My thoughts about The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Following his acclaimed life of Dickens, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst illuminates the tangled history of two lives and two books. Drawing on numerous unpublished sources, he examines in detail the peculiar friendship between the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the child for whom he invented the Alice stories, and analyzes how this relationship stirred Carroll’s imagination and influenced the creation of Wonderland. It also explains why Alice in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), took on an unstoppable cultural momentum in the Victorian era, and why one hundred fifty years later they continue to enthrall and delight us.

The Story of Alice reveals Carroll as both an innovator and stodgy traditionalist, entrenched in habits and routines. He had a keen double interest in keeping things moving and keeping them just as they are (in Looking-Glass Land, Alice must run faster and faster to stay in one place). Tracing the development of the Alice books through from their inception in 1865 to Alice’s death in 1934, Douglas-Fairhurst also provides a keyhole through which to observe a larger, shifting cultural landscape: the birth of photography, changing definitions of childhood, murky questions about sex and sexuality, and the relationship between the Alice books and other works of Victorian literature. In the movement from the Victorian to the modern world, he shows, Wonderland became a place in which the line between the actual and the possible could be repeatedly smudged.

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker (2 April 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184655862X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846558627
What you will find within these pages is two-fold. Author, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst re-examines the complicated lives of two people Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. Part of this re-examination is further analysis and opinion into both of Carroll’s works:  Alice in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Specifically, Douglas-Fairhurst researches how the cultural phenomenon of these two books has lasted in its fascination with children and adults era upon era.  

You will discover Dodgson’s early years and life before and after becoming author, Lewis Carroll, his taking up photography a full ten years or so before a Julia Margaret Cameron did. His days in Oxford are well documented as is Carroll’s life. While still interesting, the author has not included any surprising or unknown aspects. No big reveals here. You can find the same information in any previous Carroll biography. 

I am glad that the author did not end this duo biography with Dodgson’s death; instead he goes on focusing on interesting aspects of Alice Liddell who marries and becomes a Mrs. Alice Hargreaves, marrying a cricketer named Reginald Hargreaves in 1880. She passed away at the age of 80 in 1932. Some mentions of her travels over the years especially to Columbia University where she received a honorary doctorate degree in 1932, the year of the Lewis Carroll centennial celebrations.  

Personally, I wished there were more emphasis put on Alice Liddell and her friendship with Julia Margaret Cameron where she posed for numerous photographs along with her sisters during the 1860s. There were some passing mentions of those years on the Isle of Wight where The Tennyson’s were name dropped as well. I need to find out more. Other than that, it was a very enjoyable read and I would recommend it to those Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland fans. Just don’t expect too much ‘new’ information.  
 Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves in 1932


Hels said…
Truly a cultural phenomenon *agreed*.

And I agree that the changing definitions of childhood and the murky questions about sex and sexuality in Victorian times fascinate us still. Even for readers not wanting to get into lurid sensationalism, it is inevitable that Douglas-Fairhurst would have to discuss Lewis Carroll's close relationship with Alice and other young girls. Did he mention Charles' preference for photographing young children in the nude?
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, it is acknowledged in this book. Basically, Douglas-Fairhurst explains Carroll’s fascination with young girls was more from a sentimental standpoint instead of a sexual one. For instance, the age of consent was twelve years old and it was not unknown for sixteen year old girls to be married. It is not acceptable and does not fully explain Carroll’s behavior as inappropriate for the time he was living in. It is brought up how Carroll’s brother, Wilfred, was romantically involved with eleven year old Alice Jane Donkin.She was the little girl photographed climbing out a bedroom window supposedly depicting an elopement scent. The author also brings up rumors of Carroll’s homosexuality but acknowledges a lack of evidence.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Hels!