Lewis Carroll — Pornographer

A picture from the album (the only one I dare reproduce!)

When, on a warm day in the spring of 1882, Christine Horly, whom her friends called Alice Number Three, “passed to a worse life by getting married”, as you can read in her sinful diary of forty years later, she received a secret wedding present, a picture book, … from a by-now bald professor of mathematics, whom she called uncle Lewis; the picture book, here reproduced in part, made of photographs, drawings and cuttings coming from various sources: broadsheets, periodicals, books, newspapers – French, German, Danish, English… Over a thousand pictures, illustrated pages, vignettes and frames covering many pages pasted together to form an extraordinary pirotechnicographic game, a paper museum of the amazing, of unusual “montages”, of surreal and dada intuitions, accompanied by iambs, epodes, nonsense and strambotti as well as cicalate and bazzecole often vey smart. But, most of all, that secret wedding present, represented, and it still does, one of the greatest masterpieces of that privately-produced and clandestine pornography… (p. 91)

So opens a chapter on “Londra, Victorian Hard & Sex Nonsense” in Ando Gilardi’s Storia della fotografia pornografica (Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2002, pp. 91-128). The reader may well wonder who that “uncle Lewis” might be, but the mystery is clearly revealed only after nine pages of confused invectives against previous critics and after proposing the most fantastic idea of the origins of the limerick (to be discussed in a future post):

Lewis Carroll, genial father of the obscene visual nonsenses [read: limericks, even if they are not formally correct ones], was an enthusiastic but jealous reader of Edward Lear’s nonsense… His biographers… almost always omit to mention that the famous novel written by the “nasty uncle”… is a vast learian nonsense. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… (p. 100)

There can be no doubt that Gilardi is here attributing the scrapbook to Charles L. Dodgson; unfortunately, he does not state its provenance – the reader is perhaps expected to think it is in his possession. He does state that it is hitherto unpublished (he prints a number of pages from it), but also declares that his history of pornographic photography has already been published “in instalments” twenty years earlier and makes obscure references to critics who are not willing to study the book (p. 102).

I have read the chapter at least three times and can’t really make up my mind whether it is a complex joke or Gilardi is serious about what he says; the other chapters in the book suffer from sloppy references, though at times they are a little more detailed, but generally tell a credible history of pornographic photography, the publisher is certainly a reputable one and Gilardi himself is the author of a Social History of Photography.

On the other hand it is difficult to believe that the Reverend Charles Ludwidge Dodgson could have written pseudo-limericks such as:

It is a young lady con the pail
with uccel-cazzon che la beccail
But she said “I don’t te tail te tail
All the birds non tal qual the ti air
Are welcome he untied the calson!”

Unless I miss something, this joycean language, which does not deserve a hint of comment from Gilardi, who translates it very freely to say the least, puts together ungrammatical English and Italian vulgar expressions and appears to have been written by someone who could not even speak decent English or standard Italian. A little strange for someone so evidently striving to imitate the two great Nonsense writers of the age: each rhyme is accompanied by a new version of Lear’s original drawing for the corresponding limerick, with pornographic details, of course.

I should say that unless a very convincing original is produced such material cannot even be taken as having been created in England at the end of the Nineteenth century.

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