‘The Story Of Alice – Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland’ – A Book Review


Lewis Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, was the son of a cleric and it appears that he had a rather boring and ‘funless’ childhood. He was deeply religious, eventually becoming a deacon in his church.  Paradoxically, this austere, possibly very lonely man, went on to write two of the most famous and popular children’s stories of all time: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking-Glass. During and following his lifetime there were myriad plagiarized versions of his stories, many using the name ‘Alice’ and the word ‘Wonderland’ in their titles; 19th century England did not have copyright laws so plagiarism was rife. Before the Alice series, children’s stories were largely moralistic in tone or derived from biblical narratives.

Carroll’s drawings and sketches were childlike and did not meet his exacting standards, so he employed professionals to do the artwork for his published stories… and then later the first camera was invented. Carroll was inspired to add his own photographs, mainly of little girls, to his prolific writings, and it must be said, for his own enjoyment and collections.

To be a Victorian photographer, wrote Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the author of The Story Of Alice – Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, required “the knowledge of a chemist, the eye of an artist, and the patience of a saint”. The new craft suited the meticulous Dodgson, and the art of photography further inspired his alter ego, Lewis Carroll the story teller. He could prolong his fascination with childhood by photographing little girls, ideally in the nude. “A girl of about 12,” he wrote towards the end of his life, “is my ideal beauty of form.” And he could never understand … “why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up”. It is true that Carroll preferred images of prepubescent girls to those on the cusp of womanhood.  It disturbed him greatly to witness the physical changes in his Alice …that is Alice Liddell, who inspired him to write about Alice’s Adventures.

Christ Church at Oxford was the epitome of an academic and social establishment, where the eccentric Dodgson fitted in perfectly. He never really left once he had moved in. In his reality, Charles Dodgson and Lewis Carroll were two separate people so he certainly did not appreciate his fans addressing letters to ‘Lewis Carroll’ at Charles Dodgson’s rooms at Oxford. He preferred to keep his two selves quite separate. In the opening pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is made very clear that Alice “was very fond of pretending to be two people”.

Pretty eight-year-old Alice Liddell, especially, captivated the young Charles. Her father was Dean of Christ Church and Dodgson often took Alice and her sisters boating on the river, while telling them enchanting stories he’d made up. Alice had dark, elfin features, and the kind of fashionable clothes that made her look, says Douglas-Fairhurst, “rather like a well-dressed doll”.

Author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is also an Oxford don, which allowed  him a good perspective from which to explore the story of Alice and her brilliant creator, while Oxford itself is a kind of Wonderland  where figures like Humpty Dumpty might be found sitting on any of the high walls, instructing students that “a word means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.

While waiting for the proofs of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dodgson noted with distaste that “Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better”. She was then 13. Already, from 1858 to 1862, Dodgson’s peculiar intimacy with Miss Liddell had become the subject of intense Oxford gossip.

The charm of photography [for Dodgson] Douglas-Fairhurst suggests, is that it prevented children from changing; what photographs offered was “a new way of grappling with the power of time”. Adults, Dodgson noted, “look before and after, and sigh for what is not”, whereas a child can say “I am happy now” and that moment in time can be caught with a click. In this sense, writes Douglas-Fairhurst, photographs are like dreams; the dreamer sees the world once again through the eyes of a child. This dream-like effect is captured perfectly in the Alice books.

Just as Alice grows an incredibly long neck and then shrinks to the size of a mouse, language also alters and expands. The Oxford English Dictionary contains almost 200 examples of words and phrases from the Alice books, including ‘beamish’, ‘chortle’, ‘frabjous’, ‘galumphing’, ‘curiouser and curiouser’, and the now ubiquitous ‘We’re all mad here’.

Dodgson/Carroll forever changed stories written especially for children…from tedious moral lessons and formidable biblical characters, to nonsensical humans and animals inhabiting dreamlands full of mysteries and dramas. He was a brilliant master of the English language which, combined with his vivid imagination, made him the ultimate children’s story teller.

Douglas-Fairhurst is the latest recruit to an army of Alice analysts baffled to distraction by the quest for answers to the Alice conundrum. But Carroll’s apparently inconsequential wordplays which he loved sharing with his child friends, are replete with consequences. As the Queen of Hearts says: “Every joke should have a meaning.” Along with the Bible and Shakespeare, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are among the most quoted works of English literature. “Nonsense” is a peculiarly English genre, and Virginia Woolf is said to have commented: ”…these are not books for children. They are the only books in which we become children”.

Was Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll a ‘paedophile’ or a creative genius? Was it possible he could have been both? It is interesting to note that this particular word first appeared in public around this time.  Dodgson always insisted, following the success of his Alice in Wonderland tales,  that he was two different people, and maybe this allowed  him a Jekyll and Hyde existence; his wholesome alter ego Lewis Carroll wrote children’s stories, and played games with friends’ children, while the ‘real’ Charles Dodgson, the loner, the man who seemingly never wanted to become an adult,  harboured  private black thoughts.

However, the author of The Story Of Alice is having none of it! He argues that Charles Dodgson was not a paedophile and there is no evidence that he ever acted improperly with Alice the child, or any other children. Indeed, Alice Liddell never accused Dodgson of abusing her in any way and in fact she became a fund raiser after he died, helping to collate and organise his papers and works and install them in a museum. She also appeared at celebrations of Carroll’s life and his extensive works. In the end though, it is apparent that Alice Liddell was “tired” of the never-ending media hype surrounding her as being the ‘real’ Alice of Wonderland fame. However, there are the missing pages from Dodgson’s private diary which were removed after his death, probably by his family, so there will always be questions and suspicions swirling around Charles Dodgson’s close friendships with several young girls.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst loves Carroll’s books and they motivated him to study Charles Dodgson with an open mind, despite the suspicion with which others may view Dodgson, particularly since the early 20th century. The Story of Alice is a comprehensive study into the enigma of Dodgson’s complicated life within a Victorian ‘wonderland’ encompassing the Victorian era’s methods of austere child rearing, alongside Christian belief systems; the fantastical dreamlands that Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories allowed bored and lonely children to escape into…a realm of make-believe and wide-eyed wonder.  Still, concludes Douglas-Fairhurst, the quest for answers “cannot be satisfied by anything we know” and he reaches “the probable conclusion” that Dodgson’s  “strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual”.

To me personally, this book is an in depth analysis of 19th Century English literature and how children’s stories and ‘fairytales’ developed over time as a specific genre which encouraged children to read and collect their favourite books.  Alice’s dream adventures instilled in children worldwide, the passion for reading; that thrill of opening a book full of weird and exciting characters who occupied a fantastical world of dream images. They also later inspired two Disney brothers to ‘dream up’ one of the most famous childhood cartoon characters, Micky  Mouse.  The catalyst was one eccentric, very intelligent loner, with a split personality, who preferred the company of little girls to that of adult women.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 11 November 2019


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