Dreaming in Pictures presents a different selection of Dodgson’s work, and includes valuable, sharp new insights about his technique, introduction to photography, and what it meant to him. More importantly, perhaps, Nickel tackles the thornier issues surrounding the work: the gossip, the rumors of perversion and transgression, and the many books that neatly cast Dodgson into a Freudian template. Almost without fail, these speculative diagnoses trace their genesis to a young, German student, Anthony Goldschmidt. In his 1933 paper “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed,” Goldschmidt noted “incidents and images [that] seem not only subconscious in nature, but also erotic.” (26, dreaming).The paper has since become a springboard, used repeatedly for misinterpretation by many. The picture that emerges is one of a lunatic obsessed with little girls, a social misfit, a pervert, a split personality, and a man who never grew up.
Dodgson’s photographs and the Alice books are taken as further “evidence” of his pathology. These theories, whispered as rumors and gossip during his own lifetime, furthered by Goldschmidt and his followers, have persisted to the present day. Even the discerning Nabokov, who took a keen interest in Dodgson’s, photographs (no surprise there), and remarked on his “scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-dressed…” He adds, “He got away with it…nympholepsy.” (11/Dreaming)
Victorian notions of childhood and the fact that they had a difficult time defining its parameters and the age of consent are important considerations that must be remembered if we are to have a true understanding of any art, including Dodgson’s, created during the era. To impose a contemporary understanding of childhood on these pictures would be a mistake. Childhood then was far more fleeting then than it is today, and it was not at all uncommon for children, especially of the lower classes, to begin work at age twelve, or even younger.
In the more comfortable classes, Victorian girls spent their days learning how to be “ladylike and proper,” how to sew and do other handicrafts, from the family nurse or nanny (in the Liddells’ case, the nanny was a certain Miss Pritchett, whom many believe is represented by the strict Red Queen in the Alice books). They were expected to be “properly” dressed in layers of confining, itchy petticoats and white summer frocks, clearly not intended for frolicking in the grass. Never mind that in “polite” society, children did not remove their stockings and shoes. Had these children ever had the pleasure of feeling the morning dew on the grass underfoot? Consider how revolutionary it must have been, how controversial, that so many of Dodgson’s children appear barefoot in photographs, something that was simply not done in their milieu. One of the most valuable contributions made by both of these new books is that they tell how the rumors about Dodgson began. They unravel the mystery, present the pictures in their completeness, allowing us to view them from a fresh perspective, free (or at least aware) of the particular interpretation that has weighed so heavily on them.