The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

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Reviewed by Simon

There are few children’s literary characters who are as well known as Alice et al. From Alice bands to Mad Hatters, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, and more, these creations have passed beyond the original two books they appeared in and into the wider consciousness. By finding themselves there, the connection to their author has grown hazy and uncertain over the years – was, indeed, always hazy and uncertain. Even the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more likely to be called Alice in Wonderland. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has the unenviable task of disentangling myth and rumour, finding the roots of Alice in an academic’s room in Oxford – and what he has produced is an enchanting maelstrom of facts, accounts, and possibilities… in which Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) remains, somehow, a little elusive.

This is not a biography of Dodgson. It is not even a biography of Carroll; we get almost nothing of his childhood (and Douglas-Fairhurst chooses to refer to him by this pseudonym throughout; the real Dodgson returned mail address to Carroll as ‘not known’). Nor yet is it literary criticism. The list of things it isn’t are easier to pinpoint than what it is. Is The Story of Alice the story of Alice or The Story of Alice? Well, both, with myriad other things thrown in.

The main thread throughout the book is an account of the Alice books being written, the enthusiasms and interests which were reflected in them, and how Dodgson dealt with the fame this brought; a parallel thread is Dodgson’s friendships with many and various ‘child-friends’, Alice Liddell particularly. A third, latter in the book, is the cultural aftermath of Alice. But onto these three narratives are hung a delightful superfluity of detail. It is hard to believe that anything at all was discovered that was not included. There are hardly any chapters, or sections of chapters, that feel tangential or extraneous – every detail is interesting, which is astonishing in itself – yet a single detail (‘Dodgson liked the theatre’, say) becomes padded with letters, newspaper cuttings, quotations, comparisons. His interest in child photography is examined with rigour, and pops its head up again and again. Perhaps Douglas-Fairhurst makes more references to Dickens than someone might who was not the author of Becoming Dickens, but we can forgive that. The whole experience is a rich concoction that is impossible to summarise; looking back, it is hard to recall what filled every page, as the skeleton of the book is surprisingly slight – but the body is very fleshy. Not flabby, but muscular, if you will. This level of detail may seem at odds with the Alice books, which are such stringent exemplars of economy, but it is yet another paradox to add to Dodgson’s life that Douglas-Fairhurst is such a good match.

This is all part and parcel, perhaps, of Douglas-Fairhurst’s style. I write this with much affection, as he was the first tutor I had as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, and extremely influential in my development (such as it is) as a thinker and writer – even if I eventually settled on a more prosaic academic style, realising I could only echo and not match the master at it. Douglas-Fairhurst makes everything a metaphor or a piece of wordplay. This is the greatest overlap between author and subject, I suspect, and the amount of enjoyment you will find in reading The Story of Alice largely depends on your tolerance for this approach. He writes as he speaks, and so I enjoyed it with the nostalgia of one thinking back to tutorials that rather terrified me at the time. Here are a couple of examples…

the first written version of Alice’s Adventures Underground was presented to Alice Liddell in 1864 as a manuscript that was quirkily illustrated by Carroll himself, the word Underground having been tunnelled into to become Under Ground.

Now, of course, Dodgson added a space without any thought of introducing a metaphor of tunnelling. ‘Having been tunnelled into to become’ could just as well have been ‘having become’, and we would have learned nothing more nor less about Dodgson’s intention – but we get the charm of an eccentric prose approach. And comparisons to Wonderland creatures and events are equally fun, if seldom anything other than enjoyable stylistic trickery. Again:

The longer ‘The Day-Dream’ continues with nothing happening, the more its stanzas start to look like coiled springs, where verbs and nouns push in different directions, and every line-ending quivers with frustrated potential..

As Douglas-Fairhurst often said in my tutorials, ‘Well, perhaps’.

The main question that most people ask now about Dodgson is, of course, ‘did he like little girls too much?’. It is a question which Douglas-Fairhurst is constantly aware of, coming close to it and darting away on many occasions. Throughout the details of Dodgson’s friendship with Liddell and later young girls, who seem to be blurry facsimiles of Alice, the question is in the air but not answered – and the same is true in discussions of Dodgson’s interest in nude photography. The nearest the book comes to addressing the issue outright is probably this:

If Carroll had been content to admire the girls’ souls he would now be a far less controversial figure than he is. What has troubled many modern sensibilities is his decision to capture the ‘innocent unselfconsciousness’ of children for posterity by photographing them nude. At the time this would not have been seen as very unusual. Many Victorian artists enjoyed sketching and painting nude children, often with the aim of immortalizing their purity before they were tainted by the adult world, and Carroll viewed such images in similarly refined terms.

Perhaps it is a question that cannot be answered, not least because of this difference in ‘sensibilities’.

Throughout, Douglas-Fairhurst’s research is broad and somewhat incredible. The sections I loved the most were those about Alice’s imitators and plagiarists; there was an astonishing number of books over the decades following Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that either took the concept of a child entering a bizarre land, or openly stole the titular character completely. Tracking these down must be a Herculean task, but the snippets we got of them were fascinating – as, indeed, were the tales of Alice’s adventures in merchandise, which demonstrates to those of you who’ve been forced to fork out for Elsa lunchboxes that there is nothing new under the sun.

In conclusion – words which Douglas-Fairhurst always described as a ‘Jerry Springer moment’, and which I use in fond homage – there are doubtless biographies of Dodgson out there which perform that task more efficiently, and certainly with more thoroughness about Dodgson’s childhood. There are exhaustive literary examinations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from Martin Gardner’s famous Annotated Alice to a comparison with Virginia Woolf’s work. But what you won’t find anywhere else is this broad and deep exploration of everything that made Alice into Alice, and what happened next. If the occasional question is left unanswered, The Story of Alice also answers a thousand questions you didn’t know you had; it is a rich and fascinating tumult of details. Dodgson may remain a touch hidden behind that tumult, but that is precisely how he’d have wanted it.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland (Vintage, 2016). 978-0099594031,488pp., paperback.

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