Can We Love Lewis Carroll in a Post-#MeToo World?

Pop Culture

Can We Love Lewis Carroll in a Post-#MeToo World?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The list of books that both children and adults can fully enjoy is pretty thin, and there are few better examples than Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (published on this day in 1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Even as a child, though, the titular Alice was never my favourite character. (That honour is reserved for the Cheshire Cat.) As everything spins madly around her, Alice is a visitor from our mundane realm, helplessly buffeted by the wild winds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass.

Alice in Wonderland drinks from the bottle that says “Drink Me” and eats the cake that says “Eat Me”. In Through the Looking-Glass, she is dragged into a game of chess and ends up becoming a Queen entirely by accident. Naturally, there is no power or consequence that comes with this title.

As I grew older, I became more charitable towards Alice, a child thrust into a ludicrous dream, realising that the way she was written was not her fault. That blame lies with Lewis Carroll – a man whose views on little girls in general, and on Alice in particular, were eccentric at best and predatory at worst.

Carroll imagined the story for a real-life Alice. Alice Pleasance Liddell was the 10-year-old daughter of Carroll’s friend, an Oxford dean, who was regaled with his tales of Wonderland on a picnic. It was she who requested Carroll to write them down. Carroll himself was actually Rev. Charles Dodgson, a brilliant logician and mathematician, as well as a deacon, writer, and photographer. His subjects were mostly children, especially young girls like Alice Liddell – in the nude.

Looking back at 1865 through our modern lens of suspicion, Dodgson’s fascination with young girls takes on a sinister tinge. Some historians suggest that the abrupt end to his relationship with the Liddells was due to Dodgson wanting to marry Alice, then 11.

Then there’s the story Carroll dreamed up, where a young girl is dropped into a confusion of logical twists and deliciously complex wordplay that she never understands; a land of arbitrary violence and French puns. It is this veneer of nonsense over a meticulously ordered structure that makes Alice such a delightful repeat read, with more to discover each time, and that places Alice entirely out of her depth. It’s a peculiar choice for a children’s book – one that makes you wonder if Alice is a children’s book at all.

Is Carroll’s beloved fantasy series actually Dodgson’s attempt to play the Pied Piper, encouraging a young, impressionable Alice Liddell to believe in six impossible things before breakfast? Is he a man whose interests, however distasteful, were not stigmatised in his time? Was he just an avuncular genius trying fondly to entertain a child, or making a didactic comment on the nature of life as a religious intellectual?

Of course, any possibility is coloured by what has unfolded in the last one year. It is now impossible to not view Alice through the post #MeToo lens.   

Like many others, the list of TV shows, movies, and other media that I can wholly enjoy following the #MeToo revelations is alarmingly shortening by the minute. It is important for us to re-evaluate the art we consume based on what we know about the artist. So it’s harder now to view Kevin Spacey’s too-casual callousness in House of Cards (or The Usual Suspects, or American Beauty) as merely good acting. Or to disassociate Woody Allen’s obsession with older men romancing ingénues from his real-life paedophilia scandal.

So radically has #MeToo changed our perspective, that even going back a few years feels like glancing into a different time, when the permissive mores of a bygone era allowed a climate of harassment to flourish.

Is Carroll’s beloved fantasy series actually Dodgson’s attempt to play the Pied Piper, encouraging a young, impressionable Alice Liddell to believe in six impossible things before breakfast?

Many have argued that Carroll’s nude girls were, in the Victorian era, seen as a symbol of purity, and parents would consent to their daughters being photographed. In an age of star kids, true crime, and Toddlers and Tiaras, we’re used to kids being sexualised and preyed upon. Perhaps Alice herself is meant to be the innocent that represents us all, stumbling blindly against forces unseen and rules unknown.

Or maybe that’s just my way of holding onto my decades-long love of Alice in an endlessly problematic, post-#MeToo world.