Review: The Story of Alice- Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

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

There was quite a long waiting list for this book at the library, so I was quite glad when I got the email telling me it was available. It’s a brilliant book- part biography of the author and his muse, part exploration of Alice’s cultural impact on Western literature.

I should point out here that I am a big fan of Alice and all things related to her; I’ve collected editions of Alice and memorabilia for quite a few years (the jewel in my crown is a first edition of Through the Looking Glass) and I do keep think that I Really Ought To Write A Blogpost About It All. I’ve read most of the biographies of Lewis Carroll and it was only natural that I would read this one, too.

What I liked about this was that Lewis Carroll (as the Reverend Charles Dodgson was known to his audience) and Alice Liddell, the ‘real’ Alice are given fairly equal weight in this book- often you get one or the other, but the truth is that their fates became linked on a sunny afternoon when Carroll told Alice and her sisters an extraordinary story. What I did like is that neither is idolised; both are fairly treated and, to be honest, other than this extraordinary moment in their lives, were quite dull (one early biographer of Carroll even had a chapter headed ‘The Dullness of Dodgson’!) Yes, Carroll was also quite odd and lived for his ‘child-friends’ and this is dealt with here too, sensitively and realistically, considering both the Victorian world view and the modern one.

What interested me most was the discussion of the wider cultural impact; one of the first moving picture films was a version of Alice and the text’s influence has been felt across all areas of art. It’s fascinating to read how Carroll, Alice herself and others have used the idea of a little girl in a strange world to market all sorts of ideas, from drugs, Nazism and puberty to Freudian ideas about the loss of innocence.

Yet, this is a book that wears its learning lightly- I found myself chuckling at some of it and was also moved to find out more. For instance, after one late night reading, I had the urge to look at my Through the Looking Glass and realised it had a bookplate in it. After some research, it turned out that my book was owned by a man who was considered to be one of Victorian England’s finest legal minds… but that’s a rabbit hole of my own that I’ll take you down another day, in another blogpost.

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