The photographer and the beggar maid

Simon Winchester The Alice behind Wonderland
Oxford University Press 2011

A century and a half ago, in July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in a limited edition by Oxford University Press — and then immediately withdrawn because Tenniel was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his illustrations. Although it wasn’t until November 1865 that the second edition appeared (approved by both author and illustrator, this time under the Macmillan imprint which had published Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies two years before) be prepared for a slew of media trumpeting and Wonderland brouhaha this summer. Nevertheless, it’s an opportune moment to review this short study of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s two most famous fantasies.

Simon Winchester structures his discussion around a photograph that Dodgson took in 1858 of the five-year-old Alice Liddell, taking as subject Tennyson’s 1842 poem The Beggar Maid. In this the legendary North African king Cophetua has no interest in women until he spots the young Penelophon begging in the street outside his palace. “Her arms across her breast she laid,” recounts the poet; she is “more fair than words can say … She is more beautiful than day.” Cophetua swears that this dark-haired beggar maid, bare-footed, in poor attire, with “so sweet a face, such angel grace” shall be his queen. Dodgson’s portrait of Alice captures all this, but with what to us now seems a degree of impropriety, both as regards her age and her unexpected décolletage. Of his attitude to his favourite “child-friend” there has been no end of gossip but precious few facts, especially as key pages in his diary were removed after his death, and I don’t want to add to the wealth of uninformed speculation. Not least of these is the implicit parallel between a king’s infatuation for a beggar-maid and a college lecturer’s obsession with a prepubescent girl.

The author explores a bit of this, but not before he outlines Dodgson’s upbringing and education, his penchant for nonsense writing, his enthusiastic involvement with the new ‘black art’ and his first meeting with Alice, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, on the occasion of Dodgson’s first foray with his newly acquired camera into the deanery garden. Winchester, a former geologist before he migrated to investigative journalism and then writing, expertly discusses the science of early photography and Dodgson’s rapidly specialising in portraiture. By chapter six (of just seven chapters in this book) he finally gets to the heart of the matter in “A Portrait most Perfect and Chaste” when he discusses Dodgson’s relationships with the Liddell family.

The Dean, of course, was supportive of Dodgson’s use of the deanery garden for portraits. Mrs Lorina Liddell was nearer in age to the photographer and by most accounts got on well with him. Dodgson was later said to be “paying court” to the children’s governess, Miss Prickett, but his diary entries apparently suggest that this is not a credible theory. Harry, the only boy in the family, hero-worshipped Dodgson. Edith, the youngest girl, was a redhead “with a Pre-Raphaelite look that Dodgson might have found less attractive” than the darker look of the others in the family, Winchester suggests. Lorina — Ina, as the eldest of the three sisters was known — is also linked with the young man as a potential spouse, though marriage would have meant him relinquishing his studentship (as Christ Church fellowhips were known).

When it comes to the middle girl, Winchester notes that “Alice Pleasance Liddell was peculiarly and particularly special to Charles Dodgson;” his “interest in small girls — he photographed scores of them, and a significant number of them nude — fascinates many in today’s more exposed world.” But he notes that Victorian attitudes held that young children “were the literal embodiment of innocent beauty, an innocence to be preserved and revered. All surviving evidence suggests that Dodgson’s attitude was no different and that his interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word.” I tend to agree — after all, in The Water-Babies (1863) Tom the former climbing boy spends most of the book as a totally naked child, echoing William Blake’s earlier Songs of Innocence — and perhaps it was only with the advent of photography, where real individuals might be identifiable and gazed upon, that candid portraits and adult interest in them became suspect. Winchester doesn’t however pursue this line of thinking.

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If, as Winchester suggests, The Beggar Maid study was taken in June 1857, then it wasn’t till Alice was ten, in July 1862, that the famous “golden afternoon” boating trip resulted in an extempore tale becoming one of the best-known children’s classics. But by 1865 Alice was on the way to that difficult age that Dodgson found difficult to deal with, and — for reasons unclear to us — the Liddell family’s relationship with the newly famous author became more distant. So it came as a surprise to Dodgson when Mrs Liddell turned up with Alice and older sister Lorina for new portraits in June 1870, just as Alice was about to enter society. Can we read too much into the enigmatic gaze that the eighteen-year-old turns upon the camera lens? What do we make of Alice as Pomona, goddess of fruitfulness, as taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, where she deliberately mirrors the stance she took fifteen years before of beggar-maid Penelophon? And what do we think of the look given by the widowed eighty-year-old Alice Hargreaves when she visited America for the centenary celebrations of Dodgson’s birth? Can posed photographs really tell us anything about the state of mind of the person portrayed, or do we expect to see their backstory echoed in their body language and in their eyes?

In a text of around a hundred pages (to which is added Acknowledgements, Further Reading and an index) Winchester covers a lot of ground, though I fear we are little wiser as to who the real Alice was. Apart from the beggar-maid portrait, reproduced on the dust jacket and as a frontispiece, no other images are forthcoming. Instead we do get a lot about early photography and a little about Dodgson’s early nonsense writing and not very much about the Alice books. Odd facts stick in the mind, such as one uncle being a Commissioner in Lunacy and another being a Master of the Common Pleas; and I was struck by the curiosity that Winchester admires the conceit of Alice being like the Cheshire Cat’s smile so much that he uses it twice, at the end of the last chapter and immediately again at the end of the acknowledgements. Still, as a metaphor for the character of Alice it is probably most apt; and it certainly is no more than Dodgson’s own letters tell us about this special child-friend if his.

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11 thoughts on “The photographer and the beggar maid

    1. We’re told, Sue, that this is “a member of a panel of appointed government officials who had responsibility of oversight for the country’s asylums, and for the formal determination of the degrees of madness which compelled some sufferers to enter them”. Uncle Skeffington talked often to nephew Charles in 1855 about the “community’s more interestingly challenged” individuals and about photography, a combination which clearly had a huge influence on the Alice books.

  1. It’s probably just as well that the “real” Alice remain an enigma. To me and to the readers of her two books, the Alice in them is the real one, and she has attitude! I’m sure, though, in the day, there were plenty of young men ostensibly paying court to one person in a family while they secretly but impossibly adored another. Thank you for your interesting review. The book itself sounds missable, though, unless you’re interested in early photography; and except for some of the fascinating details you point out–like that madcap title of “Commissioner in Lunacy”!

    1. The books do stand on their own well-deserved merit, Josna, it’s true; but all the world loves a mystery, don’t they? Martin Gardner’s wonderful Annotated Alice provides huge insights into the parodies and jokes and references which contemporaries would have got but are more obscure to us now without explanation.

      Likewise (but to a lesser degree) knowing something about the real Alice (who allegedly had a romance with Leopold, the Queen’s son, and who apparently posed for several other photographers) is more of a mystery to us than to her contemporaries, which puts us at a disadvantage and allows wild speculation about, for instance, drug-references in the tales. Reading a selection of Dodgson’s letters also helps put flesh on the author and his several child-friends which in turn informs the character of the Wonderland heroine.

      But you’re right, none of this distracts from the strong character of the fictional Alice!

  2. Have you seen the 1985 film *Dreamchild*? I haven’t read Winchester’s book, but your review makes me suspect the film could be a more satisfactory exploration of the Dodgson-Liddell relationship, if only because it’s seen through Alice’s eyes rather than from a 21st century viewpoint that needs to know everything. In the film, the widowed Alice is herself confused by memories that can’t separate reality from fiction.

    On another note, re child models in photographs that modern eyes see as suggestive/exploitative: why is this more shocking than children in Renaissance paintings or Greek sculpture? Is it the reality of the image? the fact that we can see a real person? that the artist isn’t acting as mediator between model and image? I remember a modern kerfuffle about a photographer (Sally Mann) using her own children as nude models.

    1. I managed to miss Dreamchild first time around and haven’t yet spotted it on TV, Lizzie, but I’m sure it will be broadcast at least once this year of all years.

      I agree with you about the perception that photos of children are somehow more suspect than paintings of them. From his letters it seems clear that Dodgson was sensitive to possible misinterpretation of his intentions, usually proposing chaperones for photo sessions and of course trips to the theatre, both of which crop up frequently in his correspondence.

      Hope to review an edition of his Selected Letters later this year as well as Gardner’s annotated version of the two Alice books. Building work is nearing completion (though the end date does keep slipping by a week or so) so I hope to be blogging more regularly anytime soon.

      (Re-posted this as it only appeared as a comment, not a reply, and you may not have been notified of it.)

  3. I have to be honest, and say, all i see is a very forlorn or sad little girl. It makes me wonder what is going through her head. Then again, I may not want to know.

    1. I am rubbish at maintaining a ‘face’ during a portrait snap, after the snapper asks for cheesy smiles and a short eternity ensues. With those early photographs, after a 3-2-1 countdown about 20 seconds or so’s exposure was required before the sitter could blink and relax; can you imagine how fixed a grin or stare resulted? It’s a wonder anyone looked like their normal selves.

      I agree, Sari, she looks a little sad and vulnerable; but everything points to her and her sisters enjoying Dodgson’s company, and she seems to have been regarded as the most photogenic of the three. I’m always tempted to ‘read’ people from their photos, but it’s a dangerous practice, I think!

  4. I find it disgusting that these days people find it almost impossible to believe that there can, for example, be the same sort of attraction for men towards children – including young girls – as there would be towards kittens or puppies. I have known – intimately – people who felt more at ease in such company than in any other, and where sexual impropriety simply didn’t come into the picture. However, it seems a reflection of our age that suspicions would now more than likely be justified.
    I do believe that Dodgson was a ‘kitten’ type.

    1. I rather incline to agree with you, Col: Dodgson was a complex chap and a fascinating personality who’s invited much study and speculation over the years. As far as I can tell, there have been whispers about him from the 20C but little or nothing during his lifetime, surely a time when prurient Victorian tongues would have been wagging if he was more than a kitten-type as you suggest. But these are rather dark thoughts to contemplate…

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