The Story of Alice, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

>> Saturday, March 19, 2016

TITLE: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
AUTHOR: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

PAGES: 497

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Non-Fiction

This is the secret history of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairy tale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his 'dream-child', a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.
I read (or attempted to read) this for my book club. We wanted to choose a biography and the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards had just come out, so we picked one from there. This one sounded interesting to most people, so we went with it.

As the title indicates, this is the story of Alice in Wonderland. It's the story of the book, but also of its author and of the girl that inspired it.

I did not get on with it at all and neither did my fellow book clubers... so much so that we had to cancel the meeting because there really wasn't a quorum.

My main problem was that I found the author's style incredibly annoying. I felt he read much too much into the most minor details. He would draw really fanciful conclusions that weren't reasonable or plausible. Even worse: he would present them in an overly assured way. It's hard to convey just how preposterous it all was, so probably best to let Douglas-Fairhurst himself do the work for me. I'll give you just a couple of random examples, but I can assure you, there are bits like this in practically every page.

Speculating about why Carroll zeroed in so much on Alice Lidell (the young girl, daughter of the college's Dean, to whom Carroll told the proto version of the story):

" any case there were plenty of other things about Alice that Carroll would have found attractive. She was born on 4 May 1852, a year which happened to fall exactly halfway between the first recorded uses of ‘nonsense poetry’ (1851) and the adjective ‘no-nonsense’ (1853), and if the close conjunction of those phrases neatly sums up a much larger struggle in the Victorian imagination, between a sensible but rather straitened approach to life and a much zanier alternative, it also hints at the mixture of qualities in Carroll’s potential new friend."
I'm sorry, but WTF? He goes on later in that section:

"Clearly Alice Liddell’s personality was a significant attraction, as was her proximity in Christ Church, which made her friendship convenient as well as genuinely enticing. [OK, that kind of makes sense...] But another and much simpler reason may have been her name.

Some years later Carroll invented the word game Doublets, in which players were supposed to turn one word into another, making the dead live (DEAD, lead, lend, lent, lint, line, LIVE) or mice rats (MICE, mite, mate, mats, RATS). Transforming ALICE LIDDELL into LEWIS CARROLL, or performing the same trick the other way round, is impossible without falling into gobbledygook, although meeting someone whose name had the same shape may still have appealed to a writer who only a few weeks earlier had published ‘Solitude’."
Huh? Do you see why I found myself so annoyed by this crap?

I was also uncomfortable with how the author dealt with the controversial issue here, which is the nature of Carroll's relationship with Alice Lidell. He was clearly drawn to children, especially young, pre-pubescent girls, to an extent which is very disturbing and creepy to the modern reader. People seem to take all sorts of positions on the issue, from thinking it was all innocent and simply a product of a man who was a bit socially awkward, to assuming full-blown paedophilia (interpretations closer to the latter end of the spectrum seem supported by the fact that Carroll's family members cut out and destroyed several pages of his diary which seem clearly to be about the relationship in question). I have no idea where on this spectrum I am, mainly due to ignorance of the subject, and this book didn't particularly help dispel that. Douglas-Fairhurst seems to mostly be on the "innocent" part of the spectrum, but rather than convince me, the way he would twist himself into knots trying to argue this made me suspicious.

In this section, he speculates on something Alice's sister Ina says about a time when Carroll distanced himself from the Lidells:
"Looking back on events in 1930, Ina told Alice that the biographer Florence Becker Lennon had asked her why Carroll stopped coming to the Deanery. ‘I think she tried to see if Mr. Dodgson ever wanted to marry you!!’ Ina wrote, with a double exclamation mark that perhaps indicated how ridiculous the idea was, or alternatively how close Lennon had come to stumbling upon the truth. Her next letter to her sister was equally ambiguous. ‘I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it,’ she explained, ‘and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again, as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing.’ But this could indicate either that ‘his manner became too affectionate towards you’ (i.e. he behaved inappropriately), or ‘his manner became too affectionate towards you’ (i.e. I was jealous of the attention you were getting, or glad that you were attracting it rather than me). Even her final comment that ‘Mr. Dodgson used to take you on his knee. I know I did not say that!’ is not straightforward. Was she reminding Alice of a childhood secret they had shared, or complaining that Lennon had tried to put words into her mouth?"
Sorry, but what about "as you grew older" bit on the accusation that Carroll's manner towards Alice became too affectionate? That seems obvious that it wasn't the second interpretation.

And then there's this:

"Mrs Liddell might have been even more nervous if she had read Carroll’s diary entry after his final boat trip with her daughters: ‘A pleasant expedition,’ he wrote, ‘with a very pleasant conclusion.’ Was this a kiss? And if so, was it a ceremony conducted with the chaste solemnity of the Dodo giving Alice a thimble, or was it just a spontaneous muddle of mouths?"
This bit combines all I disliked about this book. How the hell do you go from Carroll saying the expedition had a "pleasant conclusion" to interpreting this means that the conclusion involved a kiss? And "spontaneous muddle of mouths"? Euwwww!! This is a little girl we're talking about!

I pushed through almost to the halfway point, but when it became clear there wasn't going to be much of a discussion at book club, I gave up.



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