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Thursday, 14 February 2008
The Beggar Maid
Another great portrait that is worth looking at is The Beggar Maid, by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). It shows Alice Liddell, the Alice of Alice in Wonderland books, leaning against a worn stone wall. She wears a dress of pale rags. Her left hand is on her hip, her right palm cupped open in front of her as though holding something. One shoulder is bare, and the sleeves of her dress hang loose over her arms while below her legs stand apart, one stretched forward the other supporting her against the wall as she looks just to one side of the viewer, her head tilted.
How innocent is The Beggar Maid, and indeed the work of Dodgson in general. Innocent say Anne Higonnet and Morton Cohen. Not so innocent says Carol Mavor, who points out that for all the Victorian cult of the Innocent Child, The Beggar Maid was made in a society that had “the Victorian fear of the animal in women,” where government legislated on child prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases and age of consent formed “some of the greatest debates over the female body”.
So although the idea of the sexually innocent child was prevalent at the time, this idea was accompanied by Christian ideas of the child necessarily corrupted by Original Sin - all children are evil, little rotters, a view still held by a surprising number of branches of the Christian Church, bless their loving souls!
Mavor points out Dodgson's use of dress changed the class and so the moral status of his children. Alice Liddell was a young middle-class girl, and because of her class a non-sexual being. “Immoral sexuality...” was “...always concerned with the lower classes” says Mavor.
SoDodgson made her lower-class through changing her dress, and this changed her status. He did this kind of thing again and again - so he dressed Xie Kitchin in Chinese dress, Agnes Weld as Little Red Riding Hood and transformed Evelyn Hatch into what Mavor calls the orientalized ‘pig-girl’ .
Deep and disturbing stuff dealt with in more detail in Mavor's Pleasures Taken,, but at the same time Dodgson's portrayal of the young girl does not involve an artificial adult imposition of innocence on the child, nor inflicts an adult preconception of what it is to be a child. Rather Alice emanates an idea of what it is to be a child - an idea that may be in conflict with many of the Victorian assumptions of what middle-class childhood should be - so Alice is portrayed as intelligent, perceptive and physically and socially self-aware, something reflected in the look she gives to Dodgson and the viewer.
Dodgson's unorthodox vision of childhood can also be seen in the second portrait shown here. In Dodgson's portraits of Reverend Thomas Childe Barker and his daughter, May, the traditional Victorian father sits on a bench and is dominated by his young daughter who looks down on him from above. The girl is the master in this image and her father the helpless servant. The patriarchal order of Victorian Britain has been overturned by Dodgson in a manner that is direct and timeless.