Winchester (Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, 2010, etc.) offers his take on the relationship between author/amateur photographer Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Pleasance Liddell—the “Alice” in his Wonderland and the subject of a certain unsettling photograph.
To fill in the background, the author retraces Dodgson’s early schooling from years at the Rugby School to his arrival at Oxford (that “forcing-house for flaneurs”) and three formative “epiphanies”: the beginning of his side career as Lewis Carroll, a developing friendship with the children of his college’s new dean, Henry George Liddell, and his discovery of the pleasures of the recently developed camera. Dodgson shot albums of photographs, but one image of Alice comes in for particular attention: a portrait of the 7-year-old dressed in rags, bare of shoulder and bearing “an expression of impish, secret knowledge, a winsome look that manages to be both confident and disturbing.” This and other provocative child portraits—along with pages tantalizingly razored from Dodgson’s diaries of the period—fueled modern accusations that have gone so pervasively viral that any random passerby will “know” more about Dodgson’s pedophilia than his literary works. Not so fast, cautions Winchester, making connections and offering counter-interpretations as he goes. The author judiciously considers the evidence, suggesting credible alternative views before finishing off with a quick pass through Alice’s later life and role as unwilling celebrity.
Quite a slender volume—the actual narrative runs under 100 pages—but, as usual with Winchester, well-founded, witty and perceptive.