Both the Freudian psychopathology paradigm and the later ‘flawed hero’ perspective implicate Dodgson in a sphere of communicative ineptitude with adult reality. They propose his infamous stammer as microcosmic of this interpersonal ungainliness (It was allegedly disabling when in contact with adults and unnoticeable in the presence of children). Is it really plausible to believe either the Freudians or Rolphie and Thomas’ approach in their entirety? Are we to suppose that this accounts for the whole story, that Dodgson was either a dangerously repressed, emotional and psychological predator of young girls or that he was righteously ascetic in his abstinence from a malevolent complex of illicit sexual desires? Not necessarily according to the research of Karoline Leach. She emphasises the need for a complete overhaul in Carrollian studies. She argues that the aura of deviancy that exists around Dodgson is built on nothing more than myth and fantasy. That his notion of beauty was neither unconventional nor illicit when contextualised within Victorian aesthetic orthodoxy. Leach argues that Carroll’s preoccupation with young girls reflected not only the apex of artistic endeavour for Victorian society, but also the zenith of piety. She proposed that the image of the child represented an incorruptible virtuousness, and that if we wish to taint Carroll with the shade of paedophilia, then we have to also implicate an entire cultural and historical paradigm that included the likes of John Ruskin and a whole host of fashionable artists painting child nudes for the gratification of the Victorian aristocracy. The ostensible manifestations of indecency observed in Dodgson’s photographs of scantily clad children by a twentieth century audience, simply were not present in Victorian England. Leach argues that ‘Lewis Carroll quickly came to mean that age of innocence that human beings perpetually believe to have just come to an end’. A society that imbued him with untouchable piety, also suffered from the syndrome of rose tinted spectacles. Lewis Carroll represented therefore a powerful myth that was centred in the aspirations of humanity to believe in an innocence that is absent from modern society. This was a myth nonetheless. A myth, Leach believes, perpetuated by the various manipulations of the legend by Dodgson himself (the inventor of Carroll), a deep and profound familial reticence on the subject of the real Dodgson and by the failure of subsequent researchers to present a sufficient challenge to the dominant paradigm governing the man and his work. It is much easier and more self-serving in the vacuous space opened up by the silence and secrecy
surrounding Carroll, to tint the myth with the colours of one’s imagination. This porous historicism is revealed in Leach’s study, as are various underlying details that provide motivation for certain parties to perpetuate the legend over the facts. For instance Dodgson’s family had, according to Leach, ample reason to be suspicious of his supposed communicative incompetence with adults. What is left of his diary is full of allusive insinuations of sexual activity. Leach believes that Dodgson the man was tormented with desires for a debauched ideological liberty encapsulated in exactly the kind of promiscuity that would devastate his budding career. Consequently he invented Carroll; the dutiful recorder of children in all of the fawning adoration embodied by the Pre-Raphaelites. He escaped his own conception of sin by wearing the mask of Carroll, a mask that has been problematic for posterity to uncover. This is for reasons beyond the mere misplacement of documents claimed by the Dodgson family. Some of the diary entries are cut out at climactic moments, while an entire four years of his life (the time when his sense of sin seems to be at its most intense) are missing, succeeded by a more resolved, serenity pervading his life. What then, does it mean that the myth of Carroll has runaway with the historical headlines, whilst Dodgson has skulked away into the soundless vacuum of time? What is Dodgson in this elusive game of literary ‘call my bluff’? A man with inadequate sexual functioning fixated in a childhood realm of mystery and imagination? A man for whom the surreptitious attraction of the child was countered at the cost of his happiness by an impressively responsible sense of morality? Or a man who sank into the persona of Carroll with the aid of his family and friends and the ineffectiveness of his biographers, to escape his own sinful desires that were completely apart from his aesthetic preoccupation with children? Whatever the truth is, it is the very indeterminacies that we seek to overcome that provide the beauty for us. He has an ephemeral existence, that when approached with the sharpest tools of historical and scientific enquiry simply grins and vanishes like the Cheshire cat of his fable. The ensuing vacuity is then loaded with whatever leaps of faith, or necessary psychological conjectures, the historian or reader requires to re-animate the legend. For Beauty is simply the sum of our imagination reflected back to us through what we deem pleasurable. It can only ever exist for us, on our own terms and with reference to our own fears, dreams and desires.
Published on Aug 21, 2009