New Times,
New Thinking.

Lewis Carroll: revelations about Alice and her wonderland

New studies by Edward Wakeling and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uncover the story of one of literature's most debated men.

By Lyndall Gordon

My house is among a row built in the 1870s, when Oxford dons were allowed to marry. Before then, they were celibate clerics, living in college. In 1855 Charles Dodgson took up his post as a mathematician at the grandest of the colleges, Christ Church, and spent his life there, finding diversion in the new art of photography, in nonsense verse and in friendships with children who responded to the humour of his rhymes. Ordained as a deacon in 1861, he became famous as Lewis Carroll, presenting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), as tales prompted by a real-life Alice. In his diary and introductory verse, Carroll pictures himself on a fateful day, 4 July 1862, in a boat with Alice and two of her sisters, the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church.

In his story of Carroll and Alice Liddell, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst traces the boat’s route as it moves upriver, through Port Meadow, towards Godstow: “a bleakly beautiful expanse of grassland” where rabbits “lollop comically in the undergrowth”.

So we are borne away from the city and into a pastoral. It is recognisable as a place where I have walked from our house in all seasons. All the same, it is a dream in the making. It was during this river outing that Carroll first entertained the Liddell girls with what would become the Alice stories. Carroll pumps in the summer heat and the languor of the river party in the shade of a hayrick. In reality, there was total cloud cover on that particular day. Yet, warming to the dream, “little arms” row and, all the while, the storyteller is performing in his habitual way: “a handful of songs or skits he had prepared in advance, linking them together with dizzying flights of improvisation”. Carroll is urged on by Alice, the “dream-child”, who calls for the “nonsense” that is the best of Wonderland.

Alice didn’t look like the blonde “Alice” with the big hair of John Tenniel’s illustrations. These came later when Carroll revised and expanded his manuscript Alice’s Adventures under Ground. The real Alice had a neat, black bob with a fringe across her forehead. But I fancy that she was, like her fictional namesake, curious, questioning and politely opinionated.

Dodgson photographed Alice in dramatising outfits, such as “Queen of the May”, with a wreath on her head. In some indefinable way he was in love with her (as he was in love with numerous “child-friends”, as he chose to call them). Douglas-Fairhurst explores the ambiguities of this tie, taking in the revolution in attitude between the mid-Victorians’ idealisation of purity and our present-day alertness to sexual labels. The word “paedophilia” did not exist in English in Carroll’s lifetime. Its first use came in 1903, five years after his death.

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There is a bravura chapter on the ambiguity of kisses and a searching treatment of “darling”, as Carroll’s usage shifts from formality to flirting to covert emotional expressiveness in his letters to little girls. As a form of address it can be innocuous. Yet a public convention can “encourage a form of flirting, by allowing the private to be smuggled in under the guise of the public, like someone who can only speak their true feelings when they are hiding behind a mask”.

This biographer’s flair for play of language brings Douglas-Fairhurst closer to Carroll than anyone else – and that may even include Carroll. Delicate reading contrives to prise open the play of words: the hovering teases dancing in the wings as a fallback – a verbal protection at the ready, that Dodgson can bring on stage should awkwardness arise. Alice told her mother that Mr Dodgson had requested a lock of her hair and then, when the little girl obliged, he’d made out that he hadn’t wanted it really. It was only a joke.

The cupboards in his room were crammed with toys, puzzles and games, brought out when he made friends with children on trains and at the seaside. From 1877, there was an annual summer holiday at Eastbourne. That first summer, he was drawn to a five-year-old called Dolly, who bounced “on springs”, as though she moved to music in her being. He offered a present but she ran away; and, when pressed by her family to thank him, she went into “a fit of almost hysterical crying”, his diary reports. And when he made a further “experimental visit”, Dolly “cried the whole time”. His perseverance – or was it coercion? – would have appeared kind and gentlemanly to Dolly’s family. Calling her “a regular little coquette”, Dodgson consoled himself with another little girl who “came and sat on my knee after an acquaintance of a few minutes”. His surviving sketchbooks show pencil drawings of girls posing with their skirts tucked up to avoid the waves.

Edward Wakeling is determined to absolve Carroll from current suspicion, citing the memories of many child-friends, all of whom recalled Mr Dodgson fondly. His full-on attentiveness made each feel special. Wakeling places him solidly and securely in the context of his time, a mid-Victorian who is far from abnormal. This approach is convincing in its own way.

So it is that biographical judgement slides back and forth like faces or animal figures that switch when viewed from different angles. “Carroll’s true motivations remain a troubling blank,” Douglas-Fairhurst admits. This conclusion resonates all the more for his biographical feat: a startling proximity to Dodgson/Lewis Carroll through lending himself to his subject’s diverse faces and his care to place those faces alongside those of contemporaries: the tender reverence of Dickens for Little Nell and Little Dorrit, for example.

The two quite different biographies are here to mark the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. Wakeling ably brings out the public face, drawing on letters and diaries so that Dodgson/Carroll speaks for himself. This is really a collection of Lives that intersected with Carroll’s, including Tennyson, Ellen Terry and what is verifiable about Alice Liddell. The public Carroll is more approachable and unambiguous – meeting him is, in a way, a relief from dealing with his difficult side. Both biographers, though, agree on the sadness caused by the fleeting nature of childhood.

Dodgson told himself that “there are few things in the world so evanescent as a child’s love”. This simply isn’t true: children do have enduring attachments. The problem for Dodgson was the unconscious element in his love that forbade it beyond puberty. For him, as for fellow Victorians, upper- and middle-class childhood was a separate realm of “innocent unselfconsciousness”, untainted by grown-ups. Girls such as Alice, from the upper middle class, were freed for a few years to be their authentic selves before their families put them forward for the marriage market.

Much as Dodgson/Carroll continued to love Alice, she withdrew while she was still a child. The withdrawal began in 1863, only a year after the boat journey. In 1864, he presented Alice with his bound manu­script of Alice’s Adventures under Ground, illustrated by the author. But it was never the same again, and no one knows what went wrong.

I am struck by Dodgson’s last photograph of Alice, in 1870, at the age of 18. Here, she is almost ostentatiously withdrawn; in a sense not there, only the façade of a young woman elegantly dressed. Her slumped posture, head turned from the camera’s eye, is saying “No”, in no uncertain terms, though it is obvious from her fretful expression that formal obedience has required her limp body to be placed in front of the camera. Was it the prospect of the marriage market that had made Alice spiritless? Or can it be that Alice had come to resist Carroll – and, if so, why?

When T S Eliot said that Henry James “preyed” on others, he wasn’t talking about sex; he was recognising the habits of writers, not excluding himself. The people whom James possessed in his imagination became, Eliot went on, “victims of a merciless clairvoyance”. Is it conceivable that Alice felt a victim in this way, possessed by Carroll as material for his imagination?

Certainly, in her fictional character, she has the freshness of an inquiring mind. It subverts what Wordsworth called the “prison-house”, the rigid structures of adult society, epitomised by the weird ways and get-up of the law court in Wonderland. This girl’s curiosity is superior to intellect – a readiness to be fully alive to whatever is new and strange. But as the real Alice grew up in the 1860s and 1870s, there was as yet no path for young women into higher education. Lady Margaret Hall opened its doors to the first nine women in 1879. By then Alice Liddell was 27, and the following year she married an immensely rich Old Etonian, Reginald Hargreaves, who wore a sealskin waistcoat and carried a silk umbrella. They were wed in Westminster Abbey, where Alice the child disappears into the silver tissue of her wedding gown. Emily Dickinson, with deadly acumen, sums up the bridal narrative from a woman’s angle: “Born—Bridalled—Shrouded—/In a day”. Alice, who was no longer “Alice”, whose society marriage did not encourage curiosity (as indicated by the travel diary of her honeymoon abroad), entered on country-house routines at a great pile, Cuffnells, near Lymington in the New Forest. She insisted that her servants call her “Lady Hargreaves”, though she wasn’t.

Exploring the past of our Oxford home, my journalist daughter, Olivia Gordon, has come upon a curious fact. She tells me that ours was once the home of three girls called Beatrice, Evelyn and Ethel Hatch, who succeeded Alice as child-friends of Lewis Carroll. His photographs of the Hatch sisters have caused controversy because he posed them in the nude. Beatrice, with knees drawn up, is perched on a rock supposedly on the edge of the sea. Neither of the new biographies brings up the most disturbing of the photographs, exhibited in the Tate’s 2001-2002 show “Exposed: the Victorian Nude”. It shows Evelyn Hatch, aged eight, on 29 July 1879, outstretched on her back with a leg pushed to one side and arms behind her head so as to lift her childish torso in a pose that hints at the woman’s body to come. Carroll had an artist colour in the flesh tints. This photograph is about the beauty of the flesh; what is not present is the character and intelligence of a girl who went on to study philosophy at St Hugh’s College, across the road from her home.

To Carroll the nude is art; to others, the nude looks naked. Leading critical opinion against Carroll was a mother called Mrs Owen, a trained barrister and well connected as niece to the vice-chancellor of the university. It happened in 1880 that Carroll kissed Mrs Owen’s daughter, thinking her a child, when she was in fact 17 years old. He claimed that the girl herself had consented, and sent a courteous apology to her mother, promising an end to kisses. He expected to hear no more of this, but then made a curious mistake: he suggested that Mrs Owen look at his photographs of Beatrice Hatch. It was at this very time, 1880, that Carroll gave up photography.

Douglas-Fairhurst leads us through the thicket of meaning between nude and naked. His astute reading of Carroll’s letters detects that “the more strongly Carroll insists on a child’s blissful unselfconsciousness, the more self-conscious his own writing became. Girls were variously ‘undraped’ . . . they were ‘in primitive costume’ or in ‘Eve’s original dress’ or in ‘their favourite dress of “nothing”’.”

No girl he photographed was going to air her unease after the fact. Undoubtedly Carroll found prepubescent bodies beautiful, as in his famed, pre-“Alice” photograph of Alice Liddell as a beggar girl, her ragged dress slipping off one shoulder to expose a nipple. Tennyson said this was the most beautiful photograph he ever saw. To me it looks contrived and distinctly impure compared with Julia Margaret Cameron’s soulful photograph of Alice as a sensitive young woman. Cameron’s photographs are different from Dodgson’s: her nude children are ethereal; they embody the Romantic belief that children come “trailing clouds of glory”.

I wonder if there are women today who, as I do, recall subtle forms of coercion for which a child has no words? A photographic scene has remained in my memory from the age of four. I was sent to stay the night with a theatre couple. The wife, a dancer, was a close friend of my mother, and my mother was told, and relayed this to me, that they longed for a daughter. They proved charmingly attentive – more than I was used to – and took me to the theatre, but the next morning I was led out on to the lawn. The husband, a jolly impresario, took off my dress and made me lie on the grass, toes pointed and hands under my chin. In the photo he took, my face is creased with unease: I did not want to be posed in my vest and panties and ever after disliked the man. I could easily understand if Alice Liddell, however innocent, did not care to take off her dress and put on revealing rags.

Did Alice ever express pleasure in the expanded Wonderland? I mean the pleasure of a reader, not pride in being “Alice” in a classic. Can it be that, expanded as a book, rather than a brief oral story taking off from a girl who spots a rabbit in the familiar landscape of Port Meadow, it rather bored her, as the later chapters bored me when I read them as a child? The satire was lost on me; the madness of the court read like a situation comedy that goes on too long.

What wasn’t lost on me was the raucous aggression of the Duchess and the screaming Queen. It read like rampant misogyny. The loathsomeness of these adult women made me squirm for my sex. And the image of a baby as a pig did not make me laugh. A meticulous bachelor might be repelled by soggy bottoms, but that’s not the way girls think.

Wakeling, who has been chair of the Carroll Society, defends him ably, abjuring speculation in his informative and readable portrait of the man in his circle. Carroll, he reveals, had loads of ties with both eminent and less eminent Victorians. This is a surprisingly sociable man, unlike the common view of him as stuttering, shy and solitary.

No sooner does a biographer venture one face of Lewis Carroll than another appears to contradict it. So it is persuasive to find the stress on ambiguity in Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Sifting facts for meaning in fine-tuned words, this is biography at its best. To read it slowly is to have the privilege of a guide who won’t rush to judgement, because what truth can be reached in Carroll’s case must be hard-won.

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Harvill Secker, 496pp, £25

Lewis Carroll: the Man and his Circle
Edward Wakeling
I B Tauris, 416pp, £35

Lyndall Gordon’s books include, most recently, “Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter” (Virago)

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 19 April

[See also: What do animals really think of us?]

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