The Odd Fellow

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Anyone who has read them will agree Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are very inventive tales filled with imaginative people, creatures, goings on, and brilliant wordplay. You have to wonder what the writer was like and what inspired him.

Douglas-Fairhurst, Oxford professor of English literature, satisfies your curiosity in his detailed and generally interesting biography and history of Carroll, his muse, Alice Liddell, and the writing, publishing, and influence of the books. Along the way, the author provides helpful insights into Victorian life and thinking, especially in the context of views about childhood and the relationships of adults and children. The latter attempts to answer vexing questions about Carroll’s fascination with female children, carried to the point where his most memorable friendships were those with his child-friends, or what’s encapsulated today in the phrase the “Carroll Myth” by some of his biographers.

Carroll’s own words best summarize the author’s conclusion on the subject, which Douglas-Fairhurst quotes in explanation of diary entries made in 1865 while Carroll awaited publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“It is tempting to view this desire to slough off his old self … as a covert confession of impure thoughts if not impure deeds. But rather than seeing his child-friends as the cause of these feelings, it is more likely that Carroll saw them as the solution. `It is very healthy and helpful to one’s own spiritual life: and humbling too, to come into contact with souls so much purer, and nearer to God, than one feels oneself to be,’ he claimed, and although boys could have this tonic effect if they were as beautiful as Tennyson’s sons, they were barely equal to `the sweet relief of girl society.'”

While this may ring suspect in modern ears, many will agree that historical context is everything. Victorian culture celebrated childhood and children’s innocence, reflected in literature of the period amply cited by Douglas-Fairhurst. Though, the author points out, Carroll was a bit more enthusiastic on the idea than many.

Certainly Carroll was a multifaceted genius: a writer, mathematician (brilliant; for example, the Dodgson condensation), logician, Anglican deacon, pioneering photographer (collodion technology), and inventor (for instance, a precursor to Scrabble). He enjoyed success and fame during his lifetime. While not a traveler, he found everything he needed for intellectual stimulation and creative inspiration near home. And he had a large network of friends, many of whom remain famous in English letters. Douglas-Fairhurst weaves all this into history of Carroll and his books. But what many will find most interesting is Carroll and his Alice, of which Douglas-Fairhurst provides much information and insight threaded throughout the book.

This combination of biography, literary criticism, and history includes original research sources, footnotes in back, an index, and an assortment of photos within the text. w/c

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