Home / The Dreamchild: Nabokov & Carroll’s Elusive Nymphet

The Dreamchild: Nabokov & Carroll’s Elusive Nymphet

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I have long loved the work of Nabokov. I remember reading Pale Fire and then Ada or Ardour when i was still a teenager – heavy stuff for that age, or so it seemed to me. While most readers had started or been introduced to Nabokov with his book and later his film, Lolita (with Sue Lyons and Charles Mason), i had started with the lesser known works, and eventually led up to Lolita, often considered the more perverse of his books and to some, an advertisment for incest; this poor little Lolita who is the victim of our so-called antagonist Humbert Humbert. Watch the newer version with Jeremy Irons and you’ll see that Lolita isn’t entirely the victim here, as anyone who read the book carefully could tell you. We’re so quick to judge, and yes, incest is always wrong. But what Lolita really tells us is that children, no matter how hard we try to neuter them and turn them into innocent fairies with angel wings, as was so common in the Victorian era, will always be sexual and sensual beings. Children, whether we like it or not, are naturally provocative and sensual. This is not an argument for incest, but a look at what really happens in Lolita as well as the photography of Lewis Carroll, another lover reputed lover of nymphets.

Lewis Carroll, nee Charles Dodgson, author of Alice’s Adventures Underground (later named Alice in Wonderland), was often compared to Nabokov (many years later). We were told “little girls held a strange fascination for Carroll.” Few know of Carroll’s work as a photographer. That he was one of the preeminent photographers of the Victorian era, alongside Julia Margaret Cameron and O. Rejlander.

Who can forget the picture of Alice Liddell, the model for Alice in Wonderland, posing as the “Little Beggar Girl,” the jaunty thrust of her hip, the dress slipping off of her shoulder, the smoldering look in her eye. Carroll, unlike his contemporaries, would not sugar coat his models. .Even Nabokov, who much admired Dodgson and translated into Russian Alice in Wonderland, accuses him of “Nympholepsy”, adding almost jealously, “he got away with it.” Nabokov called Dodgson’s models, “half-dressed and bedraggled nymphets,” referring to the models that lie about languidly in Dodgson’s photographs, with their suggestive poses and sultry eyes.

Really it is only in our backward glance that we find some “evidence” we say of Nabokov’s nympholepsy or Dodgson’s perversion. It is widely known that the Victorians were preoccupied with mythologizng children, rendering them as innocent water nymphs, frolicking jollily along the shoreline, floating in the air as cherubs, or even as full-breasted women strangely lacking in pubic hair. In this Cult of the Child, children (and women, for that matter) were sexless, yet suggestive. Their sexuality was decorated with the props of innocence, flowers and wings, halos and purifying baths, promoting, as Bram Dijkstra put it, “a genre of child pornography that disguised itself as a tribute to the ideal of innocence.” (195, Idols of Perversity) Children were presented provocatively, but in a form that was acceptable, more palatable somehow. Still, if you strip away the props and the pretense from these airbrushed and dilute images, a more perverse, more fetishistic rendering is revealed.

It is interesting to compare Dodgson’s photographs with the nude children taken by contemporaries like Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Gustave Rejlander, who, while they did not fully escape judgement, somehow managed to avoid the label of “pervert” that has landed squarely on Dodgson’s soldiers. Or, for that matter, with the paintings of William Stephen Coleman (whose children, Roger Taylor notes, were “happy to be naked in the perpetual sunlight of his imagination”), Paul Chabas, Paul Peele, Leon Frederic, and others. It was not the nudity or the age that offended: naked children were, in fact, “a favorite subject matter” (104, Princeton) in popular art at the time. Moreover, Dodgson photographed relatively few nude studies: “eight sessions spread over thirteen years involving the children of six families.”

The fact is, it is not merely the nudes that come into question; but all of Dodgson’s pictures of little girls and, beyond that, his relationships with his “child-friends” in general. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder why he has become the focal point of so much prurient speculation. In a letter to one of the sitter’s parents, Dodgson remarked, “If I did not believe I could take such pictures without any lower motive than a love of pure Art, I would not ask it.” (109, Princeton)

Only four of these nude studies survive today, and they are heavily hand-colored, barely discernable as photographs. Dodgson took special precautions to destroy copy prints and negatives of these studies, which were always taken with the parents’ full knowledge and consent. He was all too aware of the climate in Victorian England, the zeal with which the Society for the Suppression of Vice worked to search out and destroy cases of “indecent” photography and art, and to bring charges. The fact that the camera provided a more “clinical” picture than did paint made the matter of photography all the harder to define: at the time, many were still unsure whether photographs should be considered art at all.

One thing that becomes clear on examination is that there is a notable difference between how Dodgson’s children are presented and how children were depicted by other artists of the time. These children do not have wings or halos; they are not sentimentalized or safely desexualized. Rather, there is a wildness, a savagery about them that rings all too true, perhaps too disturbing to viewers, precisely because there are virtually no props and no backdrop, save for a simple cloth. There are no suggestive halos to reassuringly convey purity and innocence. These children are shown as they are, simple and direct, staring candidly at the camera, clearly willing participants in the game. They wear their own clothes, often reclining on a couch, playing in the deanery garden or his grounds at Christ Church.

Which is not to say that Dodgson never staged a tableau, such as St. George and the Dragon, Little Red Riding Hood, or the famed images of Xie Kitchin as China Man and Penelope Bootheby and Alice Liddell as Beggar Girl. But this form of dress-up was not at all uncommon for the time (as it is still common today). And even when in costume, Dodgson’s children are not dressed up so as to be believable, as in Julia Margaret Cameron’s elaborate scenarios. Their props are far more whimsical, obvious and cheap, mere suggestions of a theme, perhaps no more than amusements to help pass the time in the studio. Dodgson does not insult our intelligence by assuming he needs to spell it out for us. As Nickel notes, this is something the Victorian viewer in particular would have appreciated, for it requires a level of sophistication beyond what is called for when viewing the work of his contemporaries. Dodgson gives us a nudge and a wink, seeming to say, “I don’t need to spell it out for you; I know you get it.”

But it is especially when there are no props at all that one can see the unmarked freshness of children, not yet weary of the world. They seem strong, at times even dangerous. These children are clearly comfortable with themselves, and neither they nor the photographer seem to care whether or not the viewer is comfortable, whether or not they are presented in a palatable way. They seem not to need us, perfectly capable in their element, threatening our very need to be protective and parenting.

In Dodgson’s lens they are liberated from the social “shoulds” and “oughts,” free of the constraining Victorian mores and rules of conduct. They appear to be joining their grown-up friend in thumbing their noses at what is right and proper. Let them not grow up so fast, Dodgson seems to be saying. What a joy it must have been for both child and photographer to have those afternoons in the studio, when the rigid code of Victorian conduct did not apply and children were free to be children.

Moreover, it is not merely Dodgson creating the image and we would do well to remember the role of the sitter in any photography. To deny that the sitter has anything to do with the resulting photograph is simply absurd, for the camera captures what is seen, what the sitter puts forth. Though he did sometimes pose his subjects, most seem to have an awareness and attitude all their own, and this is seen most clearly in the gaze of the sitter. What this gaze says is that children do feel pleasure, that they are aware of it, and this is frightening to us. Their “childishness” is apparent in their pose, as they make no move to cover themselves.

In none of Dodgson’s surviving nude studies do the children seem embarrassed, nor in any of the other photographs in which they appear in various states of dress. It is the puritanical template that we overlay on these photographs: ah, but they should be embarrassed. In our desire to protect our children, we deny what is natural, their innate sensuality and sexuality. We neuter them, turn them into cherubs, fairies, saints, when in reality, children are wild, savage, and untamed.

Coming back to Nabokov’s Lolita, it is hard really, if one is to give a deeper interpretation, to blame Humbert exclusively. The newer version of the film with Jeremy Irons is far more accurate in capturing the intricacies of and complexities of what was clearly some sort of relationship and to some extent, consensual. The issue though remains that a child as young as Lolita has not yet reached the age of consent, so for al of her come hither stares and feigned maturity and feigned sexual maturity as well, Lolita may think she is in charge, and to some extent, she is in charge because Humbert is far more taken with her than she with him; his pathology, and in this case, clearly there is a pathology, is that he cannot relate to adult women. Humbert will always be drawn to the nymphet, he says so himself and we would be wise to believe him.

If you haven’t seen the new version, I highly recommend it. Here, there is no limit to Lo’s sexual maturity. The problem is that she is still, as I said, not yet at the age of consent. For all of her teenage knowledge of fooling around and lessons learned from beastly boys at summer camp, she is far too young to understand the complexities of an adult sexual relationship. What’s more, Humbert, though in many ways her victim (this is not her fault – most of this is his own doing, his own caving in to his pathology that makes him irrational in this matter). It’s an interesting power struggle. Lolita will be damaged for the rest of her life. Would she have wound up starring in porn films and pictures for the notorious Clare Quilty if she had not had the experience with her stepfather, if her mother had been alive? It seems doubtful.

At the end, we find her plain and pregnant. Humbert says, “toxic and polluted and carrying another man’s child” yet she is still is Lo. Even after everything, after Lolita manages to escape his grip, Humbert pursues her, again illustrating the tremendous power that Lolita has over this grown man. The power, though, is largely of Humbert’s imagination, a power that he has contrived on his own. Lolita has moved on, she says she doesn’t think about “all that stuff” clearly referring to the incestuous relationship. She seems to have moved on, gotten married and all she wants now is a normal life. Humbert is still stuck in the past, pleading with Lolita to take the” twenty-five paces” from the living room to his car where again, he will whisk her away and carry her across state lines and you can guess the rest.

Lolita will wisely refuse the offer this time; age and society and maturity have taught her that a relationship with her father, albeit a non-blood relative and step father, is always going to be wrong. That Humbert, who she calls “Dad” is the pervert after all. It’s no longer a came in which the winsome child plays with the grown up. There are few circumstances, if any, in which society does not frown on such unions. Think of Woody Allen and his stepdaughter Soon Yi (apologies for spelling). Clearly the two are not blood relatives, but he did help raise her along with poor Mia Farrow, who adopted the child who would steal her husband. One wonders how much Soon Yi was coerced, how young she was when the affair began. Was she old enough to consent, or was she like our Lolita who was too young and too wild to know.

As noted, children are sexual or sensual, to be more accurate, by nature. We feel more comfortable not thinking about this, but the fact remains. This does not mean that they want to have sex. In fact, if anything is pursued iwht a child who is expressing some sexuality, it is highly likely if not a given that the child will be forever traumatized. It is akin to rape, even if the child is not old enough or wise enough to process this as a violation. The feeling of violation remains nonetheless.

Check out the new Lolita, and perhaps even look up Dodgson’s/Carroll’s photographs. It’s worth seeing the photographs to see the so-called nymphets that made even Nabokov jealous. To be clear, there is no evidence that Dodgson ever crossed the line with any children – there is no evidence of child molestation or improper behavior, though the gossip mill churned and to this day, still does. He is the author we love to hate: to date, Alice in Wonderland is the best selling book for almost every year including the present and has been translated into over sixty languages. Dodgson, we know.was proper to a fault, and though many biographers have tried to find some evidence of wrong doing, none has been found, despite what Morton Cohen would love to think.

To my mind, these are some of the most provocative and beautiful pictures of children anywhere – and I like that they are not dressed up as spayed fairies. There is no argument that is valid on behalf of incest – I can think of nothing that would justify such an atrocity. At the same time, I hate that we feel we have to so rigidly control our children’s natural and even healthy sexuality out of our own fear. We should teach what is appropriate, but to neuter our children and deny them of a healthy sensuality and later, sexuality is to do them a great disservice and encourage feelings of shame concerning natural feelings and thoughts. No doubt, it is a fine line – I have faith in our ability to walk it.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • kristie

    i couldn’t agree more. you have hit the nail on the head. that certain fear of sexuality will always be present in society,we are hypnotized by sex, we are run by it. and none can accept it.we deny pleasure only to have it consume us. what you said about the “wild” “untamed” nature of children… couldn’t have said it better myself. their innocence is their wisdom,they are curious, receptive, and above all else, pure, for this reason. they drink the world. there is no fear or shame. like the ancients in india once said, “do not ask a wise man about life, or love, or even god, but ask the little children.”

  • Rodney Welch and Douglas Anthony Cooper ought to come here for their literary dicussion…

  • hi Kristie & Dr. Pat ~ thanks for agreeing, i thought about this piece a lot before writing it and what it means in our society that we have sexualized children or rather, need to neuter them to accept them as they are without using their inherent and normal sexuality (again, normal), to use this as some excuse to molest or otherwise abuse children. PUtting them in fairywings and halos as the Victorians did is some way to ward off their own feelings of guilt and shame, but these things ought not be imposed on the child him or herself.

    There is a great deal of controversey around this and Carroll and i’ve written about it a lot, obviously. Where i stand on the whole “he was a pedophile” issue is pretty clear: i sincerely doubt it and see no clear proof that he was. In fact, it seems more likely that if anything, he had an affair with the mother, though again, the evidence here is very light. It’s not at all uncommon for some epileptics (as he was) to live a life of complete celibacy and he WAS also a Deacon in the C of E (Anglican).

    Thanks all for reading,


  • Sara

    Everyone seems all too ready to excuse the behavior of a man who obviously was a pedophile. This is evidenced by the “child friends” he obssessed over his entire life, his lack of marriage and relationships with older females, his reliance on young girls as emotional counterparts, and his distaste for young boys (who he never chose to represent in his “realistic art”).
    The discomfort of many parents, including the Liddells, that led to their breaking contact with him, leads one to believe that they saw something wrong in his behavior. Even people who excuse his behavior by saying “at least he never acted on it” have no idea if this is actually true, and even if he didn’t, he obviously had a perverted sexual obssession with young girls.
    No one knows what is going on behind the scenes in any of Lewis Caroll’s pornographic photographs, and to say a child is a willing participant in something they cannot fully understand assumes QUITE a bit.
    I wonder how many of you would send your child to pose nude for a single, older man who was obssessed with young girls?

  • hi Sara;

    listen, everyone has different theories about Carroll, and i know because i’m working on a book about Carroll now so i’ve read them all, and so some agree and some disagree. the truth is this; i can tell objectively that no child ever posed for Carroll had explicit written permission from the parents *this is documented in his collected letters.

    The Liddell family split is one of the most debated issues in Carroll scholarship but is generally NOT attributed to any ‘pornographic’ relation between Carroll (Dodgson) and Alice, but more that he may have hinted at marriage, since marriage was on the minds of every one at the time because of the royal wedding at the time – and also, because of Alice’s sister Lorina, aged 14, who was getting married. As you know, Victorian society had many May-September marriages and this was the norm, not the exception. Alice was 11 at the time.

    Carroll would never have made the major social blunder of going to the Liddell’s house (for Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church) and and asking for Alice’s hand. It seems more likely that Alice may have playfully said something along the lines of “when i grow up i’m going to marry mr. dodgson” and he may well have said playfully, ‘well, why not!” of course, again, that’s speculation… This may have spooked Mrs. Liddell for a number of reasons because although she liked Carroll very much, he was also quite eccentric (not his photographs, which she much admired) but his odd habits etc. and his general manner, and she may have found this a bit odd and not what she wanted for Alice. Also, she had another suitor in mind for Alice already – Reginald Hargreaves, who, in fact, Alice DID marry…

    More, there is some new evidence that it may also have been that Mrs. Liddell who had an affair or fling with Dodgson – some recent letters have surfaced at Christ Church that seenm to hint at this, but here again, one can’t be sure. It certainly looks possible and would be cause for the rift.

    Obviously, Dodgson felt no need to hide the reason for the split and recorded it faithfully in his diary… it was only AFTER his death that his niece, Minella, razored out those four missing July pages right after the split. This tells me that Dodgson felt he had nothing to reproach himself for; if he WAS a pedophile as you seem to be suggesting, it seems highly unlikely that he would keep a written diary about it… and this is not the generally accepted theory among Carroll scholars today, myself includeed.

    More, in his works after the Liddell split, which means, anythign he wrote after Alice in Wonderland, all make some reference to the Liddell family or are some pun on the Liddells in some way, especially in The Hunting of the Snark – so he wove in the answers to the split in a sort of code in his books.

    At present, i am working on a book about Carroll, so i find your take interesting, and your vigor interesting as well – it is such a visceral and strong reaction to something that one cannot at all be sure of and frankly, there is really no evidence that he was at ALL a child pornographer or inappropriate in any way. Most if not all of his ‘child-models’ stayed friends iwth him all the way through their twenties into adulthood until he reached his early death in the 1890s at quite a young age.

    The thing with Carroll is this; you have to remember that he was taking photographs along with and at the same time as Rejlander and Julia Margeret Cameron, both of whom made their subjects into these sort of “fairy” children. Rejlander going as far to dress them up with wings and halos and in this way, totally neutering them of any normal sensuality (and please, children are sensual – not sexual, but sensual whic is different… ) Camerson, like Rossetti also (*Dodgson was friends with all of these people by the way) she went out of her way to blur the images and turn her photos into madonnas and saints. Dodgson simply photographed children as they were for the most part, and that’s okay. And again, he only did so with permission.

    That famous photo, Alice as Beggar Girl (i’m sure you know it, if not, you can easily do an image search on Google, but likely you know it), listen, he may have dressed her or had the idea, but he could not get her to stand the way she did or the look in her eye. Which is to say that children themselves have an innate quality that is coy and as adults, it is our job naturally to know that this is a normal phase of growing up and as a parent myself, i saw my own kids go thorugh this. It’s normal. As a normal adult, we do not play into this… we don’t because children don’t know or filter through any social context of their behavior, they just do and it is totally innocent. ONly a pervert would take advantage of that and then blame the victim.

    I’m sorry, but i have to disagree with you here, as would most Carroll scholars, and say that i feel there is absolutely no evidence that Dodgson was a pedophile. Nabokov said what he said, but look who’s talking and i quoted Nabokov for a reason because i find it both ironic and amusing — also, it was Nabokov who translated Alice into Russian, btw. And Nabokov is a huge fan of Carroll. Artuad translated Alice into French.

    Today, Alice in Wonderland still sells more copies than any other book with the only exception being the Bible. In terms of being the most quoted book, it is rivaled only by Shakespeare and is THE most translated book in teh world, translted, at last count (october, 2006) into over 121 languages, including minor dialects.

    Would i let my own children sit for Dodgson? That was your question. I can say unequivocally Yes. I am a great admirer of his work and have many of his prints as well as a first edition of one of the first pressings (one of 500 copies ) of the original Alice in Wonderland from 1864, signed. If i felt for a second he was a pedophile, he would be repulsed and repelled and could never write this book.

    He was a very very complex man, no doubt, and did many things in his time: a rector, a mathematician (whose theories we still use today in so many ways) a poet, a photographer, a logician, a writer, a teacher, and so much more. And given that, with all of this, he also suffered from epilepsy is simnply amazing to me… also, Dodgson was incredibly shy and bashful and yet he was incredibly determined, obviously, to go after what he wanted in life and before the age of fifty, he was already famous in his own life-time. That is quite a feat.

    I’m not sure if i have answered your question here, but to say he was a pedophile is just too easy an answer and it’s only with a backward glance that anyone can say this and it takes everything out of context and you can’t do that. OR you can, but you will never come up with the right answer… You need the right variables if you are to get the right equation and thus, the right answer.

    I’m happy to continue this dialogue, if you want.

    But yes, i would let my children sit for Dodgson any day, and yes, i would have sat for him myself. And if you knew me, that is saying quite a lot.

    Be well,

    S. H. R. P.

  • Tom Walsh

    This is pure nonsense. He had a sexual interest in kids, you only have to look at the photos he took of Alice Liddell. Please, don’t be so bloody naive.

  • James Mason stared in Kubrick’s Lolita (not Charles Mason)

    Sara-Dodgsen did take photos of boys as well as girls.

    Victorian era had a thing called the “Cult of the Little Girl” where young girls were featured in the popular culture of the time and photography subjects frequently. They were seen as a symbol of innocence and purity.

    People of today put Modern aesthetic standards on Dodgsen’s photos which is the mistake. I’ve studied this carefully and don’t see anything to indicate that he was a pedophile in thought or deed.