Photo History: Charles Dodgson, Alice, and the 19th Century

It’s a funny one, this. By the time anyone has read this particular post, my inaugural blog post (!) I think the statute of limitations on relevance may well have passed, but no matter.

This weekend just passed, I watched the first episode of series 6 of Endeavour. If you don’t know it, first of all, shame on you, and second, it describes the nascent years of Morse’s career. In this episode, titled Pylon, the B-plot attacks with gentle and understated vigour the terrible issue of older men who take advantage of little girls.

The photographs look innocent enough at first glance, but it turns out that the owner of these images has been abusing the trust of young girls and passing off his own photographs of them as vintage prints (Morse correctly identifies them as ‘inauthentic’ – I’ll do a post on the difference between authenticity and originality), which is how the perspicacious Endeavour captures the culprit.

So, in this first ever episode of The Frailest Gesture I want to talk about Charles Dodgson, or the man who photographed little girls.

Why Charles Dodgson?

Well, not all is as it seems; certainly this applied in the case of the above story, but I’d like to take it further; into the world of Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell, and a series of scholarship so divergent that it would be unusual if I didn’t address it. In simple terms, this is essentially the tale of the Victorian Marmite Man: he was either a predator, or he was not, according to the scholars you read.

A lot of the content here derives from notes I made whilst researching an MA paper on the scholarship surrounding Lewis Carroll a.k.a Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, which I’ve adapted in places, and enhanced with a little more socio-historical context. It’s a well-watered plant of a subject (the taboo topics usually are, it seems) but this way allows me to anchor the topic directly to something contemporary and yet not quite so.

So, Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He, of Alice in Wonderland fame. Dodgson was a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford, when he took up photography, in 1856, at the young age of 24. The preceding year, 1855, Henry Liddell, the new dean, came to the college with his family, including wife, Lorina, son, Harry, and daughters, Alice and Edith.

Douglas Nickel suggests that the Liddells were socially ambitious and progressive, and mentions that during a visit with Reginald Southey where they managed to take a likeness of the young Harry, the children were apparently on ‘standing offer’ for Dodgson to photograph, when his own equipment had arrived (he had been using Southey’s equipment and collodion). [1]

Morton Cohen also notes Dodgson’s own artistic inclinations from his journal; ‘I am ready to begin the art.’ [2] Harry was 9, and Dodgson took him under his wing, shortly after which he befriended the girls, too, with the blessing of their parents. It was during a boating trip when Dodgson was charming the girls with a story he had invented, that Alice Liddell seized upon it and insisted he pen it…

Maturity and Adolescence in Victorian England

Before we delve into the photographic stuff, it’s important to talk a little about the issues pervading Victorian society, specifically, maturity and adolescence. Two figures in particular are important here: Christian campaigner Josephine Butler and newspaper editor William T. Stead.

Until 1875, the age of consent for girls was 12, which meant that above that age a girl had no protection from the law, and was effectively considered a woman. Butler saw this as an abdication of duty on the part of lawmakers, which left girls, particularly poor girls, vulnerable to predatory men. She campaigned against this slavery, which saw girls sold by their parents and held almost as prisoners by brother keepers, and in 1871, presented evidence to a Royal Commission of MPs, bishops and scientists appointed to investigate the issue of prostitution. Initially the commission recommended the age be increased to 14, but after four years of delay, it was raised by just one year, to 13.

The history continues along this track for a while, until it was taken up again in 1885. Butler had joined forces with W. T. Stead, to form a Secret Commission of the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead conceived of a plan to demonstrate how easily a young girl could be procured, and printed a dramatised account in his Gazette, under the headline, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. As the depths of this depravity was revealed, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was revived, and it passed in its Second Reading, meaning that the legal age of consent was raised to 16.

The point of mentioning this in detail is to highlight the fact that, with the pre-1885 age of consent, there was a blurry line between the point at which a child was still a child, and when they became an adult. And emotional and psychological maturity is not something that happens overnight, it’s accumulated or developed, and that doesn’t necessarily come with age. Scholars such as Carol Mavor consider the debates leading up to the Stead Act to be indicative of the confusion faced by a Victorian society trying to define ‘girlhood’. [3] So, knowing this, how do we read the photographs of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson?

Art photography and childhood

Well, it’s also crucial to mention that Victorians saw childhood as something full of grace. Dodgson was certainly not the first Victorian-era male photographer to make images of little children; Oscar Gustav Rejlander, the father of art photography, favoured narrative tableaux and sentimental genre studies, such as Non angli sed angeli (1857). He was a pioneer of combination printing; combining multiple  negatives to create one final image, such as the emphatic The Two Ways of Life (1857), an allegorical tableau commenting on the two paths one might choose in life, which involved over 30 separate negatives. Rejlander’s work was collected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and albums containing his albumen prints can be found in the Royal Collection. Jan Susina argues convincingly that Dodgson’s interest in nude photography derived directly from Rejlander, who is considered to be the only key photographer of the era to create allegorical photographs of nude children. [4]

An albumen print of Alice Liddell posing as the Beggar Maid by Charles Dodgson.
Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid”, 1858
Albumen print from glass negative
The Met Museum, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 [5]

The Beggar Maid

Dodgson’s most well-known photograph, The Beggar Maid (1858) has been the subject of much controversy over the years, with scholars claiming its sexual undertones and high-art aesthetic in tandem. The subject, of course, is little Alice Liddell. The criticism focusses a lot on Alice’s bare chest and cupped hand which, when viewed together (consider that a cupped hand could be used to hold money…) seem to suggest a sexuality that would be considered unwholesome today. The difficulty of looking at the photograph is emphasised by Susina’s belief that it can be located within the space of Victorian high art photography and the Victorian social context.

So, there are two interpretations available to us; one, is a reaction to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem in which King Cophetua falls in love with a beggar maid, and the other is in reference to Henry Mayhew’s publication London Labour and London Poor (1851-52) in which Mayhew remarked that female street children fell quickly into prostitution. [6] If you read The Beggar Maid through the lens of Tennyson’s poem, it has no less a dramatic implication; the African King Cophetua falls in love with the bare-footed maid, and in the poem she is praised for her ankles, eyes and dark hair, all of which has been used by scholars in reference to Dodgson’s photograph.

However, the alternative, which touches on beggar girl theme is more strongly linked to the Victorian high-art photographic tradition, the likes of which was being practiced by Rejlander. In Night in Town (ca. 1860) (also known as Poor Jo) Rejlander posed a young boy on steps to emulate the dejected posture of a young street-arab he had seen while walking back through the Haymarket at night. The posed child wears carefully ripped clothes and has a generally clean demeanour, which makes it possible for Mavor to argue that Dodgson simulated the class difference in his photograph of Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid.

The fact that both Dodgson and Rejlander posed children, models, rather than actual street-arabs suggests that in both cases the image is a fiction, rather than a document, although taking inspiration from life to make art is clear.  In this vein, it’s not a far leap to imagine that that these images fall within the realm of high-art photography and that we can contextualise Dodgson’s photograph by reading it alongside Rejlander’s.

Armstrong highlights Julia Margaret Cameron as the first of the 19th century photographers of children to imbue her images with erotics. Akin to Rejlander, Cameron created photographs of children, again in states of undress. Juliet Hacking underlines the presence of a maternal erotics in photographs such as those already mentioned. As far as Cameron is concerned, Hacking suggests that the photographs embody a maternal desire that was revealed by the presence of the signifiers of the photographic process itself (this refers to the cracks in the emulsion, elements that are so closely associated with Cameron’s practice). [7]

This ‘touch’ that is present in Cameron’s work is the presence of the human hand at work; a hand that leaves something desirable upon the surface of the bare photographic image. I suppose you could say it’s like a desire to touch the surface of the photograph, and thus the subject within it. 

A Desire To Touch

So, there was a market in Victorian upper-class society for photographs that showed partially undressed children. This attachment to photographs of nude or partially nude children is a legitimate and historically documented aesthetic preference that has very little to do with pornography. Victoria erotica is on a level of its own; there’s a distinguishable difference between that and Charles Dodgson’s photography.  Children are not sexual beings; Douglas Nickel posits that the diminutive physical characteristics of the childish body were indicative of a ‘presexual creature’, unlike other assertions, like Mavor’s, that children have a sexuality of which we are unaware. [8]

And it’s equally relevant to point out that parents of children were willing for Dodgson to photograph them. Morton Cohen remarks upon the relationship of trust between Dodgson and the parents, especially mothers. He highlights a letter from Dodgson to Mrs. Henderson, the mother of Annie and Frances, whom Dodgson photographed; Dodgson wrote, ‘I take it as a great compliment and privilege that you are willing to trust me with them so entirely.’ [9] In Florence Becker Lennon’s words, had he not been a ‘good and trustworthy friend’, the girls would not have remembered him with such joy. [10]

“There isn’t much companionship possible… between an old man’s mind and little child’s, but what there is is sweet-and wholesome, I think”

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson [11]

The Realm of Childhood Imagination

It’s worthwhile noting that Charles Dodgson was aware of the age difference between him and his child-friends. In a letter to Edith Rix he writes, ‘… there isn’t much companionship possible […] between an old man’s mind and little child’s, but what there is is sweet-and wholesome, I think.’ [12] Dodgson refers to his mind first, perhaps indicating the extent to which he predicated his friendships with children upon their capacity to understand him.

Interestingly, in the content preceding this comment, Dodgson talks about another child-friend, Phoebe, with whom he read the Bible, noting that, ‘I tried to remember that my little friend had a soul to be cared for, as well as a body.’ [13] Dodgson’s letters touching missives, such as one response to little Edith Rix in which he wrote, ‘May you treat me as a perfect friend, an write anything you like to me, and ask my advice? Why, of course you may, my child! What else am I good for? But oh, my dear child-friend, you cannot guess how such words sound to me! That any one should look up to me, or think of asking my advice-well it makes one feel humble.’ [14]

In Taylor’s opinion, Dodgson was aware of the immense pressures of adult responsibility placed on children. It seems as though children, middle or upper classes, were not entirely allowed free reign as their lifestyle was very much governed by maternal restrictions. Gorham points out that middle-class mothers were encouraged to maintain orderliness and attention to detail in raising their child. [15] It makes sense, therefore, that a middle class childhood was dedicated to instilling virtues and traits that were expected of adults. So, Taylor’s argument then is that Dodgson’s interest in these young children came from a place of sympathy, and a desire to create for them a means by which to escape a world governed by societal restrictions.

Robson suggests that images of children represented the best possible way for adults to reconnect with their own lost childhood, the ‘imaginary pasts’ [16]. A girl, by dint of her biological difference from a boy represented ‘the safe, feminised, time of the nursery from which he has been irrevocably banished.’ [17] We might see that Dodgson created a tiny space for children to be children. Taylor suggests that Dodgson understood children’s capacity for inventiveness and creativity in play [18] which suggests even further that he allowed himself to be inspired by it. So, Dodgson’s photographs draw us into the realm of childhood imagination.  

“Gone the sparkle, gone the joy”

Morton Cohen [19]

The Magic of Youth

But, Dodgson also demonstrated disdain for his former child-friends who grew up, were engaged and married. As Morton Cohen points out from his letters, as he aged, so his preference for child-friends aged with him. In the 1850s and 1860s, it seems as though he viewed 10 years or so to be the best age for his child-friends; in 1877, he wrote that his views on the ‘nicest age’ for friends had changed, and was now at 17; twenty years later that age had increased to 20 or 25.

However, in a letter to Kathleen Eschwege of 1892, Dodgson writes to congratulate her upon her engagement, but in the same letter remarks that he had been, ‘in the course of three months, to the weddings of three of my old child-friends. But weddings are not very exhilarating scenes for a miserable old bachelor; and I think you’ll have to excuse me from attending yours.’ [20]

Upon the question of age difference, Taylor astutely notes that by the time Charles Dodgson saw Alice in 1870, the magic of youth and innocence of childhood has evaporated.  On this point, Cohen agreed, highlighting the loss of youth to the responsibility of adulthood; ‘Gone the sparkle, gone the joy.’ [21] Indeed, this portrait of Alice Liddell from June 25, 1870 has none of the boldness that seemed to emanate from her youthful gaze. Here, her manner is subdued. Put simply, she has grown up. Well past childhood now, she is a young lady, and that fragility of childhood innocence has disappeared, to be replaced by an overwhelming burden of adult responsibility.

The Last Sitting, June 25, 1870
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Met Museum, Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak, 2012 [22]

Do Centipedes Have Fingers?

An affectionate correspondence with Kathleen Eschwege demonstrates Dodgson’s playful humour. He wrote to her, ‘Well, so I hope I may now count you as one of my child-friends. I am fond of children (except boys), and have more child-friends than I could possibly count on my fingers, even if I were a centipede (by the way, have they fingers?…)’ [23] To my mind, this always sounded like a gentle-man humouring a child; the way Dodgson exempts boys from his child-friends when writing to a little girl speaks of that funny divide between young boys and girls that lasts until around puberty, when things change and boys don’t find girls quite as weird.

Charles Dodgson, The Man Who Loved Little Children

Stuart Collingwood wrote, ‘He well deserved the name which one of his admirers gave him – the man who loved little children.’ [20] But, for me, there is no subtext to this remark. I see Charles Dodgson’s imagery as emblematic of the time in which he, and his contemporaries, Rejlander and Cameron, photographed. As I hope I’ve shown, the Victorian sensibility was far removed from what we experience today. It’s only the modern anxieties that tell us something is wrong in the relationship between an older man and a younger girl (I use relationship in the sense of a friendship being a relationship between two people, it isn’t always romantic).


It’s a sad truth that Charles Dodgson has been the recipient of far more vitriolic commentary than either of his contemporaries, Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Gustave Rejlander, both of whose photographs of young children in the nude are now firmly lodged in the canon of Victorian high art photography. There’s a sad and impressive double standard directed at the photographs created by Charles Dodgson, which is made all the more dramatic by the rapid judgements to which people jump.

We have to be capable of counter-intuitive thinking, and we must be aware of the socio-historical context of the Victorian era. If we always judge something based on our surroundings, how could we ever conceive of appreciating anything from outside our own time…?


  1. Douglas Nickel, Dreaming in Pictures: the Photography of Lewis Carroll, (London: Yale University Press, 2002) p. 16.
  2. Journal Vol 2, 1856
  3. Carol Mavor, “Dream Rushes: Lewis Carroll’s Photographs of Little Girls,” in Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (London: Tauris & Co., 1995) p. 19.
  4. Jan Susina, The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature (London: Routledge, 2010).
  5. Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid”, 1858, Albumen print from glass negative: The Met Museum, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005: [last accessed July 23, 2020]
  6. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: a selected edition, ed. Douglas Fairhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  7. Juliet Hacking, “Mrs Holford’s Daughter,” in Understanding Art Objects: Through the Eye, Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2009 .
  8. Nickel, Dreaming in Pictures, p. 66.
  9. Morton Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (London: Papermac, 1996) p. 170.
  10. Florence Becker Lennon, The Life of Lewis Carroll (London: Cassell & Co., 1947) p. 250.
  11. Stuart Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898) p. 413.
  12. Ibid, p. 413.
  13. Ibid, p. 412
  14. Ibid., p. 412.
  15. Gorham, p. 68 (and I lamely still can’t find the actual reference argh!)
  16. Catherine Robson, “Lewis Carroll and the Little Girl,” in Men in Wonderland: the lost girlhood of the Victorian gentleman, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) p. 136.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Roger Taylor, “All in the Golden Afternoon: the Photographs of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson,” in Lewis Carroll, Photographer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) p. 56.
  19. Morton Cohen, Lewis Carroll and the Kitchins (New York: Lewis Carroll Society of North America, 1980) p. 214.
  20. Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, p. 417
  21. Cohen, Lewis Carroll and the Kitchins, p. 214.
  22. Charles Dodgson, The Last Sitting, June 25, 1870, Albumen Silver Print from Glass negative, Maurice B. Sendak Bequest at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: [last accessed July 23, 2020]
  23. Collingwood, p. 416.
  24. Ibid, p. 192.
  25. Cover image source:

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