“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Grumpy Mr Dumpty was right, unfortunately. Take the word “paedophilia”. All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men couldn’t put it back together again in its earlier queen’s English usage as a relatively objective medical term for sexual attraction to children. Admittedly, the man who first used the term paedophilia erotica*, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, was blatantly moralistic in denouncing the “unmanly, knavish and often silly” expression of such feelings; but a century or so would pass before we learned which was to be the master meaning, and who would make it so, when tabloid interpretation brutally bound the word hand and foot to sadism and murder, ruthlessly gagging gentler understandings, choking them off.

So, when I heard Andrew Marr presenting BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week discussion on Lewis Carroll and the Story of Alice on Monday, I was not surprised to hear him say that Alice in Wonderland and its later companion volume Through the Looking-Glass (from whence comes the Humpty Dumpty passage above) are “meant to be playful and to make you laugh, which is one of the answers to the whole paedophilia worry: something so playful, so funny, is unlikely to be that sinister”.

Paedophilia in this construction is sinister. The logic then proceeds thus: playfulness is not sinister; Carroll is playful; therefore Carroll is not sinister – and cannot be a paedophile. I have cheated a bit: Marr said the sinister side was unlikely rather than impossible, but it is clear he wants to exonerate Carroll from the more defamatory connotations of the P word.

Quite right too.

Not that Marr or his guests were in denial over Carroll’s sexual attraction to little girls, in what turned out to be a rather good programme to mark the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland’s publication in 1865. Gillian Beer, who has edited Carroll’s nonsense poems and will be bringing out a volume on the Alice books later this year, spoke with exquisitely tactful precision. Speaking with Alice Liddell in mind, the real little girl who inspired the wonderland books, she said:

“I think that the figure of Alice in Alice in Wonderland is a part answer to any suggestion of damage to the children… she is so appreciated as a lively, imaginative curious, independent young girl and she is treated with such respect, as it were, by the book; yes, she is teased, yes, she is worsted, but she is absolutely…

Marr interrupts: “But she isn’t objectified?”

…no, never. It’s always told, indeed, from within her, so that it’s her sensibility we’re sharing, and it’s her sense of terror, sometimes that is informing everything we read there.”

Beer is in effect confirming points raised elsewhere in the programme: Carroll was in love with Alice and probably got into trouble with her mother for being overly affectionate towards the child; but this essentially paedophilic behaviour was not a source of damage.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, whose book The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland has just been published, was also a Marr guest. His book, one reviewer notes, draws attention to Carroll’s having written “A girl of about 12 is my ideal beauty of form.” Also, asked if children ever bored him, he replied: “They are three-fourths of my life.”

Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford mathematics don. The picture that emerges from Douglas-Fairhurst’s book, according to a review in the Observer, is that he photographed Alice Liddell “obsessively” and was “evidently in love” with her. Alice was born in 1852. Already, from 1858 to 1862, “Dodgson’s peculiar intimacy with Miss Liddell had become the subject of intense Oxford gossip, with suggestions that the strange young Christ Church don had even proposed marriage and been rebuffed by the girl’s parents”.

The marriage proposal sounds like the Victorians’ idea of a joke; but the mere fact that there was intense gossip about the relationship refutes the modern deniers’ claim that Dodgson’s “sentimental” or “paternal” attachment to Alice was considered unremarkable in its day. Most Victorian gentlemen did not hang out with prepubescent girls; nor did they – as Dodgson did – remain lifelong bachelors. There were other girls, too, who at various times in his life occupied a special place in Mr Dodgson’s affections, to whom he wrote copious letters and whom he photographed extensively, sometimes in nude poses – photos which, as Marr’s programme noted, could not be used in Douglas-Fairhurst’s book for fear they might now fall foul of the law.

The letters, the photos and much else have long been the subject of biographic attention, perhaps most assiduously in the case of Morton N. Cohen’s 1995 book Lewis Carroll: A Biography. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement in 2004 (“When love was young”, TLS, 10 September 2004) Cohen took issue with a “revisionist” voice, that of Karoline Leach, one of a growing band of writers who seek to rescue the author of Alice from the taint of paedophilia by contriving desperately improbable alternative narratives. Dodgson was no dodgy don, she insists: he was in love not with Alice but with her governess, a Miss Mary Prickett.

I will not waste time on this absurdity, except to say that Cohen’s demolition is strong.

His critique of Edward Wakeling, a far more substantial Dodgson scholar, is also devastating in my view. Wakeling, a Dodgson devotee for decades and a past Chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, certainly knows his stuff and indeed has presented a lot of it on a website, including a database of the great man’s surviving letters and photos. I am assured by a Lewis Carroll Society insider who knows Wakeling personally that he is privately willing to admit Dodgson’s interest in girls had its erotic side. But it seems he feels duty-bound to protect the man’s reputation in public. As with Marr and his guests, that is a good thing if one wishes to insist upon him having been kind and considerate, rather than callously abusive; but, in Cohen’s opinion and mine, he goes much too far in trying to explain inconvenient facts away when these have a direct bearing on Dodgson’s sexual desires and even his behaviour.

In the same TLS article in which he took Leach apart, Cohen also tackled Wakeling. As the editor at that time of the latest and fullest version of Dodgson’s diaries, Wakeling had suggested that Dodgson’s interest in girls had been merely paternal. If so, why was there a falling out between the Liddell family and Dodgson in June 1863? Pages from his diary for this period, which might have explained the matter, were cut out and never recovered. Wakeling plays the rift down as unimportant, saying it lasted only “a few weeks”; but Cohen shows this “few weeks” lasted from 27 June to 19 December, almost half a year (25 weeks) when Dodgson was unable to see his beloved Alice, or her sisters.

Cohen also points out that in addition to this blatant minimisation, Wakeling ignored an important letter that Lorina, Alice’s older sister, sent to Alice in 1930 when they were both elderly. Lorina was reporting a meeting with an early Dodgson biographer, Florence Becker Lennon. Lorina wrote:

“I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it, and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again – as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing…Mr D. used to take you on his knee…I did not say that.”

By this time Alice would have been 11. Girls typically did not reach menarche in those days until around 14 to 17 – much later than now. So in all probability she was still physically very much a child. On the other hand, the age of consent in those days was 12. Small wonder Mrs Liddell was vigilant, given that Alice, child or not, would soon be “legal”! Having said this, though, it may be that the rift was caused by Mrs Liddell finding out that Dodgson was becoming too close to Lorina as well, an intimacy we shall see hinted at below.

However that may be, Cohen’s revelations have done little to stem the public demand for an innocent Dodgson, along with our ever more strident insistence upon childhood innocence. And Wakeling has proved ever the man to supply that demand in a plausible, but to my mind deliberately misleading, manner. For the 150th anniversary, he has come up with a book called Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle, which looks at the writer through his social circle, which included royalty, musicians, publishers and artists. Yes, as he points out, Dodgson was a sophisticated character at ease in adult company; he was not an oddball loner, as some have suggested, who could relate only to children.

But so what? Wakeling implies that such sophistication was incompatible with paedophilia, which is simply false. It wouldn’t play too well as an excuse in a modern criminal court, would it?

“It is true, Your Honour, that images of children depicted in, ahem, somewhat carnal disport, were found on my client’s computer; but he also did a lot of excellent still life photography, fruit arranged in bowls, that sort of thing. Clearly, he is a cultured individual whose motives are artistic, not prurient…”

As for Wakeling’s elaborate charts of Dodgson’s letters and photographs, they appear designed to downplay the child theme by generating a bigger context: there were a vast number of letters to adults (albeit many to parents of his child friends) as well as to children; around 60% of his known photos of individuals were of children, but that still leaves a chunky 40% that were of adult subjects, and he did landscapes, etc., as well. What this ignores is the missing diary pages (whole volumes of his diaries are missing too), plus Dodgson’s letters to Alice Liddell, burnt by her mother, and a great many letters and photos destroyed or lost (only about 1,000 photos remain out of 3,000 he is known to have taken), probably by Dodgson’s heirs and possibly even by an early biographer: an obvious reason for disposing of such material would have been its embarrassing or even incriminating nature.

Wakeling’s technique seems to be to throw up a smoke screen of genuinely well researched scholarly detail in the hope that readers will be too impressed to notice its irrelevance. If Dodgson were on trial today over his “indecent” photos, Wakeling’s style of defence would cut no ice with the judge, as noted above; the jury wouldn’t buy it either.

But his actual jury is far more generous: his jurors are all the Alice fans out there, millions of them around the globe, many of them desperate to believe in Dodgson’s innocence and keen to read books in which it is asserted. I found myself among a hundred or more last week when Wakeling spoke to the Oxford Literary Festival about his new book, along with Vanessa Tait, grand daughter of Alice Liddell, no less, who was talking about her forthcoming Alice-themed novel The Looking-Glass House.

The event was held in the 15th century Divinity School beneath Oxford University’s ancient Bodleian Library, a magnificently ornate and august setting right in the very heart of Dodgson City, as it were. Not wanting to be run out of town by angry Carolingians (the noun being from Charles Dodgson, not from Lewis Carroll), I thought it best not to be too blunt when I asked a question from the floor. With an air of perhaps not entirely convincing innocence, I mildly pointed out that Dodgson had once written ”I’m fond of children (except boys)”. Would the speakers care to comment?

Up to that point I sensed a certain anxiety on the platform. Presenter Alastair Niven, a literary critic, invited questions afterwards from anyone who might “dare” to ask them. When I asked mine, Wakeling’s eyes positively sparkled with what may have been delight but I suspect it was relief, along the lines, “Oh, good, I can handle this one without things getting nasty”.

His answer was blandly reassuring: just Dodgson’s dry humour; friendly towards boys too; took about 100 photos of them; boys were usually at school when he went calling; girls in those days stayed at home, so he saw more of them. Ergo, Dodgson not dodgy. Simple!

But Vanessa Tait, who distinctly resembles her famous forebear Alice Liddell, was by no means as simplistic in her own response, and turned out to be distinctly at odds with Wakeling when someone asked what the pair of them thought of the BBC’s 150th anniversary documentary, aired in January and titled The Secret World of Lewis Carroll. Whereas Wakeling professed himself outraged by the programme, Tait seemed quite happy with it.

Presented by current affairs broadcaster Martha Kearney, the documentary was to a great extent a fan piece, actually. As a child, Kearney tells us, she took the role of Alice in a stage production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass in the village where she grew up. She loved the Alice books at that time and has been a Carroll devotee ever since.

Unlike Wakeling, though, she seemed keen to explore the truth about Dodgson’s desires. For her, this turned out to mean confronting a photo she said no respectable Victorian mother would have approved of. A nude photo of a little girl might have been acceptable in those days, but not one of a sexually maturing 14-year-old. Just such a photo, labelled “Lorina Liddell” on the back and attributed to “L. Carroll”, was discovered by the programme makers in a museum in far-off Marseilles. The overall conclusion, drawing on experts in photography and face identification, was that it was probably authentic.

Wakeling, who had long known about this photo, was having none of it. The experts’ opinions proved nothing, he insisted. His ire, though, was chiefly directed at the programme makers for failing to ask his own opinion, as though that would have settled the matter! However, when he had the opportunity in Oxford to do just that, he said nothing that I found even remotely persuasive. He did not even mention the inscription, much less refute its authenticity! His silence on this crucial evidence suggested to me he had nothing meaningful to say about the meaning of this photograph. All we learned was that he gets rather cross when anyone disputes his self-proclaimed magisterial authority!

A bit like Humpty Dumpty in fact: the photo means just what he chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. It’s all about which – or who – is to be the master.

*In the first version of this blog I wrongly said he introduced the term in 1886. That was when the first edition of his book Psychopathia Sexualis appeared. However, the term paedophilia erotica did not appear until the 12th edition, in 1912. I should have remembered my blog of 15 November last year in which this was mentioned. The term was included in the “Psychopathological Cases” section of Chapter Five, on sexual crimes. Oops, still not right! As Filip has kindly pointed out, in the comments below, there appears to have been at least a very brief mention of the term in the 10th edition, published in 1898.

PROUD TO BE A PAEDOPHILE

The GlobalPost, an online news outfit based in Boston, Mass., but not owned by the Boston Globe newspaper group, ran two big articles last month arising from the “sex abuse crisis” in Britain. They were filed by Corinne Purtill, an American reporter who is GlobalPost’s correspondent based in London. The more general article of the two adopts an uncritical approach, in which the events in Britain are viewed as a real crisis over actual “abuse”, rather than a moral panic over alleged abuse.

The other article is based on a phone interview with me. My initial response was that it is as bad as the general piece, mainly because it quotes me out of context: what I said was backed up by references to research, such as the work of Rind, Clancy and others; but these supporting authorities are deleted, so I probably come across as an obsessive crank. However, a number of other people have said they thought this article was quite good.

You can see for yourself, and make up your own mind:

The child sex abuse scandals engulfing Britain“:

And:

This man is a pedophile, and proud of it