Lewis Carroll’s photographs of pre-pubescent girls caused a flutter in the 19th c. conservative Victorian world. Amongst contemporaries like Julia Margaret Cameron and O. Rejilder, Carroll was revered as an adept at the art of photographing children. Carroll’s studio at Oxford became his secret chamber wherein he developed the negatives often in the presence of children. He used girls primarily as models for they possessed purity and an “innocent unconsciousness” that gave him a feeling of “reverence”. His spontaneous adoration of little girls won him scorn of writers like Vladimir Nobokov (Russian translator of Alice in Wonderland, author of Lolita) who accused Carroll of pedophilia or “nympholepsy”. Culturally and aesthetically, Victorians seemed a generation fixated on little girls. Childhood itself was often conceptualized as feminine and the Victorian Nursery was a place common to both boys and girls. However, when boys grew up they viewed the nursery as a maternal, feminine space wherein they had left behind a sisterly self. The sense of nostalgia caused a yearning to integrate with the ‘other’ making most Victorian men to seek girls as psychological alter egos. Visual artists like Millais declared that the most beautiful thing in the world is the face of little girl before puberty. The romantic child inspired by Rosseau and Wordsworth was seen primarily as feminine. Carroll evokes similar image of the dream child in the Alice books. In Through the Looking Glass he refers to the ‘child of unclouded brow’ who has ‘dreaming eyes of wonder’. His photographs of Alice Liddell and Beatrice Henley allegorize ideas of angelic innocence and depict them as trailing clouds of glory. Alice’s photographs as a Flower child, in the Garden and brooding on a chair aestheticize pure feminine form and uncorrupted virginity. In photographs of Beatrice Henley, Carroll evokes images of Dante’s Beatrice, his verses dedicated to Henley read thus: “In her eyes is the living light/Of a wanderer to earth…” In photograph of Alice Liddell as a beggar maid he depicts other dimensions of childhood/girlhood.
In this photograph Alice seems uppity, cocking a snook at social conventions, meeting the eye of the viewer, hips thrust out arms akimbo. She seems to challenge notions of Victorian propriety and angelic innocence. Though her hand is outstretched begging for alms, her eyes betray a certain resistance and fire making her seem threatening and aggressive. The figure of the girl is problematized as she is viewed simultaneously as passive/active, an object of desire and fear. It will be dismissive to view this photograph as merely a voyeur’s delight as Carroll seems to reverse the ‘gaze’ as Alice returns the gaze of the viewer. In the Through the Looking Glass, Alice is constantly interrogated about her identity, “The lion looked at Alice wearily, “Are you animal-or vegetable –or mineral?” The sheep asks her, “Are you a child or a teetotum?” Later, Haigha says, “This is a child!..It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!” Carroll’s photograph entitled Little Red Riding Hood has Agnes Weld imitating a literary character. The little girl is in the centre of the photograph, dressed up like Red Riding Hood, holding a dainty basket with ribbons in her hair. However, unlike the fairy tale Carroll gives a twist to the photograph by having a model like Agnes who looks bewitching, large eyed (suggestive of potential threat than fear) almost challenging the wolf to attack! Though Carroll was accused of using artificial props, stilted settings and jaded themes by a majority of critics, his photographs need to be looked afresh for their hidden radicalism. He shows girls sans halos, little wings and totally angelic.