The Story of Alice – the worrying, winding road to Wonderland

‘Hypnotically nostalgic’: John Tenniel’s illustration for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Photograph: Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Hypnotically nostalgic’: John Tenniel’s illustration for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Photograph: Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I am now in the process of reading The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and published by Belknap Press (June 2015). This study of the queasy relationship between Lewis Carroll and his beloved child muse for Alice in Wonderland seems to get closer to the truth than any other to date.

Here is a brief excerpt from a review of The Story of Alice by Robert McCrum for The Guardian. To read the complete review, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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There are various possible approaches to Alice in Wonderland, first published 150 years ago this April. One way to cope with the mountain of print inspired by Lewis Carroll [aka Charles Dodgson] and Alice Liddell, his haunting child-friend, is to follow the Gryphon’s advice. “No, no!” exclaims this crotchety heraldic creature during the Lobster Quadrille, insisting on “adventures” before analysis. “Explanations take such a dreadful time.”

In The Story of Alice, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an Oxford don, has explored Dodgson/Carroll and Alice through a braid of “adventures” and “explanations”. It’s a strategy that yields fascinating insights, even though both the writer and his child-muse ultimately slip through our fingers. With Carroll, the denser the documentation, the greater the enigma. Appropriately, on the cover of Sgt Pepper, he appears between Marlene Dietrich and TE Lawrence.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was the eldest son of a high church country clergyman, and had seven sisters. Childhood was the Dodgson family project. “Charlie” became its entertainer, a fount of “jokes, riddles, fun, poetry and tales”. As well as limericks and nonsense poetry, he also put on shows in his marionette theatre, and contributed to the family’s Rectory Magazine, for which, says Douglas-Fairhurst, young Charlie was “editor, leading author, illustrator, printer, publisher and distributor”.

Childhood was the idyll Dodgson never quite recovered from, a parallel world where time stood still. Virginia Woolf believed that this held the key to the man, and was always “an impediment at the centre of his being”.

Charles’s father Skeffington Dodgson had wanted his son to follow him into the church, and sent him to that staff college for muscular Christians, Thomas Arnold’s Rugby school. After his sisters and their jigsaw puzzles, teenage Charles was now maturing among mid-Victorian youth and higher mathematics, a precociously brilliant logician on course for Oxford and the ministry. He arrived at Christ Church in 1851, and would never really leave.

Christ Church was the Vatican of an academic and social establishment, a hothouse of eccentricity where Dodgson would be utterly at home. Douglas-Fairhurst is well-equipped to elucidate the mysteries of that earnest cocktail of frivolity and convention, the don’s life. The young mathematician soon found the pen name for his fantasies, rejecting “Edgar Cuthwellis” in favour of “Lewis Carroll”. He also took up the “black arts” of photography, an outre, transgressive link with the make-believe of childhood.

To be a Victorian photographer, says Douglas-Fairhurst, required “the knowledge of a chemist, the eye of an artist, and the patience of a saint”. The craft suited Dodgson, and the art inspired Carroll. He could prolong his fascination with childhood by photographing little girls, ideally in the nude. “A girl of about 12,” he wrote towards the end of his life, “is my ideal beauty of form.” In words of pre-Freudian innocence, he could never see “why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up”.

Perhaps only in Oxford would this not seem unusual. The dean of Christ Church, the classical scholar Henry George Liddell, and his bossy wife had three ideal subjects for the amateur photographer. They were Alice Liddell and her sisters, who played in the deanery garden outside the college library where Dodgson worked at his linear equations. Mid-Victorian Oxford revelled in the discreet charm of little girls. Carroll, asked if children ever bored him, replied simply: “They are three-fourths of my life.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Robert McCrum is an associate editor of the Observer. He was born and educated in Cambridge. For nearly 20 years he was editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber. He is the co-author of The Story of English (1986), and has written six novels. He was the literary editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2008, and has been a regular contributor to The Guardian since 1990.


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