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Monday, September 05, 2016

The Story of Alice

Alice in Wonderland, as popularly known, is one of the most enduring books ever written. Not only did author Lewis Carroll write a book that has been found in nurseries for going on over 150 years, but he created new words and several quotations in Bartlett's. Beyond the text itself, the Alice books have a lore to go with it, and Carroll's life, while in some ways dull--he was a don at Oxford--have also provided a century and a half of interpretation.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has captured all of that in The Story of Alice. I've read a biography of Carroll, but this is more than that. It's a biography of a book, which includes Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Alice Liddell, who was the model for one of the most famous little girls in literature. Douglas-Fairhurst also examines Carroll's influences and his legacy, at least up until the 1930s. My only quibble is that he does not push on to more recent adaptations and interpretations of the books.

Carroll, as most know, was an odd duck. He was a mathematics professor by profession, a writer, and a photographer. But he may be best remembered by literary types as a man who had an obsession with little girls. Any study of Carroll today and his relationship with girls seems inordinately creepy, but was not considered so back then. "The most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual, and the only way he could keep them from fading over time was to invest them in something more permanent than people. Whereas real girls grew in unpredictable spurts, and sometimes changed out of all recognition, art was reassuringly constant," Douglas-Fairhurst writes. There is a section on how Carroll regarded kissing--it was appropriate to kiss girls under twelve, but older than that would be unseemly.

This is exacerbated by his photography: "more than 50 per cent of his total recorded output were photographs of children, mostly young girls." And, some of them were nudes. They included pictures of Alice Liddell, and Douglas-Fairhurst writes of one: "The whole relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell is capable of producing similar uncertainty in modern readers, and it is not only photographs like 'Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes" that ask us to decide whether the surviving traces of their friendship should be viewed as evidence of Carroll’s innocence or as something more like a crime scene."

The Story of Alice recounts Carroll's early life, his creation of the story, then the publication of it (he held a tight hand over it), the contributions of artist John Tenniel, and the aftermath. Carroll lived long enough to see stage versions, but not film, and Douglas-Fairhurst discusses many of those, up to the 1934 MGM version. (I would have liked to know what he thought of the Tim Burton film and it's sequel).

Alice, for her part, married well, and while the character became world famous she faded into anonymity. She lost two sons in World War I, and, when an old lady, auctioning off Carroll's gift to her, the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground, the world was astonished to realize she was still alive. She was feted and even invited to New York for the centenary of Carroll's birth (which is the subject of another film Douglas-Fairhurst doesn't mention, Dreamchild).

What I found most interesting is how the Alice books fit into the larger Victorian culture. Childhood was really invented during that time--before that, children were seen as just small adults, expected to work and not be fussed over. "Alongside the older evangelical view of children as little slivers of sin, they were now seen as holy innocents untainted by the dirty compromises of adult life; they were beacons of hope that lit up the moral fog around them." Little girls were especially useful as symbols of innocence, especially in the work of Dickens. But Carroll did something different--he wasn't sentimental: "it was still broadly accepted that the primary task of a children’s book was to guide manners and improve morals; if it also entertained its readers, that was merely a dusting of sugar on the pill." The Alice books are vastly entertaining, and have practically no moralizing.

While Carroll may be the most retroactively psychoanalyzed author in the history of letters, the fact remains that his books have always been popular. "By the end of the century, key moments from both Alice books would feature in jigsaw puzzles, stereoscope slides, nursery ware, card games and many other pieces of merchandise," and beyond that, "by the end of the nineteenth century it had become something more like a cultural multiverse, a loose network of real places and intangible ideas where the line that divided the actual from the possible could be stretched and blurred. Inevitably, deciding where the ordinary world shaded into a more exotic alternative was largely a matter of perception."

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