When I was a child, my parents came up with a plan to make my sister and me smarter. Somehow they divined that a constant bombardment of information would stimulate our intellects, even as we slept. They purchased many record albums on many subjects, the natural sciences, mathematics, sex education and also some recordings of famous literary works for children read by famous actors. The most potent of these was a six-album set of Cyril Ritchard, the British actor, intoning Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
A stack of records would be placed on the turntable, the lights would go out and then the discs would begin to play. And so my twin sister and I, side by side in our twin beds and in and out of consciousness, dreamt Alice's dream of a summer day with her. I can remember being awakened suddenly in the night, in the middle of the very dramatic trial of the Jack of Hearts, by a shriek of "Silence in the court!" and slipping back off to sleep just as the White Rabbit said slowly and weightily, "Still more evidence."
For more than 100 years Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been the most famous work of children's fiction in the canon of Western literature. Its inhabitants, memorable and fantastic grotesques like the Mad Hatter and the Mock Turtle, are stock characters now, as much a part of our borrowed literary colloquial symbols as Shakespeare's Shylock. And, above all, Alice is a mystery that has provoked curiosity and produced some of the most bizarre interpretations of any literary work. I remember that in the '60s the drug culture claimed that the book was a road map of one long acid trip, seizing on that poor hookah-puffing caterpillar as a sort of envoy to all those who hadn't yet turned on. "Go ask Alice," sang Grace Slick, the high priestess of pop psychedelia, "I think she'll know." The nonsensical, absurd twists, the plays on logic, the clever and silly satire of Alice's Adventures Underground are not, I think, so easily explained away by a lot of synaptic misfirings.
Just as muddled as the interpretation of his work is the perception of Lewis Carroll, who is the subject of a month-long exhibition at the Ackland Gallery in Chapel Hill. People are inclined to throw around some dire accusations when speaking of Carroll. In the last week alone, I have been told that he was addicted to morphine, a pedophile and had been seriously considered as a suspect in murders credited to Jack the Ripper.
The best advice one can offer people who believe things like this is to visit the Ackland and see the exhibit for themselves. Not that the mystery of Carroll is revealed in this exhibition. But the variety of the objects exhibited, and the brief biographical notes that accompany them, do much to place his life and work much more in context, of his time, his social class and even his ambitions. They present us with more than just the few sides of Carroll normally referred to: Carroll the shy, stuttering don and writer of the Alice stories, or Carroll the pervert.
I viewed the exhibit as a series of compartments, each a sampling of what made Carroll an eminent figure in his own time (as well as in ours), what made Charles Dodgson into Lewis Carroll, but also how the works of Dodgson/Carroll have revealed to us the Victorian era, where some of our most lasting myths about family, childhood and sexuality originate.
There are interesting relics of Carroll's life: a family magazine he edited, illustrated and hand-wrote, opened to a page showing a very funny and satirical advertisement for a maid of all work; his first photographs of his home and family; logic puzzles and mathematical problems from Carroll's own school days, and puzzles and games he invented for the amusement of others.
The presence of Alice, the child herself, is confined to only one picture, though Carroll was known to have taken many, a photograph of all three of the Liddell sisters: Lorina, Alice (the traverser of Wonderland) and Edith. To protect it from the ravages of light, this photograph is draped in heavy brown velvet and one feels a bit voyeuristic, peeking behind the curtain to see them.
A glass case nearby holds a variety of manuscripts of Alice's Adventures Underground. These include a facsimile of the original manuscript as it was presented to Alice Liddell, Vladimir Nabokov's famous 1923 translation of the manuscript, and a limited edition of a manuscript with the original pictures done by Carroll himself, before he was convinced to let Tenniel's orderly and spiritless illustrations replace his own much wilder, more violent ones.
I went there to see Carroll's photographs. There is much conjecture on Carroll's preoccupation with children, particularly little girls, the friendships he cultivated with them and then cut off when they approached puberty, the photographs he took of them and the erotic subtext of these portraits. And it is true that his photographs of children, particularly and predictably the little girls, are most compelling.
In her gallery talk at the opening of the exhibition, Carol Mavor, cultural and art historian and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, related: "On March 25, 1863, Lewis Carroll ... composed a list of 107 names--girls 'photographed or to be photographed.' The girls are grouped under their Christian names, all the Alices together, all the Agneses together, and all the Beatrices together, all in alphabetical order. He also notes many of their dates of birth (that telltale sign of a girl's true girlishness). Carroll's is a poem of girlhood that rolls off the tongue, like a catalog of Victorian flowers."
Interspersed in the exhibition, between pictures, are letters Carroll wrote to his subjects, witty, sweet, funny and teasing. Near them hang the photographs, terribly haunting, although to say why is not easy. The wet collodion process that Carroll preferred to use required that poses be held for quite some time, so there is both a tension and a relaxation into the position of the subject. Photography being a new art, the self-consciousness of the often photographed--who know already the set of postures one assumes to transmit an image or role--is not present. The family photos we have in our albums at home bear only a distant resemblance to Carroll's pictures of children, though Carroll took most of these pictures for his subjects' families and for his own private collection. He only had one exhibition of his photographs in his lifetime.
Sometimes it seems that the evocative nature of the photographs is as much in the eye of the beholder as the photographer. But that is certainly not to say that Carroll's photographs do not abound with sensuality. In her notes on the exhibit, Mavor refers to the "cult of the little girl," and the photographs document this well, though none of the more controversial or nude photographs Carroll took are part of the exhibit. But they don't need to be. Of one of the pictures of Irene MacDonald (daughter of children's book author George MacDonald), Carol Mavor wrote in her book Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs:
Irene MacDonald ... a portmanteau of odalisque and Victorian girl. Eyes dreamy (one eye more closed than the other), shoulders bare, an Oriental cloth or carpet heavily veiling her absent bodice, Irene lies on pelts, one visibly that of a tiger, as if she were a bacchante. Her charming and voluminous white cotton skirt, however, and the clean white short socks and black "Baby Janes" that trim her schoolgirl legs, confront all of the picture's Orientalism, marking her image as taboo and thereby threatening its eroticism.
The juxtaposition of temptress and innocent is nothing new, as Mavor says later in this passage, except that Irene's own awkward signature is fixed to the picture, as if to remind us that she is a child, sprawl subsumed by scrawl.
The hair of Carroll's girl-subjects is also an important feature of the photographs. Women's hair, fetishized to the extent that some cultures demand that women cover it at all times because of its erotic attraction, was hardly free from constraint in the Victorian period. Because only little girls could wear their locks long and loose, it seems there is a bit more meaning than meets the eye in another portrait of Irene McDonald brushing her hair tenderly, entitled "It Won't Come Smooth."
Carroll's photographs could be viewed finally as a mirror, for the erotic content with which we and possibly Carroll invest them is reflected back to us by the children themselves. It has always made people squeamish to think that innocence and the presence of sexuality--which we characterize by adult guile and wiles--can coexist. So we neuter children. And in this exhibit, the accompanying narrative and the scope of Carroll's work exhibited--portraits of his family, his home, as well as examples of his mathematical works--seem to neuter him. But then there are the photographs again, beautiful, fixed and alive though the children are grown and dead, thus adding to their poignancy, provocative, still more evidence.