June 11, 2015 11:20:12 AM
One hundred and fifty years ago was published the greatest of all children's books, Alice in Wonderland, which along with its sequel six years later, Through the Looking Glass, has ever since been loved by children, and loved and studied and quoted by adults. In The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland (Harvard University Press), biographer Robert Douglas-Fairchild brings forth the story of Lewis Carroll who was the pen name and the invention of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Alice the heroine and Alice Liddell, the child who inspired the stories. The author, a don at Oxford himself, has looked through the city, and the stories, and Carroll's many interests, to show the origins of the Alice tales and the effect they had on their creator and the woman who grew from the little girl for whom he had such fondness. Anyone who loves the Alice books will here find new reasons to love them.
Dodgson was a truly peculiar person. He was born in 1832, the eldest son of ten children of a conservative high church parson. He endured the rigors of Rugby School and exhibited skills in mathematics which advanced him to Oxford University, which he never left. He was there at Christ Church College, and he was ordained as a Deacon in 1861. This was supposed to be a step to becoming ordained as a priest according to the rules of the college. He never took this step; perhaps he valued his freedom at a time when the church forbade such activities as attending the theater, which he loved, and perhaps he was fearful about having to preach regularly, which his stammer would have made embarrassing. The college didn't push the issue, and "he chose to remain at Oxford in an ambiguous role as neither layman nor priest, a sort of ecclesiastical Mock Turtle." He had a dull but conscientious life in the college, and in addition to his teaching duties, he eventually became Curator of the college's Common Room, in charge of the logistics of tea, bread, butter, and so on. He discharged these duties with a regularity completely the opposite of the Mad Hatter's table.
The Dean of the college was the classicist Henry Liddell, father of Alice. Carroll first improvised Alice's story for her and her two sisters as they went on a boating excursion in the summer of 1862. Carroll was no recluse; he never married, but he had plenty of friends and correspondents. Who he really liked to associate with, however, were little girls. This probably seems weirder to us than it did to his contemporaries, at least early in his life. There was a Victorian cult of little girls, whereby their innocence and freedom might be seen as an antidote for adult cares. Carroll was always eager to make new girl friends; he carried with him puzzles and trinkets, ready to entice a girl into interactions with him. He became adept at the new hobby of photography, which involved fussing over chemicals and wet plates, and his young friends were his subjects. He might, indeed, photograph them without clothes. There is no suggestion that the prim Carroll did anything reprehensible in such sessions, and he never had any guilt about his activities with the girls. He loved girls, but his love was as innocent as the Victorians thought his little girls to be. We are familiar these days with scoundrels taking sexual advantage of children, or arranging for the manufacture of child pornography, and we cannot help thinking of such unpleasantness as we look back on Carroll's activities. Douglas-Fairhurst knows this, but after the documentation he musters, it is hard not to agree with his evaluation of the issue: "The most probable conclusion is that Carroll's strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual."
One of the strengths of this account of Carroll's life is that it is also a story of Alice Liddell. As is the way of little girls, she grew up, and thus (as did so many other little girls) removed herself from Carroll's active affection. Indeed, the book begins in 1932, when the widow Alice Liddell Hargreaves was in New York for opening celebrations about Alice from the books on the occasion of Carroll's centenary. She was then eighty years old, and had a far less peculiar life than the man who made her famous. She married a stolid and wealthy cricketer; he didn't have a title, but one of her few eccentricities was that she had her servants address her as "Lady Hargreaves." She had three sons, two of whom died in the World War, and the third became something like an agent for his mother in her capacity as the woman who inspired Alice. She needed the help; by 1932, she was an understandably confused old lady with a fading memory, and though she little resembled the forthright and dauntless heroine of the books, reporters and fans kept mistaking one for the other.
Another admirable part of Douglas-Fairchild's account is to show the continuing influence the Alice stories have had. Even in Carroll's time there were tribute poems, parodies, imitations, and stage performances. You can find traces of Alice in Finnegans Wake, and in detective novels by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. She may be found in steampunk comics, videogames, and pornography. The original Disney cartoon of Alice is bland, but Tim Burton's reimagining the story five years ago proved to be one of Disney's highest-grossing movies. To be sure, there is nothing equivalent to the Alice books and the illustrations by Sir John Tenniel which are integral to them. Reading this account of how they came to be, and the meanings that different generations have attached to them, will deepen the appreciation of any of Alice's many fans.