Golden afternoons: Lewis Carroll and his muse

The origins of Alice in Wonderland.

When I started writing After Such Kindness, it didn’t initially occur to me that I had chosen yet another Victorian literary giant on whom to pin a novel. In my mind, there was very little similarity between Charles Dickens and Charles Dodgson except for the sound of their names; and while I loved Dickens, I couldn’t say quite the same about Dodgson or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. What interested me this time was the nature of the relationship between the writer and his child-muse, Alice Liddell, and how that might illuminate our views on the innocence or otherwise of an intimate friendship between an adult man and a child.

No one knows the real story of what happened during those "golden afternoons" when Dodgson was an intimate of the Liddell household. There has been conjecture, of course - inspired by the fact that the young man became, quite suddenly, a persona non grata with Mrs Liddell and that (possibly incriminating) pages are missing from his diary around that time. The estrangement was not necessarily to do with Alice – but the sudden rupture of a relationship in which Dodgson had been frequently entrusted with the care and entertainment of the Liddell girls has given rise to the idea that he must have done something seriously inappropriate, possibly of a sexual nature. This speculation has been given credibility because of Dodgson’s life-long obsession with little girls (his "child-friends") and his habit of photographing some of them in scanty dress, or even unclothed.

The whole scenario intrigued me as a writer and as a former social worker. How did the child see the relationship? How did her family? What of Dodgson himself? Was his interest innocent – or prurient? How would he be regarded today if he behaved in the same way - a single man who corresponded with many children and took nude photographs of some of them? A man who kept about his person a variety of toys and puzzles to attract the attention of children whom he might meet in railway carriages or public parks and who made it his business to discover the addresses of those whose looks or manners attracted him? A man who made friends with their mothers so he could get to know the children? A man who took them out on solitary expeditions, and even on holiday?  He would almost certainly be classed as a "risky adult" – maybe a stalker; maybe an internet chatroom seducer; maybe a child pornographer; maybe a rather creepy "friend of the family" - and not allowed anywhere near children. I’d certainly want an eye kept on him if he lived down the road from me.

But like so many things in life, I dare say the truth is infinitely complicated, and it is this that I wanted to explore. Was everything as benign and harmless as Dodgson represented it?  Does it matter if he got some sort of sexual satisfaction from his child-friendships if, as it has been said, the children were unharmed? Or were they harmed? Paedophilia as now defined as the use (in any form) of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult, so Dodgson the photographer and possible voyeur comes well within this definition. And although his child-friends rallied in his defence, children may have all sorts of reasons for denying (or blanking out) abuse, and adults can be wilfully blind to things they don’t want to contemplate, especially where respectable people (like priests and clergymen) are involved. And damage can run very deep and last for years.

I try to explore all these ideas by taking the story well beyond 1862, and adding a number of fictional twists, arising from Carrollian notions of dreams, madness and the whole question of identity, as well as the confusions of sexual awakening. But although Alice in Wonderland is the inspiration and theme, I have written my own version of events and my own imaginative extension of the story, in which the historical personages have a role, but not a defining one. Daisy Baxter is a fictional child who grows up to discover the truth behind the "kindness" she was once shown.

Gaynor Arnold's "After Such Kindness" is published on 5 July by Tindal Street Press (£12.99)

Photographs taken by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (Credit: Getty Images)
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.