over the Depression and war years, between the Jarrow march and the beginning of the Cold War, in a glorious effusion of attenuated inference and extraordinary syntax, the Psychoanalysts gave Lewis Carroll and his books the shafting of their lives. "Flamingoes and mustard become the desires of the two sexes," opined William Empson. He thought it all came down to wombs:

the salt water {of the pool of tears} is the sea from which life arose; as a bodily product it is also the amniotic fluid ... The symbolic completeness of Alice's experience is, I think, important. She runs the whole gamut: she is a father in getting down the hole, a fetus at the bottom, and can only be born by becoming a mother and producing her own amniotic fluid...

"What was his relation to his sex organ anyway?" Paul Schilder demanded indignantly in 1938, going on to suggest that Alice might have been a substitute penis. Not surprisingly he and his colleagues considered the stories too disturbing for children.

The power of Dodgson's literature and the mythology of his life drove an apparently inexhaustible ability to find within Alice and Carroll a metaphor for almost anything, a symptom of almost every psycho-neurotic disease. John Skinner used the myth of his hatred of adult women to infer that "Lewis Carroll remained at a childish level in his emotional life", and that "his life seems to indicate that he did not like his adult, masculine character and that he wished to change himself into a small, adventurous girl..."

Martin Grotjahn used Alice to infer Dodgson's "schizoid personality, his compulsive character traits, his often paranoid behaviour, his regressive attitude and loving fascination by {sic} sexually undifferentiated child-actresses". Geza Roheim, on the other hand, saw everything in Dodgson's life and work as a metaphor for latent cannibalism:

Lewis Carroll...was the oldest child in the family, and he therefore had plenty of opportunity to feel jealous of his younger siblings and (we conjecture) to develop cannibalistic fantasies about the rivals who took his place with the mother ... the successive courses at the dinner represent the siblings whom Alice wanted to eat. (Phillips., ed., 333-433)

In this fevered, fantasy-ridden ethos, entire theories were built on nothing but other theories, which might themselves be based on a misreading of a single sentence in Collingwood. A kind of bitter madness gripped the Psychoanalysts, ripping like academic vultures at one small reputation. And, bravely, through all the many and fevered insights, the idea of Lewis Carroll's sexual preoccupation with little girls shone with a fixed and steady beam: the one immutable certainty, the leitmotif of his life and our time: his defining characteristic. The only question was why. Human ingenuity, freed from the tiresome burden of weary reality, found no shortage of possible answers in the confusion of historically baseless womb-analogies, and images of frozen infantilism. His unavoidable psycho-pathology was confirmed again and again by authors increasingly detached from even the bare biographical facts of his life. And then, in 1945, the first full biography to be published in some thirteen years picked up on the new concept of Lewis Carroll the latent paedophile and expressed it with delicate but unavoidable emphasis. Victoria Through the Looking-Glass, called simply Lewis Carroll in the UK, was written by Florence Becker Lennon, an American literary figure. A talented writer, and an incisive observer, Lennon could yet only deal with the material at her disposal, and in 1945 it was still painfully little. When her information was good, she made the best job of analysing it that anyone had yet done. She recognised the power of Carroll's mythological significance, and its distorting effect on the biography. She saw him enshrined as "the last saint of this irreverent world":

those who have surrendered the myths of Santa Claus... of Jehovah, hang their last remnants of mysticism on Lewis Carroll and will not allow themselves to examine him dispassionately. (186)

Lennon was sincere in her attempt to bring this heretofore entirely absent "dispassionate" analysis to her subject. But she was stymied from the outset by the continuing reluctance of both the Dodgsons and the Liddells to provide good documentation or talk openly to biographers. When she began her research in 1930, the elderly "Alice" would not see her. There was one confused and equivocal interview with her older sister Lorina. The Dodgsons were polite but unco-operative. She was allowed no access to his diaries, or the private family papers, and the only letters she could study were those she could somehow track down. In these circumstances, her evidence was perforce reduced to a tradition of mythology, riddled with fallacy and inaccuracy, dominated by Psychoanalysis, in all its apotheosis of inference, and increasing detachment from any reality of Dodgson's life.

The "Lewis Carroll" presented for her inspection had become a hybrid of two antagonistic cultures; the "eccentricities" had become obsessive-compulsive neuroses, the "innocence" had become hysterical repression. It is to be regretted that, through little fault of her own, Lennon's principal contribution was to use her talent and her skills to make this fantastic and tangled persona into something almost believable, and to offer an explanation for it.

She had read Collingwood's 72 pages about the "child-friends'" she could not know that half of these "children" were in their teens or twenties. She had read Reed's portrait of a man who obsessed about little girls and rejected womanhood; she could not know that this was a complete invention. She spoke to the surviving members of Dodgson's family, who assured her that his diary (which they would not let her see) contained "no evidence of any love affair. She could not know anything about a document she was not allowed to read. She received the impression of a man with no adult life at all. All she was told about, all anyone was talking about was the children.

Given what she was told, what she could possibly know, her conclusions were almost inevitable. She almost had to see Charles Dodgson as a man who could not, or would not, grow up. So in her elegant and incisive style she gave shape and depth to what she saw. She described "Peter Pan". She described a sad disjointed man with "his emotional clock ...jammed" in incessant childhood, who had no interest in and could not form adult relationships, who "protested audibly when his child-friends matured", who was in effect an emotionally retarded paedophile. In a defining sentence she announced the coming of age of the new orthodoxy: "People have wondered what he did with his love-life. Now it can be told. He loved little girls." And, having thus so delicately established his paedophilic credentials, her conclusion that: "He had no adult love life at all; and nothing in his published writings shows an adult understanding of love" (187, 191) followed very naturally. Lennon was convinced of the truth of this, and this conviction coloured everything she said about his life, and perhaps more importantly, his work. Lennon was the first biographer to bring anything like proper analysis to Lewis Carroll's creative life, the first to give any consideration to any work of his beside the two Alice's and perhaps The Hunting of the Snark. It seemed to have become part of the legend that Lewis Carroll had never written anything else. Lennon was the first to consider the Sylvie and Bruno novels, and the serious poetry. Because no biographer had ever done so before, her views were to be highly influential. She set the tone for almost everything that was to be said about these works thereafter. And everything she believed about his life influenced her understanding of his work.

If one begins with a belief in a man "with no adult love life" it is only a small step to the conclusion that his published writings show no "adult understanding of love". Therefore when she analysed his love poetry, she almost had to find it unbelievable. After all, how could Peter Pan describe mature sexual love? How could Lewis Carroll, an eternal child, locked in the prison of his manifold strangenesses, possibly write about adult passion? It was a laughable idea and Lennon laughed at it.

She tore through his love poems with a devastating contempt; witty, vitriolic, almost cruel, almost hysterical. Her dismissal was wholesale; she took no prisoners, her conclusions were absolute; Lewis Carroll's serious work was the inky trash of an immature mind. It had no story to tell but the tale of his own inadequacy.

This crushing indictment still stands for most modern analysts. It helped persuade several generations of scholarship to entirely ignore Lewis Carroll's serious poetry as an expression of his art or as a source of biographical insight. This has had the bizarre result that while the Alice's have been picked bare for the tiniest nuance of accidental autobiography, or strangely encoded confession, his serious poetry and massive two-volume novel have hardly received any attention; the assumption being, as Lennon herself had it, that everything but Alice is simply "too bad to be based on personal experience" (189) (implying presumably that Shakespeare once had family troubles in Denmark or that Coleridge must at some time in his life have spent a long time at sea with an albatross round his neck).

Lennon's second major contribution to her subject concerned Lewis Carroll's most famous child-friend of all time. Alice Liddell, the 'Real Alice', the little girl in the boat who had inspired genius. The confusion of reality and fantasy that had welded Alice and Carroll in the public mind had likewise blended 'Alice' the fictional heroine and her real life namesake. No one, least of all biographers, seemed clear where one left off and the other began. Collingwood had encapsulated the real Alice's perceived significance in a few sentences that defined her role in the official biography. For him she was Carroll's 'first child-friend' whose 'innocent talk was one of the chief pleasures of his early life at Oxford, and to whom he told the tale that was to make him famous' [Collingwood p. 365].

Outside the confines of the Dodgson and Liddell families, no-one knew anything about Dodgson's feelings for Alice, whether he had even had any of any depth or importance. But the uniqueness of her significance was assumed unquestioningly, and always has been. Because the world obsessed about Alice the book, it made itself believe that Carroll must have obsessed about Alice the girl. In the absence of documentation, there was myth, and it told the story of Alice and Alice that everyone was sure would turn out to be true. She was the Muse; she was the Object of Desire.

Lennon took the first step in creating the final part of the modern Alice legend, by suggesting that this romantic relationship had been for Dodgson the nearest thing to a sexual passion he ever knew, and "Carroll was actually in love with [her], and proposed honourable marriage to her...."[Lennon p. 192]

At the time Lennon had no evidence for her suggestion, and put it forward only tentatively, as a possibility, a speculation to be played with. In support of it she could only quote a letter from Dodgson in which he described Alice as his 'ideal child-friend', and a rumour that Alice's mother 'hated' him. In addition, she had interviewed Alice's elder sister Ina, back in 1930, apparently with a view to establishing the possibility of such a romantic interest. The record of her interview remains in two letters Ina wrote to Alice immediately afterward. Only recently discovered, these letters contain about the only insight into the private Liddell view of their relationship with Dodgson, about which descendants on both sides have been extremely cagey, and as such they are probably very important documents. They certainly indicate that there were well-kept secrets about Dodgson and the Liddells, but they likewise suggest that these secrets were nothing to do with Alice.

At about the same time that Lennon's book appeared in the UK, a Scottish writer and teacher of English, Alexander Taylor, was writing about what he saw as encoded mathematical and theological meanings in the Alice books. A scholarly but not a popular book. He tried with great dedication to find a publisher for it, but by 1950 he still had not succeeded. His surviving correspondence with Menella Dodgson makes the rest of the story clear.

The consensus of opinion in the publishing fraternity was that the book needed to be rewritten, jettisoning some of the literary analysis and 'filling out the life-story' which Taylor had 'reduced to a mere outline' (Letter from Alexander Taylor to Menella Dodgson, of 3 July 1950, in the Dodgson Family Collection [DFC] housed in Woking, Surrey, UK).

It was at this point, that, at least according to Taylor, quite independently of Lennon (whose book had been published in the U.K. about three years earlier), he became convinced that Dodgson had been in love with Alice Liddell. This additional and rather daring new line did the trick for Taylor: he found a publisher and his book The White Knight came out at last in 1952., with the new theory about Alice tacked rather uneasily on to the edges of the long and painstaking mathematical analysis. The revised portions of Taylor's book took Lennon's tentative suggestion and turned it into certainty. It was apparently Taylor's firm belief that Dodgson had fallen in love with Alice when she was about seven years old, and had watched her grow up and away from him without declaring his passion:

There is no doubt in my mind that Dodgson was in some sense in love with his heroine or that the breakdown in their relationship which occurred as Alice grew up was the real disappointment of his life. [Alexander L.Taylor, The White Knight (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952) Preface, p.V]

Taylor's greatest drawback was, like Lennon's, a complete lack of any evidence in support of this point of view. The Dodgsons as usual were not co-operating. The Liddells, in the person of Alice's son, Caryl Hargreaves, would not sanction his idea. All he had was a void, and he filled that void with his own, and other people's, imagination. Like Reed before him, and with far less care and scholarship than Lennon, he made a guess about what the evidence would have said, if only he had been allowed to see it, and wrote his book accordingly. The result was a fantasy, or a romance. It was not in any sense a biography.

To find anything at all to say in favour of his own theory, Taylor was forced to incredible lengths of inference and assumption. Forced to build an entire thesis of lifelong passion on two love poems, neither of which seemed in any way likely to refer to Alice Liddell. The first poem, 'Faces in the Fire', is actually a fantasy about a man looking back on a lost love who is already a mature woman (Alice was seven when Dodgson wrote the poem), and the second, 'Only a Woman's Hair', is as the title suggests about a woman's hair. Taylor concluded that both works were celebrations of Alice, because the heroine of the first was a brunette (as indeed was Alice herself), and dark hair was mentioned in the other. But in fact the two brunettes in 'Only A Woman's Hair are both unquestionably women - being namely a lady with a 'queen-like face' and a 'wanton' gypsy — and the only child in the poem is actually a blonde.

But despite these obvious difficulties, Taylor's book was not just influential in Carroll scholarship, it was seminal. His theory that Alice ('she and she alone') was Lewis Carroll's 'lost love' [Taylor pp. 32-3] is still a central image of respected biography today. Like every other part of the tradition that we have considered here, it has never been tested against the evidence, never been perceived as needing to be tested against the evidence. It is simply believed, as an article of faith.

With the publication of 'The White Knight', and the dissemination of the idea that Alice Liddell was the single passion of his life, the modern popular and scholastic image of Lewis Carroll was more or less complete. Derek Hudson's biography, published two years later, represented, in common with the first and heavily edited publication of the Diaries, a contrasting attempt to recapture the 19th century image of Carroll as child-saint, uncontaminated even by a subconscious sexuality. This received the enthusiastic support of the Dodgson family, who continued to uphold the antique innocence of Collingwood's original biography, but was too out of step with the public mood to be popular. The mid-20th century had more empathy with the repression and surreptitious dirt-dishing of Taylor's hypothesis, and this is what stuck. Through a kind of selective amnesia that seems to be rooted in some Jungian collective unconscious, through invention and fantasy and the sheer determination to believe, posterity had acquired the Carroll it wanted.

In appropriately looking-glass tradition, it was only after this cycle of creation had been completed that the prima facie evidence about his life began to emerge. In 1953 an edited version of Dodgson's private diary was published in two volumes. This meant that for the first time since his death the public and scholarship alike had access to some evidence about Dodgson the man. Sixteen years later the entire MS diaries were sold to the British Library. A published edition of Dodgson's letters followed in 1979. But the next twenty years were to show too clearly that an octogenarian mythology isn't intimidated by a few bits of paper.

It would be nice if life were so simple, and our best work was always our truest. But unfortunately, autobiography is liable to be found in dross as much as anywhere else. But Dodgson's serious poetry is nothing as simple as dross. It is uneven, it is strange, but it has both artistic merit and considerable biographical significance. Its wholesale and continued dismissal has had a serious effect on the progress of understanding his life. It has helped cement the idea in the academic and popular mind that Alice is Carroll, and Carroll in his entirety, is Alice.

But before I go on to look at how the modern Carroll-myth has dealt with the emerging prima facie evidence, I think we should take a moment to explore the nature of the evidence itself, and how it came to be unavailable for so long.


Taylor, Alexander. The White Knight. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952.

Last modified 2000