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

A FOG of suspicion has long enveloped the creator of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, so much so that James Joyce once prudishly referred to him as ‘Lewd’s Carroll.’

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

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst,

Vintage €14.99

But in this pleasantly-meandering biography, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst takes us on a voyage of discovery into the lives of the mathematically-inclined Oxford Don Charles Dodgson, known to the world as Lewis Carroll, and his child-muse Alice Liddell, and argues for the return of innocence to their relationship.

Dodgson was born in Cheshire in 1832, the son of a country curate. He had seven sisters and during his idyllic early years ‘Charlie’ became their entertainer, with ‘jokes, riddles, fun, poetry and tales’.

Boarding school at Rugby College — the home of ‘muscular christianity’ — came as a shock. Letters home suggest the previously-sheltered Charles, who suffered from a stammer, was only slowly maturing in a boyish world.

Christchurch Oxford followed, and as well as an affinity for mathematics, his literary skills grew with contributions of nonsense verse and quirky rhetoric to various journals.

At this time, too, he was introduced by a friend to a new fad sweeping the Victorian world — photography.

This hobby suited Dodgson, presenting him with the opportunity to recreate scenes from paintings and stories in an art form that required exactitude.

According to myth, he first saw four-year-old Alice Liddell in 1856, from the window of Christchurch Library, as she played in the Dean’s garden with her sisters.

What was, undoubtedly, an infatuation, began. But what form of obsession was this?

Douglas-Fairhurst dwells on Carroll’s cultural milieux and on the 19th century idealisation of children.

Innocence, purity, and beauty were all words taken seriously at the time and Alice’s great aunt even wrote that she looked like a child who was ‘closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.’

Dodgson, who now settled on the pen-name Lewis Carroll, befriended the Liddell family and, in the manner of a bachelor uncle, took Alice and her sisters on boating trips on the Thames.

They were, according to the author, the ‘ready-made family’ he had longed for since childhood.

It was on one such journey, in July 1862, that Carroll made up the story which was to be published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, with a sequel, Through the Looking Glass, appearing in 1872.

There is much freudian-type analysis of his writing in these pages, but, unfortunately for Carroll, it was his photography, not his books, that created a cloud over his legacy.

Seen through modern eyes, his images of Alice — which are only a small percentage of the thousands of photographs he took — can, at the very least, raise eyebrows.

The fact that mystery also surrounds a break in his relationship with the Liddell family in June 1863 — and that the pages discussing these dates were later found to be missing from his diary — has led to much rumour.

Did he propose marriage? This would not have been unusal at the time — the age of consent was 13. But it may have been unwelcome to Alice’s mother who might have wanted a better match for her daughter.

Ultimately, Douglas-Fairhurst makes a case that the relationship between Carroll and Alice can’t be seen through modern eyes, that his vision of childhood remained purely sentimental, though he does admit that a ‘vision of innocence is not the same as an innocent vision.’

Carroll’s books became a touchstone for children’s literature and possibly could only have been written by a man who found adulthood an impediment in life.

Alice in Wonderland also trapped the real Alice Liddell in its world. Right up to 1932, a few years before her death, a tour of the US was billed as ‘Alice in Wonderland comes to a New World’.

But, ultimately, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s book we only understand her as a reflection in the looking glass of Carroll’s life.

Carroll himself, who died of pneumonia in 1898, remains elusive. In the opening pages of Alice in Wonderland we are told Alice ‘was very fond of pretending to be two people’, if Douglas-Fairhurst is right, then so too was her creator: Charles Dodgson — a stammering, shy, lover of mathematics, and Lewis Carroll — a teller of stories who could not escape his own childhood.

More in this section


Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan