Searching for meaning down the rabbit hole
A masterful insight into the disturbing peccadilloes of the man who brought us 'Alice in Wonderland'
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 gave the world the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and many more delights, and 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 Liddell 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 Liddell was a subject for many of Carroll's photographs, posing sometimes as herself and sometimes in costumes such as The Beggar Maid, Sleeping Beauty and Queen of the May. One odd portrait of her and her two sisters is called "Open your mouth and shut your eyes" and shows Ina Liddell teasing Alice with some cherries while their younger sister looks on. 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"; on train journeys, at the seaside, or in their own homes. On holidays in Eastbourne one summer, Carroll records the number of new "child-friends" he has made. "It seems that I could, if I liked, make friends with a new set of nice children every day!" 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 1pc 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?
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," wrote Julian Barnes. When Lewis Carroll was stopped from visiting the deanery by Alice's mother, rumours flourished, but there's precious little historical or documentary evidence to tell us why. The theories range from her mother suspecting "improper relations" as Alice approached puberty, right through to Carroll using the Liddell family in order to court their governess. But whatever the reason, relations remained frosty, although he sent Alice an illustrated facsimile manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground (as it was initially titled) just before its publication. Alice kept the manuscript.
The historical and cultural backdrop to Carroll's disturbing peccadilloes was ever-changing. Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was causing a considerable stir, and although a clergyman, Carroll was fascinated. He visited the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace and was a fiendish collector of gadgets. The first London underground 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. As the industrial revolution trundled on, Carroll spent time touring Russia with a friend, although this was to be his only trip abroad.
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia after catching a chill in 1898. He was only 65.
In 1880, eight years after Through the Looking Glass was published, Alice Liddell married Reginald Hargreaves, the very wealthy son of a Lancashire calico printing tycoon, and stepped into her own personal wonderland of opulence, settling in a Georgian manor near Lyndhurst. She had a staff of eight and began to call herself Lady Hargreaves, although she had no title.
Her marriage by all accounts was a happy one. But she lost two of her three sons in France during World War I and her husband in 1926.
In 1928, Alice Hargreaves' only surviving son, curiously named Caryl, decided it was time to cash in on his mother's considerable literary heritage. With his mother's blessing, her facsimile copy of the original Alice manuscript was sold in Sotheby's for £15,400, a record price at the time. And so 'The Real Alice', by now 80 years old, again become a figure of public interest.
In 1932, Caryl took his mother to New York, where she was extravagantly feted by the American press. Photographs of the visit show an old lady, looking slightly confused, who didn't have much to say - her son did all the talking. Alice died two years later in 1934.
The biographer himself 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.
The previous biography written by Douglas-Fairhurst - Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist - was a stellar success, winning him the Duff Cooper Prize for Biography and delirious praise from the literati. It has to be said that the subject of his latest biography seems considerably more "travel-stained", to use Carroll's own words. In his painstaking scrutiny of the "doubleness" of Lewis Carroll, I suspect Douglas-Fairhurst may be in for some doubleness himself, at least with regard to this book's critical acclaim.
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
Harvill Secker, hbk and eBook, 488p, £25
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