Golden afternoons: Lewis Carroll and his muse

The origins of Alice in Wonderland.

When I started writing After Such Kindness, it didn’t initially occur to me that I had chosen yet another Victorian literary giant on whom to pin a novel. In my mind, there was very little similarity between Charles Dickens and Charles Dodgson except for the sound of their names; and while I loved Dickens, I couldn’t say quite the same about Dodgson or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. What interested me this time was the nature of the relationship between the writer and his child-muse, Alice Liddell, and how that might illuminate our views on the innocence or otherwise of an intimate friendship between an adult man and a child.

No one knows the real story of what happened during those "golden afternoons" when Dodgson was an intimate of the Liddell household. There has been conjecture, of course - inspired by the fact that the young man became, quite suddenly, a persona non grata with Mrs Liddell and that (possibly incriminating) pages are missing from his diary around that time. The estrangement was not necessarily to do with Alice – but the sudden rupture of a relationship in which Dodgson had been frequently entrusted with the care and entertainment of the Liddell girls has given rise to the idea that he must have done something seriously inappropriate, possibly of a sexual nature. This speculation has been given credibility because of Dodgson’s life-long obsession with little girls (his "child-friends") and his habit of photographing some of them in scanty dress, or even unclothed.

The whole scenario intrigued me as a writer and as a former social worker. How did the child see the relationship? How did her family? What of Dodgson himself? Was his interest innocent – or prurient? How would he be regarded today if he behaved in the same way - a single man who corresponded with many children and took nude photographs of some of them? A man who kept about his person a variety of toys and puzzles to attract the attention of children whom he might meet in railway carriages or public parks and who made it his business to discover the addresses of those whose looks or manners attracted him? A man who made friends with their mothers so he could get to know the children? A man who took them out on solitary expeditions, and even on holiday?  He would almost certainly be classed as a "risky adult" – maybe a stalker; maybe an internet chatroom seducer; maybe a child pornographer; maybe a rather creepy "friend of the family" - and not allowed anywhere near children. I’d certainly want an eye kept on him if he lived down the road from me.

But like so many things in life, I dare say the truth is infinitely complicated, and it is this that I wanted to explore. Was everything as benign and harmless as Dodgson represented it?  Does it matter if he got some sort of sexual satisfaction from his child-friendships if, as it has been said, the children were unharmed? Or were they harmed? Paedophilia as now defined as the use (in any form) of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult, so Dodgson the photographer and possible voyeur comes well within this definition. And although his child-friends rallied in his defence, children may have all sorts of reasons for denying (or blanking out) abuse, and adults can be wilfully blind to things they don’t want to contemplate, especially where respectable people (like priests and clergymen) are involved. And damage can run very deep and last for years.

I try to explore all these ideas by taking the story well beyond 1862, and adding a number of fictional twists, arising from Carrollian notions of dreams, madness and the whole question of identity, as well as the confusions of sexual awakening. But although Alice in Wonderland is the inspiration and theme, I have written my own version of events and my own imaginative extension of the story, in which the historical personages have a role, but not a defining one. Daisy Baxter is a fictional child who grows up to discover the truth behind the "kindness" she was once shown.

Gaynor Arnold's "After Such Kindness" is published on 5 July by Tindal Street Press (£12.99)

Photographs taken by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (Credit: Getty Images)
DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit