Book Review: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Belknap Press 2015

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t the most comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll out there. That’s not the author’s intention. Rather, he seeks to explore the available material on Carroll and Alice Liddell—much of which has never been published—as well as their historical context, to trace these elements to the genesis, content, and legacy of Carroll’s most famous works.

This is the biography of a literary creation more than a biography of its author or his Muse.

The book is structured in three main chronological sections, beginning with Carroll’s childhood and ending with Alice Liddell’s death, along with a prologue and epilogue:

  1. “Prologue: Snap” sets the stage, looking back from Alice Hargreaves’ (née Liddell’s) old age and her last period of fame, and establishes Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s reasons for writing this book.
  2. “Before Alice” begins with a brief examination of Carroll’s childhood and continues through his relationship with the Liddell girls at Christ Church, up to the writing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
  3. “Alice” explores the various ways Carroll’s most famous works reflect the society and times in which they were written.
  4. “After Alice” explores the legacy of these works and the impact they had on the lives of Carroll and Alice Liddell.
  5. “Epilogue: Unknown” acknowledges many of the limitations and challenges faced by anyone seeking to research the history of Carroll and the Alice books.

While it contains extensive biographical material on both Carroll and Alice Liddell, the primary purpose of this work is to embed our understanding of the Alice books in the time and place which produced them, to discern connections between Carroll’s world and the words he put to paper.

It’s worth noting that The Story of Alice isn’t a detailed textual analysis of Carroll’s creations. Naturally, the book is replete with references and quotations, but it’s clearly written for an audience already familiar with this material.

We tend to envision the Victorian Era as a stodgy, stuffy, conservative time. In reality, however, it was a period of rapid and significant change. I particularly appreciate how Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst contextualizes Lewis Carroll’s work in this environment.

Technological and scientific revolutions. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The first dinosaur bones discovered—monsters and myth beneath the Earth. The birth of modern psychology. The birth of science fiction. The development of modern urban infrastructure. The rise of the working class.

All these converged in a very short span of time to completely overturn the Victorian understanding of the world. Our relationship with our environment—both natural and man-made—was upended. Whereas the world had traditionally been seen as enduring and stable, suddenly our surroundings became changeable. Nature turned out not to be a pastoral paradise and instead became a place of danger and violent struggle, a place where things were not as they had always been and wouldn’t remain as they were. The basic social structure of society came deeply into question. Even our sense of self became mysterious, rife with hidden significance and potential subconscious meaning.

Nothing could be relied on the way people had traditionally assumed. Everything, it seemed, was in flux.

What better way to come to terms with a topsy-turvy world than through the eyes and mind of a child, for whom the whole world is new and still to be learned?

Carroll recognized that children are almost infinitely adaptable and he saw in this a mechanism to come to terms with the tectonic cultural and intellectual shifts occurring in the world around him. In his Alice books, he presents a world turned strange, the familiar made unrecognizable, normalcy rearranged into bizarre new configurations.

Carroll referenced well-known poems, songs, and other works of contemporary art throughout his Alice books, spoofing and satirizing the popular culture of his time. Sir John Tenniel modelled several figures in his illustrations on famous and notorious figures of the era.

This historical understanding poses a challenge for readers in the present-day. The majority of these pop-culture references are completely lost on us. There are levels of specificity and meaning in these works that most of us simply don’t see anymore. That they continue to offer so many timeless treasures—of language, of logic, of humor—is testament to the extent of Carroll’s unique genius.

Beyond this examination, Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst explores the legacy of Carroll’s Alice—how these works influenced subsequent generations of writers and other artistic media such as theatre and film, and even the strange power they held as metaphors for the confusion and violence of the World Wars. Alice was merchandised in various ways and, unlike most other famous authors of his time, Carroll was actively involved in this process, attempting (not always successfully) to control the paths by which his creation made its way into people’s homes.

I suspect that most readers will primarily be interested in the details Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst reveals about the personal lives of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. The Story of Alice doesn’t disappoint.

The author’s main interest in Alice Liddell is the contrast between her, the real-life Alice, and the literary creation. She wasn’t widely recognized as the inspiration for the Alice in Carroll’s books for much of her adult life. It wasn’t until the first part of the 20th century, and in her old age, that she had to deal with fame and issues of public perception. Far more fascinating is the evolution of Carroll’s relationship to her, as she outgrew his idealized vision of her childhood. Indeed, Carroll always struggled with the fact that his child friends grew up and outgrew him.

The bulk of The Story of Alice is devoted to an examination of Lewis Carroll himself. He was a man rife with contrasts. He was also intensely private and difficult to pin down.

Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s examination of Carroll’s childhood is one of my favorite sections of the book. He was a precociously creative child and developed his sly, subversive sense of humor at a surprisingly early age. Knowing more about what Carroll was like as a child makes me like him better. It gives me a greater appreciation for the work he produced as an adult.

For most readers, Lewis Carroll is recognized primarily for his love of language and puns, his love of riddles and logical games, and his playful sense of humor. However, he was shaped as a man and as an author by the competing pull of two contradictory impulses: his need for novelty and his need for tradition. His love of improvisational, almost chaotic, storytelling and his need for formal structure in his writing. His love of language and his fear of its ambiguity. This duality constituted the deepest core of his creative process and how he apprehended the world.

We see this in everything he wrote. His poetry is highly structured but also delights in playing with language and subverting meaning. Both Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land are built out of bits and pieces of the real world, but assembled in ways that are illogical and nigh unrecognizable. Events unfold in strict sequence but result in surprising and unexpected outcomes. Characters speak with highly formal grammar but conversations become nonsensical. Carroll found his greatest creative freedom within formal constraints.

His love of theatre comes from the same essential core. According to his diaries, Carroll attended over 400 theatrical performances in his life, many more than once, and he occasionally volunteered his time to help out with productions. He was actively involved in adapting his own work for the stage. The process of theatre parallels his own creative process—performances look spontaneous but are, in fact, tightly structured and rehearsed. Theatre also plays with time in ways that resonate with Carroll’s work—days and years can pass in moments, moments can stretch out to fill swaths of stage-time, and characters don’t ever need to age.

Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst emphasizes other aspects of Carroll’s personality, as well:

  • His belief that his writing made him a friend to his readers. He truly saw his work as a way to make personal connections with children. His attempts to control the legacy of Alice were, for him, a matter of maintaining these relationships. It was personal.
  • His abhorrence of fame and his continual attempts to maintain anonymity, to keep his private life separate from his identity as the author of the Alice books. These attempts were frequently inept and rarely successful.

These are just some highlights. Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst delves deeply.

The weakest part of the book is the prologue. Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst opens with an examination of Alice Hargreaves’ (née Liddell) visit to New York City in 1932. In this section, he offers several quotes attributed to her, both to illustrate how she herself enabled the myth surrounding her role as “Alice in Wonderland,” and also to represent her personal views on the man and the books that made her famous. Some of them come from her own diaries, letters, and published interviews. However, some of these statements come from sources written by her son, Caryl Liddell Hargreaves, credited to her with the caveat that these were things she “told to her son.” We’re left to take his word for it that these are things his mother actually said.

Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst is too credulous of this source. There’s a possibility that her son took advantage of his mother’s fame for his own gain. He may have put words in her mouth. While the author acknowledges this possibility toward the end of the book, he evinces no compunction about using these quotes as an accurate and reliable record of Mrs. Hargreaves’ opinions and beliefs at the beginning. I would be more comfortable with this section of the work if the author was more critical of this information.

And now to address the elephant in the room…

A large part of our fascination with Lewis Carroll is prurient—a grown man who liked to spend time hanging out with little girls, taking them on picnics, photographing them… There must have been something creepy going on, right?

[I should state that the amount of time I spend analyzing this issue here is disproportionate to the amount of time Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst dedicates to it in his book.]

Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst is circumspect on this issue—almost annoyingly so. He briefly addresses the topic early in the book and concludes that Carroll’s motives for socializing with little girls were probably innocent, although available evidence can’t definitively conclude things either way. This seems like the end of the matter.

But then he brings it up again a few chapters later—maybe Carroll’s motives weren’t so innocent after all. He examines more of the scant evidence we have and concludes, again, that indeed, his motives seem more-or-less pure.

And then Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst does it again, a couple of chapters later. And then again. Every few chapters throughout the book, he brings up the issue of Carroll’s motives, always to tease the possibility of something salacious, only to come back around to inconclusive-but-probable innocence.

Handling this issue in this manner quickly begins to feel manipulative. It comes across as self-consciously sensationalistic. Given the tone of reasoned scholarly inquiry that characterizes the rest of the work, it feels strangely out of place. I would far prefer if he had devoted one whole section to tackling this issue and been done with it.

What we know is this:

There were those who believed even at the time that Carroll was courting Alice Liddell (there was also a rumor that he spent time with the Liddell children in order to court their governess). There were those at the time who wondered if there was a romantic relationship between them. There were similar rumors regarding his relationships with other girls. Some people even believed that he was actually seducing them. His entire life was plagued by persistent rumors of impropriety and impure motives.

The problem is that there exists no definitive evidence of this. There’s no reliable source to suggest that Carroll ever desired a romantic connection with any child. Some of his “child-friends” wrote memoirs as adults and they all affirm that Carroll never did anything improper with them. He was known to be very prickly about insisting on proper deference to him as an adult. He wouldn’t tolerate insolence or children treating him as if he was, himself, a child. Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst also makes the point that Carroll’s one constant throughout all of his relationships with children was a love of teaching. He took great joy in using games and puzzles to educate the children with whom he spent his time.

Even if he had a romantic interest in Alice Liddell, or in any of the girls with whom he socialized, it wouldn’t have been entirely out of the ordinary. It wasn’t unheard of in Victorian times for men in their 20s and 30s to betroth girls in their pre- and early teens, and marry them when they reached their mid-to-late teens. The problem that Carroll’s contemporaries had with the thought of him courting Alice had nothing to do with their relative ages—it was a matter of wealth and class disparity. Carroll wasn’t an appropriate match for her.

But this is assuming that he was romantically interested. Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst emphasizes that the available evidence can’t definitively support such a conclusion. It can’t be ruled out but it appears more likely that Carroll’s motives were, in fact, innocent.

The larger problem in all this—as the author points out—are the nude photographs Carroll took of little girls. Without these, there would be far less question about his true motives. Once again, Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst works to set these images within the context of their time, and argues that such art had a place in Victorian society that wasn’t sexualized or romanticized. Besides which, these photographs constitute a very small percentage of Carroll’s total photographic output. The author also points out that Carroll was always extremely careful to make certain that parents were assured of the innocence of these images. Indeed, Carroll stopped taking photographs entirely after a controversy when the parents of one child misunderstood what he believed was an innocent kiss. It’s as though the very thought of sexuality associated with his photographs besmirched the purity of his artistic pursuit beyond repair.

More than anything, available evidence makes it clear that Carroll was concerned with the purity of morals.

In that case, it’s tempting to assume that Carroll must have been an emotionally stunted adult, underdeveloped in some fundamental way. Why else would he spend so much of his social time with children? Indeed, this psychological interpretation arose in the early 20th century and has persisted ever since. Through Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s research, we learn that Carroll maintained an active social life with a large circle of adult friends. He didn’t shun the company of adults in favor of spending time with children. Our obsessive focus on his relationships with little girls doesn’t offer a complete picture of his life. Moreover, there’s no evidence of the sort of childhood trauma or neglect that frequently accompanies such a lack of healthy emotional development.

Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst places Carroll’s behavior within another context of Victorian culture—specifically, the so-called “Cult of the Child.” It was widely believed in Carroll’s day that children were innocent and uncorrupted. Little girls, especially, were thought to be vessels of purity. Many adults felt that spending time in the presence of children offered redemptive benefits, a path to regain some degree of lost innocence. Being around children was good for the adult soul. Carroll was by no means alone in this.

This is not to say that some adults didn’t cross the line into an unhealthy obsession with little girls, as Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst acknowledges. But available evidence suggests that Lewis Carroll wasn’t one of them.

The book even considers that possibility that Carroll may have been homosexual. He was certainly known to be effeminate. Personally, I would think that asexual is a more likely diagnosis. The problem remains—available evidence supports no conclusion definitively.

By the last couple decades of the 19th century, the “Cult of the Child” began coming under attack. Psychology recognized that children were people—not pure, not innocent, not exemplars of some higher state of being. Growing awareness of class disparity made it clear that the experience of many children was nothing like the idyll of innocence that Carroll cleaved to. Investigative journalists even exposed the world of child prostitution to the public at large.

Through all this, Carroll clung all the more tightly to his idealized vision of childhood as a time of innocence. He continued to assert the purity of children. For him, this ideal of childhood was far more important than the reality of it. His own diary and letters show how proficient he was at ignoring or rationalizing whenever one of his child friends behaved in a manner that didn’t jibe with his vision how children were supposed to be. His own diary and letters show his distaste for children who didn’t meet his standards. His own diary and letters testify to his tendency to see adults as entirely separate people from the children they used to be, as he watched his child friends grow up.

As the world around him began to turn away from this treasured belief of childhood purity, the Alice of his books came more and more to represent an archetype to him, and less any one specific little girl.

I also find it very telling that Carroll always, consistently and throughout his life, spoke of children using sacred language. He spoke of them as though they were angelic beings and not necessarily human at all. This, combined with his almost fanatical faith in innocence and purity, suggest that his deepest motives weren’t sexual or romantic. For Carroll, it was a matter of principle. It was a matter of faith.

But we can’t know that for certain. The evidence simply doesn’t tell anything definitively.

In the end, Lewis Carroll remains mysterious and undefined in certain essential ways. Perhaps his greatest usefulness to us is as an inkblot test for those who seek to understand him—what we read into his mystery tells us more about ourselves than it does about him. Alice, likewise, remains relevant as a work which can reflect our own society and times back at us—changed and distorted, a fun-house mirror revealing our own ridiculousness.

Virginia Woolf said that Carroll’s are the only children’s books “in which we [adults] become children.” Not merely childish, not merely reminiscing, and certainly not adults explaining things to a child. Carroll makes us children again, and we get to experience the world as we did in our own bygone days.

This, more than anything, lay at the heart of Carroll’s enduring popularity.

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