The keen amateur photographer was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, soon to be better known as Lewis Carroll. The subject was Alice Liddell, daughter of his friend and colleague, Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford. This was the Alice who would later beg Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics, to write down the fantastic stories he spun while punting and picnicking with her, featuring a little girl who fell into Wonderland.
The image is striking, even disturbing. Alice Liddell is dressed as a waif in torn clothes and bare feet, her shoulders and one nipple exposed. She is leaning against a garden wall, one hand on her hip and the other curled in supplication. Her head is titled slightly to the left and her expression is inscrutable: knowing, direct, but also distant, possibly seductive. The year was 1858 and she was 6. (Dodgson would continue to photograph her until she was 19.)
The only trouble with this sunny picture, of a delightful child calling forth the creation of Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Red Queen - not to mention logic puzzles and math jokes - is that Dodgson's fondness for little girls was far from passing. Some recent biographers have tried to tamp down the fires of controversy, but his evident preference for the company of nymphets remains undeniably creepy. The photographs of Alice and other very young girls, many photographed nude. have become the battlefield of Dodgson's reputation.
Simon Winchester, a veteran spelunker in the caverns of eccentricity, does his best in this slim volume to enhance the drama of this historic conjunction. Here are Lewis Carroll, Alice and large box camera, all together in an Oxford garden. Along the way, Winchester tells us a good deal about photographic process, Dodgson's family life, and even the rather sad tale of Alice Liddell's later life, when she became publicity adjunct to the success of Wonderland.
Then the book's centre crumbles. Winchester admits he has no good account of the eventual breach between Dodgson and the Liddell family. He considers the place of the image in Dodgson's photographic oeuvre featuring dozens of young girls, and details the Victorian weirdness of his family (in a family of 11 children, only three married), but then blithely concludes that Dodgson's "interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word."
What does that even mean? In one straightforward sense of the word, the interest was and is clearly worthy of remark: Winchester's book and a shelf of others would not exist otherwise. In another sense, meaning out of the ordinary, it was likewise remarkable. Victorian attitudes to girls may have been different from our own, viewing them as innocence embodied, but even then not every mathematics lecturer was a confirmed bachelor who made a hobby of dressing them in rags (or undressing them altogether) for the camera.
Small flaws flank the large ones. Winchester's eye for detail and flowing prose are here in their usual proportion. But despite its brief length, there are repetitions. And, strangely for a book about photography and investigating a photograph, there are no images. "Alice as the Beggar Maid," the central image, is reproduced on the dust jacket in a 2.5 x 3.5-inch crop.
In the acknowledgments, Winchester admits that he never actually examined the real Beggar Maid image, relying instead on a digital copy displayed in the Princeton University library, where much of Dodgson's work is housed. He also refers to this book as part of a series, even though there is no other indication anywhere in the book (or online, as far as I can tell) that there is such a series.
Does any of that matter? Maybe not; except that his book, which started with such high expectations, ends up feeling unmotivated, and even bogus.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at he University of Toronto and the author, most recently, of Glenn Gould in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series.