Oxford and Lewis Carroll

Oxford and Lewis Carroll
Photo: Seth Lazar

Oxford, the “city of dreaming spires” can lay claim to most of the great writers of English fantasy literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Dr. Seuss (American of course - did you know he went there?), but also Oscar Wilde and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), who couldn’t resist a little embellishment. But the greatest of them all was Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has been condemned as a pedophile or a eunuch, indecently obsessed with young girls like Alice, and taking photos of them from 1856 onwards. These charges belong really in the eyes of the beholders and they have been properly discredited elsewhere. Two good books on the subject are Will Brooker's Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture and Jenny Woolf's The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.

What impresses me most about Carroll, besides his brilliant writing, is his ability to enter the world of a child, which is no easy thing. This is something his constipated critics seem completely unable to do. No play-acting for them! More here... Virginia Woolf got it right when she wrote: "the two Alices are not books for children; they are the only books in which we become children."


The girl in the photo above is Irene MacDonald, daughter of the writer George MacDonald, in 1863. It was the MacDonalds who urged Carroll to publish Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which appeared in 1865. The book’s settings may be imaginary, but it does seem that they got their start in stories told by Carroll to the Liddell children on picnics and boat trips on the Thames around Oxford, between Godstow to the north and Nuneham Courtenay to the south. Agatha Christie, by the way, is buried a little further south in Cholsey.

Below is a photo of Carroll, also from 1863 and below that is one of the naked photos that drives his critics up the wall. It is one of a series of 4 from 1879 and this one shows Evelyn Hatch.