‘The Story of Alice’ – review by Anne Cunningham

Alice tweedle

THE STORY OF ALICE Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The Reverend Charles Dodgson was an Oxford don, a mathematician in Christ Church college, a keen amateur photographer, and was known as a shy, stammering bachelor. Under his nom-de-plume, Lewis Carroll, he was the zaniest and most inventive of children’s fiction writers who elasticated and masticated language and logic far beyond anyone else’s imagination before or since. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still as fresh and perennial
as the grass, and its artistic and cultural influence over the last 150 years is probably unquantifiable.

Alice Lidell was the daughter of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. One afternoon in 1862, Alice and her two sisters took a boat trip with Dodgson and a colleague. The girls were bored and asked Dodgson to tell them a story. On that afternoon, the seeds of Alice in Wonderland – and of Lewis Carroll the author – were sewn.
As a child, Alice Lidell was a subject for many of Carroll’s photographs. Other children – other people’s children, that is – populate his photographs, too, in fact half of the 3,000 images he captured were of children. While this screams at our 21st century sensibilities of Carroll being a repressed or barely-concealed paedophile, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst insists that “…It is far easier to condemn Carroll than it is to decide exactly what he should be accused of”. Context is everything, it seems, and Douglas-Fairhurst has exhaustively researched the context in which the Anglican deacon would spend much of his adult life making what he called his “child-friends”. But why would he want to? In one of his letters he writes “how much nearer to God…is the soul of a little child”. Taking photographs of nude children is something Carroll never explains, although Douglas-Fairhurst warns us early in this book that Carroll’s diaries are “a triumph of self-avoidance”. The nude shots, amounting to just 1% of his total collection, were nonetheless hidden in an envelope marked “honi soit” (‘shame on he who thinks evil of it’), and this, Douglas-Fairhurst writes, “acknowledged the existence of bad thoughts while denying they had any place in his own mind”. Really?

The historical and cultural backdrop to Carroll’s disturbing peccadilloes was rapidly changing. Darwin’s Origin of The Species was causing a considerable stir, and although a clergyman, Carroll was fascinated. He visited the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace and was a fiendish collector of gadgets. The first London tube station was opened. An undercover investigation of child prostitution by the Pall Mall Gazette resulted in the age of consent being hurriedly raised from 13 to 16. And of course the industrial revolution trundled on.
The biographer quotes Julian Barnes, in attempting to explore the psyche of Lewis Carroll. From Flaubert’s Parrot, he quotes “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books.” He follows this quote with; “A story reflects life but also redeems it: assembled on the page, even unpredictable events can be plotted, and their random
scatter made part of a meaningful design”. I don’t believe that he has sought to redeem Lewis Carroll in this masterful biography. But he has searched exhaustively for meaning, not only in Carroll’s skewed head, but in how Carroll related to the rapidly-changing world around him, by freezing a little girl in time and accidentally creating not one but two great works of literature.

Harvill Secker
HB & eBook
488 pages
£25.00
2nd April 2015

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