Un-Romantic Agency in
the Art of Lewis Carroll
When he was eighteen years old, the young man who would soon begin signing himself “Lewis Carroll” contributed a caricature of Joshua Reynolds’s The Age of Innocence (figure 3.1) to one of his family’s domestic magazines. Reynolds’s famous painting gave pictorial shape to the Romantic ideal of childhood; his white-clad figure, set apart from the civilized world in an Edenic natural landscape, seems “socially, sexually, and psychically” pure (Higonnet 24). Carroll faithfully reproduces the countryside setting but replaces the child ensconced in nature’s lap with a gently smiling hippopotamus (see figure 3.2). In a tonguein-cheek editor’s note, he pompously announces that his reproduction of Reynolds’s masterpiece “presents to the contemplative mind a charming union of youth and innocence” (Rectory Umbrella 8). Whereas Reynolds’s decision to establish a visual link between the whiteness of his central figure and that of the heavens beyond imbues his cherubic little girl with the aura of Wordsworthian clouds of glory, Carroll’s dehumanized and desexed “child” seems an earthbound, lumbering blank.
What exactly does Carroll want to caricature here? One possibility is that he means to send up the whole idea of yoking youth with innocence. In that case, the parody reveals his sly determination to take the Romantic conception of the child as primitive Other and push it to an amusing extreme, literally turning the young sitter into a “noble savage”: a mild, wild animal. Then again, perhaps he means to lampoon not childhood purity per se but merely Reynolds’s mode of representation, the way his close focus on the child lends an elephantine enormity to a figure that is (and thus ought to appear) small.