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)
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism