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

Article published on November 18, 2015.

For most people, memories of Alice in Wonderland are bound up with pictures of the Disney heroine in the blue dress who fell down the rabbit hole and had a tea party with the ever-tardy Mad Hatter. The Alice books, however, are far less accessible, written as they were by Victorian mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) who was somewhat obsessed with the idea of childhood, and with one child in particular, eight year old Alice Liddell.

Robert Douglas Fairhurst has set out to write the definitive biography of the author and his subject. Many writers and academics have tried to make sense of what went on behind the creation of the world of Wonderland. Their focus has been on Dodgson’s peculiar friendship with Alice Liddell, the child for whom he invented the Alice stories. Dodgson seems to have become obsessed with Alice and her two sisters, the daughters of the dean of Christ Church in Oxford. They were ideal subjects for his hobby of photography, then only in its infancy. From our modern-day perspective, it is hard to understand how Dodgson could be allowed to spend hours dressing up and photographing the girls, and taking them on boat trips on the river, until one fateful day when it seems that an incident occurred which resulted in Alice’s parents breaking off all contact with him. The details of this incident have never been discovered, so we can only speculate. However it does seem clear that Dodgson viewed the outcome as a tragedy which affected the rest of his life.

This new exploration by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a Fellow at Magdalen College in Oxford, has drawn from new material to trace the creation and influence of the Alice books against the backdrop of the transition from Victorian to modern times. It was a time when definitions of childhood were changing rapidly, and the cultural landscape was evolving to reflect the modern world. On the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Alice stories, the ambiguity of the relationship at the heart of the books’ creation makes for uncomfortable reading.

Bert Wright, Nudge List Editor.

THE STORY OF ALICE Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Harvill Secker hbk Mar. 2015

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