Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Lewis Carroll & J M Barrie

This year I've had the pleasure of teaching the Children's Literature Course at Royal Holloway. It's a wide-ranging course, beginning with ideas about what children's literature might be; taking in Rousseau, the Romantic Child and the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, through Lewis Carroll, school stories, J M Barrie, and onwards to the phenomenon of Harry Potter, among many other texts.

One thing that struck me in my research was this: that there was no hint of suspicion about the sexual proclivities of either Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) or J M Barrie. The default position, which I have discovered in many conversations with friends and acquaintances, is that "there must have been something odd" about their interest in children. But was there?

Charles Dodgson was certainly an odd man:  but he was also a Don at Christ Church, and therefore had to be celibate. The children whom he befriended remained on good terms with him throughout their adult lives. Some point to the destroyed pages of Dodgson's diaries, which may well refer to the reason that Alice Liddell's mother gave for refusing his offer of marriage to Alice; but the general opinion seems to be that Mrs Liddell thought that Dodgson wasn't quite good enough for Alice. (She also, it seems, refused Prince Leopold - because she knew Queen Victoria wouldn't approve. Off with her head, indeed.) People point to the photographs he took of girls (there is only one that, at a stretch, can, with modern eyes, seem sexual): yet scholarship has firmly placed these into the artistic context of the time, showing the influence of other photographers on Dodgson, who was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished amateurs of the day. Why is it then that people want to cast this eccentric, intelligent, talented, harmless man as someone with sexual interest in the subjects about which he wrote so lovingly? (That's not even talking about drugs: many of the people I spoke to were convinced he must have been off his head. The only thing that Dodgson was interested in was making sure the wine cellar at Christ Church was full.)

The same is true of J M Barrie. In one conversation, I mentioned that Nico Llewellyn-Davies, the last surviving of the brothers for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, was interviewed toward the end of his life. Here is what he said:

“All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy — had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware.”

He also said:  "Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest, and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was an innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan."

The response to this was that another brother, Peter, had killed himself. But there were many reasons for Peter's suicide: he was ill; he was an alcoholic; he was worried that he had passed on a hereditary disease to his children. The idea that his suicide was a reaction to historic abuse by Barrie seems, well, a little stretched.

My research into these subjects has not been extensive, I will admit; limited to the texts themselves, and a dozen or so biographical and critical sources. But innocence is the quality that attaches itself to both Dodgson and Barrie. They were complicated men, it is true. Barrie was probably asexual. But should that mean that they are judged by the present, by arbitrary standards?

When reading these texts, let them speak for themselves; let the lives of the authors speak for themselves. Sometimes innocence and childish, or child-like pleasures are simply what they are: and sometimes innocence can also come from an adult mind.

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