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)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era