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.