Wednesday 21 February 2018

Alice in Wonderland is 150 years old - the story behind the book

Alice through the lens: A portrait of six-year old Alice Liddell taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll) in 1858
Alice through the lens: A portrait of six-year old Alice Liddell taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll) in 1858
The book cover of The Story of Alice

Emily Hourican

Now 150 years old, Alice in Wonderland has spawned a host of tributes, including films, comics, paintings, fan fiction, theme park rides, sculptures, computer games, even pornography. Yet the mysteries at the heart of Lewis Carroll's creation remain as beguiling as ever.

Who was Alice? And indeed who was Lewis Carroll? He was the alter-ego of Charles Dodgson, a quiet, brilliant mathematician with a pronounced stammer, and Alice Liddell the young girl he befriended, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. Much more than that is hard to pin down. Sometimes Dodgson denied being Carroll, sending back any correspondence that arrived with that name.

Four volumes of his diaries, two dealing with the years of his friendship with Alice, disappeared after his death, and even within the remaining volumes, pages have been carefully removed. His letters to Alice were (rather damningly) all destroyed by her mother.

It is in an attempt to fill the many gaps that Robert Douglas-Fairbanks has written The Story of Alice - a life of Lewis Carroll, a deconstruction of the ideas and influences in the books, and a clever, exhaustive burrowing into and around the creations of Dodgson.

James Joyce dubbed him 'Lewd's carol,' and during his lifetime he was enigmatic - gregarious and witty or cold and stand-offish; young-at-heart but also capable of writing bitter letters about potatoes.

Since his death, the layers of myth have only intensified. However, his obsession with childhood, and his preference for childish company are beyond doubt.

The exact nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell is speculative. She is certainly the Alice for whom he created the stories and who persuaded him to write them down. He spent so much time with her and her sisters that he was at one point suspected by Oxford gossips of courting their governess, and later, mysteriously banished by their mother from the family circle.

But whether or not Dodgson really wanted to marry Alice, or indeed had an inappropriate relationship with her, ­has never been clearly established. Another rumour to dog Dodgson was that he was gay - some of his students mocked him as 'Louisa Caroline', and he signed letters from "your affectionate little fairy friend, Sylvie".

But the secret of Carroll's sexuality and his relationship with Alice is only one part of the story of this curious man, who was besotted by the number 42, and took endless delight in puzzles, word games, algebra formulae and riddles. It is a mark of the quality of Douglas-Fairbanks' research, and his ability to put it together into a readable and absorbing book, that the reader comes away as interested in Carroll's intellectual mysteries as the sexual ones.

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland

Robert Douglas-Fairbanks

Harville Secker, €25.50

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