Published 150 years after the publication of Alice in Wonderland, this biography is a real treat of a read. Following his award winning biography of Charles Dickens, Douglas-Fairhurst takes us on a marvellous journey through the mind of the quiet academic Charles Dodgson and his alter ego Lewis Carroll.
“‘Who in the world am I?’
Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’”
Captured on the back page within an elusive silhouette of the fictional Alice, this quotation from Alice in Wonderland sums up the depths of complexity and confusion surrounding the world of Alice, Wonderland and the lives of not only her author Lewis Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, but also the young Alice Liddell on whose inspiration the fictional Alice is drawn. Even the title of the biography, The Story of Alice has a sub-title: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, which emphasises the series of ambiguities and blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction throughout Carroll’s life and writings. Bound up within this complexity is an emphasis on the innocence and wonder of childhood which, just as Carroll has so skilfully captured in his writing, so equally Douglas-Fairhurst has captured in his sumptuous biography.
The ambiguities and complexities of the lover of both numbers and language are woven together creating a wonderland of discovery and invention. The ambiguities in Carroll’s life are paralleled in his biography which also interweaves the biography of the Alice of the Wonderland books and of Wonderland itself.
An exploration of the beginnings of photography and the ability of that medium to capture a moment in time are shown to be particularly apt for an understanding of Lewis Carroll. With his desire to maintain childhood, photography is an ideal way for Carroll to experiment with the ideas of capturing the essence of a particular moment in time. The biography is illustrated beautifully with samples of Tenniel drawings from the Alice books and photographs including many of Alice Liddell from her early childhood to her old age as Alice Hargreaves.
The question of true innocence is tested in the biography, as it was tested at the time. Explorations of sexuality and children as contextualised in the Victorian period are explored in the context of Carroll and his many “child-friends”. His interest seems to be argued to be that of maintaining the aspect of wonder in “friendships that were always pure and always new”.
Throughout the biography, snippets of fascinating information about contemporary characters enrich the understanding of the context of the period, particularly in literary terms, in addition to deepening our understanding of the ideas of Alice. The meeting of Alice Hargreaves with Peter Llewellyn Davies, the boy on whom JM Barrie based Peter Pan highlights the reality of the ageing process for real characters as opposed to the fictional characters on whom they were based. Meanwhile, references to Carroll’s meetings with Mark Twain and the similarities between his work and that of Edward Lear, whom he never actually met, paints a picture of the literary world of the time.
Well researched in terms of Carroll, Alice and their families, Douglas-Fairhurst highlights that there are ongoing elements of frustrating elusiveness in the piecing together of the jigsaw due, for example, to the destruction of evidence such as certain of Carroll’s diaries and letters. While some of this was deliberate, it all adds to the ongoing mystery and wonder of Carroll/Dodgson and Alice/’Alice’ in the Wonderland he has created.
The biography takes us beyond the lives of both Carroll and Alice Liddell to many of the interpretations and re-interpretations of Alice in both written and visual forms, such as film and postage stamp cases amongst many more. The legacy of the stories and their ability to continue to surprise and enchant new generations of readers is paralleled in Douglas-Fairhurst’s biography which elegantly and cleverly weaves together the multiple threads in The Story of Alice.