Hargreaves had also been living a double life. I first came across this photograph in the autumn of After leaving a gloomy Oxford at the start of October, I had already spent a couple of weeks travelling across America in the search for material that would help me make sense of Lewis Carrolls life. In some ways it was also an attempt to make sense of my own. Like many people, I first read the Alice books as a young child, and the mixture of feelings they produced in me at the time an emotional scramble of amusement, fear, bewilderment and sheer unexamined joy had never gone away.
But it was only now that I found myself wanting to know why. I was approaching middle age, and although there was no sign yet of a full-blown midlife crisis, I was getting used to discovering new sources of niggling anxiety. Would I ever be able to read anything again with the unalloyed passion I had once devoted to books like Alices Adventures in Wonderland?
The brightness of Carrolls 3. How had Carroll managed to create something I still remembered so intensely, when the rest of my childhood had faded to a distant blur? Every few days I arrived in a new city, checked into a budget hotel, and then hunkered down in an archive with no company other than a handful of academics tapping away at their laptops like eager woodpeckers.
Lewis Carroll | LibraryThing
The life of a travelling researcher is not a glamorous one, and so far it had been a predictably depressing experience. Each morning involved the same routine: rubbery breakfast eggs table for one, sir? There had been a few highlights. In New York, I was shown a game Carroll had invented for one of his child-friends, and on the other side discovered some doodles that included a fragile stick man and three attempts at a bird flapping its wings; in Texas, I was allowed to turn the pages of Carrolls first photograph album, where it was still possible to see pale brown traces of the gum he had used to fix his original albumen prints in place.
But it wasnt until I arrived at the Beinecke Library, on a crisp sunny morning towards the end of October, that I saw pieces of Carrolls biographical jigsaw that allowed many more to slot into place. Inside one box was Alice Hargreavess passport. Another contained a fat scrapbook of newspaper clippings labelled A. And linking everything together were hundreds of references to the little girl who first inspired Carroll to create his most famous literary character, and then spent the next seventy years living in her shadow. Alice Pleasance Hargreaves was the original Alice in Wonderland.
Although she had become a minor literary celebrity herself in the years immediately before this photograph was taken, there were occasions when she found the constant thrusting of microphones and flaring of flashbulbs something of an ordeal. She disliked having her photograph taken all her adult life, one of her neighbours later recalled, and although 4.
Carrolls photographs of her as a girl are among the most popular of Victorian images, later examples are extremely rare. On her return to England she wrote to her son Caryl an interesting choice of name confessing oh, my dear I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland! Sometimes it showed: in other photographs taken on the same day she appears crumpled and confused.
But in this one she holds her pose with steely determination: her hands are clasped tightly in her lap; a faint smile plays across her mouth, as if she is amused by the attention, or perhaps bemused by the fuss; her favourite velvet bow a variation on the newly fashionable Alice band is perched at a jaunty angle on her head. Meanwhile, just visible in the background is another Alice: a pert little girl in a crisp pinafore dress, who gazes off into the distance with her arms folded in a mocking echo.
It is as if the screen on which she was painted was really a magic mirror in which old people could become young again, the tedious business of adult life transformed into a childrens game. It was a game many people wanted to play. In the opening pages of Alices Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll tells us that his heroine was very fond of pretending to be two people, but throughout her visit to America the newspapers were keen to present the widowed Alice Hargreaves as one person rather than two.
Not only had she previously been Alice Liddell, the little girl who first persuaded Lewis Carroll Mr Dodgson to write down his fairy tales, but the real Alice was widely assumed to be identical to the fictional Alice. As a result, the arrival of an old lady in New York soon became a story about Alice exploring a new Wonderland. On Friday 29 April, a scrum of thirty or forty reporters surrounded her on the sun deck of the Cunard liner Berengaria. In a short Paramount newsreel entitled Alice in U. Nothing she said in this crackly recording was very unusual It is a great honour and a great pleasure to have come over here, and I think now my adventures overseas will be almost as interesting as my adventures underground were but the next morning Alice was splashed across the local newspapers.
Yesterday she came into her new wonderland, cooed 5. She will be eighty years old on Wednesday, but she appeared many years younger than that, a slender, erect little figure in a black fur coat. Her skin, observed the New York Sun, was as clear as in her childhood, while the New York World Telegram informed its readers that her lively little figure was dressed in a frilled and beflowered frock, a relic of a period known as mid-Victorian, like a child who had been let loose in her grandmothers dressing-up box.
The New York American ventured further into fictional territory, reporting that her big blue eyes were as bright as they must have been that afternoon so long ago, and her reception drew from her the comment, Curiouser and curiouser. Later events were taken as the strongest evidence yet that New York was entertaining the real Alice in Wonderland. A photograph of her in the Evening Post, which showed her gamely cutting a cake covered in dozens of intricate pastry characters, was accompanied by the explanation that She was as pleased as a child when Oscar, matre dhtel, presented a large birthday cake to her.
A ceremony at Columbia University to award her with an honorary degree was designed, her host declared, to honor the little girl whose magic charm elicited from [Carroll] seventy years ago the story that has brought such delight to humanity. Even photographs of her wearing a mortar-board were reproduced like distorted reflections of the climax to Through the Looking-Glass, in which Queen Alice receives a golden crown.
No matter how frail she appeared, everyone was determined that Alice should still be the endlessly curious small child from the stories, like an illustration that had somehow wandered off the page and entered real life. The only note of mild dissent came from Alice herself. In a speech she drafted on Berengaria notepaper, which probably formed part of a teatime radio broadcast over the WABC-Columbia network on 1 May, she apologized for not replying to letters and requests for autographs, and warned that If the children expect to see a girl like the one in the books, I am afraid that they will be disappointed.
Such quiet realism was quickly drowned out by the sound of ringing cash registers. Caryl, who had come to New York as her secretary and tour manager, noted in his diary that My friends here 6. Even when she was past 40, Caryl affirmed, she was still, to Mr Dodgson, the child of the pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder to whom he had dedicated the Looking Glass.
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A second article, Alice in a New Wonderland, published a month later in the New York Herald Tribune, left its readers in even less doubt about Alices true identity. What follows is an attempt at wit that rarely escapes whimsy. Beautifuller and beautifuller! Alice cries as her ship comes into dock, Now the buildings are opening out like the largest telescopes that ever were! Later, travelling in a hotel elevator, she questions whether they would soon reach heaven, and on arriving at the thirty-first floor she recalls how When I was young I had to grow my neck long in order to get up to these heights.
Here Caryl may have been influenced by the New York World Telegram, which noted that on the Berengaria his mother asked a question about sky scrapers with the earnestness of a little girl suddenly transported into an unfamiliar realm and trying to hold fast to reality. Even her experience of being hounded by a pack of photographers was turned into a modern comedy of manners, with an illustration that depicted the fictional Alice being surrounded by camera lenses as a set of huge unblinking eyes.
It isnt hard to explain the contemporary appeal of these articles. A reader who came across Alice in a New Wonderland in the Herald Tribune would only have had to turn to the front page to see why an innocent abroad might have been an attractive figure in Depression-era America.
The leading article, Shall the Underworld Rule? Childhood seemed to be of little advantage in this world: the same article pointed out that Charles Lindbergh and his wife had recently employed two underworld characters to aid in the hunt for their baby, who had been kidnapped at the beginning of March and was later found a short distance from the family home with his skull smashed in like an egg.
Even Caryl Hargreaves, whose diary largely reports his New York experiences with a sturdy indifference to surprise, seems to have been shocked at the sight of people brawling in the streets over tickets for a late-night screening of the grisly new gangster movie Scarface.
The role that children should play in a rotten society was also being investigated in other ways.
Runt Page, released in April , was the first of a series of cheaply produced comedies under the general title Baby Burlesks that showed very young children, many of them still in nappies, acting out comic versions of hard-boiled adult dramas. Even as a tenminute short Runt Page is probably nine minutes too long, although it is still remembered today as the professional debut of a three-year-old Shirley Temple, who falls asleep and dreams the main action sequence. However, for many people the survival of childhood innocence was inextricably bound up with the dreams of a much older character.
A leader in the Herald Tribune summed up the popular mood: Is it inconceivable that [Alice Hargreavess] presence might remind a host of worried Americans of how much more there is in the world than economics, it asked hopefully, and how scant a relationship wealth has to fun? Or, as a fictional newspaper reporter explains to Alice in the film Dreamchild, which depicts her visit to New York as a sequence of real events muddled up in 8. Sometimes we have to dream a little. It seems that the real Alice sometimes enjoyed playing the role assigned to her, or at least willingly accepted its demands.
A scrap of paper survives in her handwriting that concludes Some of her recorded memories went even further. Asked to reflect on her childhood, she was happy to flatten out real life until it fitted the simple and reassuring outlines of a fairy tale. The only missing words are Once upon a time.
Another draft, which describes some of their Thames excursions with Mr Dodgson, experiments with Such is the fairy godfather who helps row, a character sketch that was fluently written in fountain pen before being crossed out in pencil. She was hardly unusual in wanting to view her life as a story. As many writers have pointed out, narrative provides an attractive set of models to follow when we want to make sense of lifes uncertainties.
Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things arent. Im not surprised some people prefer books. A story reflects life but also redeems it: assembled on the page, even unpredictable events can be plotted, their random scatter made part of a meaningful design.
In the case of Alice Hargreavess childhood river trips, this narrative pull was far too powerful to be satisfied by a light sprinkling of fairy-tale language. That was especially true when she tried to remember what had happened on 4 July , the day Carroll and his colleague Robinson Duckworth had rowed her and two of her sisters up the Thames to a picnic spot near Oxford.
Some of the details in her account may be unfamiliar 9. Nearly all of Alices Adventures Underground was told on an afternoon under the haystack at Godstow, she explained in a later typed draft of the Cornhill article, which has since become famous. Then she added and crossed out a detail about having tea, and finally afternoon under the was replaced by a short burst of purple prose in her sons handwriting that ballooned out into the margin: blazing summer afternoon with the heat haze shimmering over the meadows where the party landed to shelter for a while in the shadow cast by the.
Perhaps Caryl was simply prompting her memory. Unfortunately nowadays my mothers memory is so bad, he warned a correspondent in , and he would have known that more than thirty years earlier she had supplied a very similar version of events for the first full biography of Carroll, recalling a summer afternoon when the sun was so burning that we had landed in the meadows down the river, deserting the boat to take refuge in the only bit of shade to be found, which was under a new-made hayrick.
Perhaps he wanted to ensure that her account did not contradict the poem that had opened Alices Adventures in Wonderland: All in the golden afternoon Beneath such dreamy weather. Or perhaps he hoped that his choice of language slightly archaic, slightly arch would blend seamlessly with Carrolls essay Alice on the Stage: Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream the three little maidens and I and many a fairy tale had been extemporised for their benefit whether it were at times when the narrator was i the vein, and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, From three little maidens a tangled memory of the three little maids in Gilbert and Sullivans operetta The Mikado, which Carroll had seen at least five times since its opening two years earlier to the summer midges a mournful echo of the gnats in Keatss poem To Autumn, borne aloft Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies , the whole passage is a hazy mixture of earlier stories and songs, the daydream of a creative writer.
It is all rather different to official meteorological reports, which record the days weather as dreary rather than dreamy: cool and rather wet, with total cloud cover and a maximum temperature of But for Carroll, a storyteller keen to forge a creation myth for his character, fact was much less powerful than fiction. Memory could create a microclimate that was as fixed as a painted sunset. And Alice Hargreaves, it seems, was content for her recollections to fall into line, either because, as the cultural historian Will Brooker has suggested, as she got older she may actually have begun to rely on the fiction in place of her own memories, or because, working alongside her canny son, she recognized that her status as Carrolls muse would not be strengthened by anyone rocking the boat.
Carrolls version of events has usually been accepted without question.
A Parliament of Owls
As Brooker notes, although a few critics have raised sensible questions about what this account omits Taking children on river expeditions, the authors of The Alice Companion point out, inevitably involves moments when they have to pee or are stung by insects and nettles , most simply repeat the same details, replacing the shifting moods of real life with an afternoon of permanent sunshine. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. As early as , the golden afternoon was being interpreted as a fitting emblem for a lost golden age.
The scrapbook of newspaper clippings put together by Alice and Caryl Hargreaves after their trip to New York includes a romantic piece by the journalist Kitty Cheatham, which begins by returning to a very special Wonder Day in As The young Oxford Don a-rowing peeks here and there for a cool shady spot, she continues breathlessly, the sweet mid-summer things are whispering And then, presumably remembering the significance of 4 July for her own readers, she points out that on this summer afternoon seventy years ago, Exactly how it did this is not explained, but her underlying assumptions are clear enough.
Just as the story of Alices Adventures in Wonderland had become a modern myth, so the character of Alice had been adopted as a symbol that brought Americas present neatly in line with its past. She was a model of constancy in a rapidly changing world. What this ignores is how slippery and protean Alices fictional identity had become by the time her living original arrived in New York.
When the Caterpillar in Wonderland asks Alice Who are you? Her confusion is understandable; over the course of her adventures she is variously mistaken for a housemaid, a serpent, a volcano, a flower and a monster. It also accurately reflects the changing shape of her stories. Having begun its life as an improvised oral performance in , the first written version of Alices Adventures Underground was presented to Alice Liddell in as a manuscript that was quirkily illustrated by Carroll himself, the word Underground having been tunnelled into to become Under Ground.
It was then expanded and published the following year as Alices Adventures in Wonderland, with its sequel Through the Looking-Glass appearing in , both with illustrations by John Tenniel. But if those were the only complete stories featuring Alice written by Carroll, she would continue to enjoy further adventures of her own, as he repeatedly returned to this character and placed her in slightly different contexts, as if wanting to reassure himself that although her surroundings might have changed she had remained essentially the same.
Over the next twenty years, he would publish a facsimile edition of his manuscript, combine both stories for the stage play Alice in Wonderland, rewrite the first book for young children as The Nursery Alice, and even arrange for his most popular characters to appear on merchandise such as stamp-cases and biscuit tins. Carroll also had to confront the fact that the question Who are you? Auden once pointed out that we enjoy imagining new adventures for popular fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes because they do not seem altogether bound to their original stories.
They are bigger than their plots, literary escapologists capable of wriggling free from the covers of any book in which we try to contain them. Carrolls Alice is another member of this select group. While Tenniels illustrations continued to fix her as a young girl with a neat frock and long blonde hair, she could be incorporated into later satires as a Victorian visitor sent to investigate the modern world, like an anthropologist who lives alongside a foreign tribe in order to study its unfamiliar customs; but her ability to survive outside her original stor ies also lay in her ability to adapt to changes in her environment.
Having begun life as Carrolls dream-child, Alice quickly came to populate the daydreams, fantasies and nightmares of many later writers and artists. From the golden afternoon in to the death of Alice Hargreaves in , and beyond, her fictional adventures never stopped being works in progress. Soon she had been depicted in dozens of sequels and supplements, from serious fictions to slapstick cartoons, in ways that included Alice the suffragette, Alice the wartime code-breaker and Alice the enthusiastic shopper.
Rival images to Tenniels included Willy Poganys monochrome drawings for his edition, featuring an Alice with a plaid skirt and pageboy haircut; in the year following Alice Hargreavess visit to America, Poganys bobbysoxer would be joined by D. Sextons pouting teenage Alice, who seemed to have wandered into a childrens story by mistake, and the even more sophisticated figure who appeared in J.
THE WIDOWS OF HIGHLAND AVENUE: A HISTORICAL NOVEL
Morton Sales edition, another Alice considerably closer to seventeen than seven, who boasted an elaborate evening dress and the suspicion of a bust. Meanwhile, Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land spawned a whole galaxy of fictional worlds that included Blunderland, Plunderland, Numberland and dozens more.
Even the original Wonderland was colon ized by other writers. Taking their cue from Carrolls Alice, who opens the door to her Wonderland in the same way as a reader might open up a new book, revealing a parallel universe to the one we usually live in, these writers busied themselves extending the concept of wonderland until it Yet while Alice has continued to grow larger or smaller in cultural terms according to how close we feel to her, how much space she takes up in our heads, her author has remained strangely elusive.
Lawrence, in the faded greys of an old photograph that make him look eerily like a ghost. In one sense it is a thoughtless use of his image, given how self-effacing he was, how reluctant to reveal his personality to the world. But in another sense it is an oddly appropriate tribute to a writer who was in many ways the Invisible Man of Victorian culture, detectable chiefly by the movements going on all around him. Ah, did you once see Shelley plain? Carrolls contemporary Robert Browning wrote in his poem Memorabilia, reporting an encounter with someone who claimed to have met Shelley before the poets death in As Adam Kirsch points out, the line is famous because nobody ever has; so tied together are Shelleys messy private life and his poetry that practic ally every line he wrote is thickened with hidden layers of anecdote and autobiography.
Of course, the same might be said of many other writers, and not just in relation to the messy distractions of sex or politics. It is almost impossible to see any writer plain, because if they are serious about writing their real life tends to take place out of public view, as they sound out words in their heads or juggle them on the page. But even in this context Carroll is unusually good at squirming out of the biog raphers grasp. No doubt some of this can be attributed to the fact that parts of his life have been edited out of the official record, most notoriously by whichever member of his family decided to censor a handful of pages in his diary.
There are also parts that have fallen through the cracks of history, such as four whole volumes of his diary that have been lost since his death. Yet Carrolls slipperiness also reveals something important about the kind of man he was. Paradoxically, the more that has been written about him, the more elusive he has become.
Physically he presented a lopsided appearance to the world one of his eyes drooped, and one shoulder was slightly higher than the other and in other ways too he sometimes seemed to be less a consistent personality than two strangers who merely happened to share the same skin. He was both Lewis Carroll, an imaginative writer who wandered through life with a head full of stories, and the Revd Charles Dodgson, a plodding mathematician for whom the only truly interesting relationships were to be found in algebra.
In public, he upheld the doctrines of the established Church; in private, he devoured books about the supernatural. As a friend to hundreds of children, he filled his cupboards in Christ Church with enough toys and gadgets to stock a small toyshop; left alone in his rooms, he busied himself writing letters of complaint about the size of his hassock or how his potatoes were cooked. Socially he could be gregarious, warm and witty; he could also be shy, cold and prickly. To some he was a holy innocent; to others his behaviour justified James Joyces later characterization of him as Lewds carol.
In his lifetime, he was a frequent target of gossip; since his death, he has continued to attract myths in the same way that an old wardrobe attracts moths. Queen Victoria enjoyed Alices Adventures in Wonderland so much she asked for a copy of the authors next book, and later received a beautifully wrapped package containing An Elementary Treatise on Determinants: With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraical Geometry. Alices experiences in Wonderland reflect her creators experiments with psychedelic drugs.
Carroll was Jack the Ripper. None of these stories is true, but so thick is the atmosphere of suspicion that hangs over his reputation, merely pointing this out is rarely enough; deny something often enough, and people may start to wonder what you are hiding. In his diary, Carroll liked to celebrate notable days by marking them with a white stone, a mental paperweight that separated out important memories and prevented them from being lost in the general drift of past events.
For example, a day in June that he had spent photographing Alice and the other Liddell children, plentifully interspersed with swinging, backgammon, etc. The usual explanation for this practice points out similar formulas in classical authors: Pliny, for example, describes the Thracians habit of putting a white pebble in one urn on happy days, and a black one in a different urn on unhappy days, which allowed them to calculate their overall levels of satisfaction. It is tempting to think that Carroll had such ancient practices in mind when he totted up each days events, turning his life into one huge sum.
That certainly reflects one side of his personality: the fixed principles and steady routines by which he regulated each day, together with a pouncing eye for detail that he acknowledged as his superfastidiousness. Even when describing something as simple as going for a walk, those who knew him best found themselves reaching for words such as always and never. His favourite form of exercise was always walking, recalled his niece Violet Dodgson, while Margaret Mayhew remembered him striding along poker-straight with his head held aloft, never wearing a dog-collar, but always a very low turn-down collar with a white tie, his top-hat well at the back of his head reminding me of Tenniels drawing of the Mad Hatter.
Yet almost nothing in Carrolls life is capable of being interpreted in just a single way; the more closely the supposed facts of his biography are examined, the more each one starts to divide into a squabbling Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Even his white stone is ambiguous. In addition to being a classical commonplace, the same phrase is found inthe Bible, which Carroll knew with the kind of intimacy he tended to reserve for books rather than people, where it indicates absolution from sin: To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written Revelation 2: The idea of renewal held a particular appeal for Carroll, who spent most of his life being caught up in the rhythms of the academic year, and tended to be far better at carrying on with things than starting them afresh.
That is probably why so much of his writing reveals what the critic Elizabeth Sewell has characterized as a strong sense of unfinished business. There is a sadness in coming to the end of anything in Life, he noted in his diary on the day he finally retired from his Mathematical Lectureship Such was his aversion to endings that usually he put them off for as long as possible.
I do dislike saying good-bye to any person or thing one has any liking for, he explained to one child-friend, and while still an undergraduate he found a way of avoiding it altogether by ending a long letter to his sister Elizabeth with to be continued. He preferred incomplete paintings to those that had been sealed with varnish, enjoyed impossible riddles such as the Hatters Why is a raven like a writingdesk?
Often, when he appeared to have finished something, he attempted to revise it or add to it in some way: typically, after he completed his first year as Curator i. Beginning with his undergraduate mock-epic The Ligniad a one-joke spoof that ends with a crossed-out Finis , and continuing up to the publication of his final collection Three Sunsets and Other Poems, it was in his poetry and fiction that Carrolls attraction to unfinished business achieved its most lasting form. He especially enjoyed playing with his readers expectations.
Sometimes this was achieved by breaking off lines too early, as with the famous cry Its a Boo at the end of a stanza in The Hunting of the Snark, which is followed by an ominous blank space. However, nowhere is Carrolls commitment to what one of his child-friends called his never-ending, never-failing stories clearer than in the Alice books. The idea stretches from Alice biting her tongue so as not to offend the Mock Turtle Ive often seen them at dinn , to a poem recited by Humpty Dumpty that manages to end simultaneously on a perfect rhyme and a narrative cliffhanger: And when I found the door was shut, I tried to turn the handle, but.
It is a joke made all the funnier by Humpty Dumptys own inevitable ending, which interrupts Alices thought process with a perfectly timed piece of comic slapstick: Of all the unsatisfactory she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort to have such a long word to say of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met She never finished the sentence, for at this moment a heavy crash shook the forest from end to end. Together the Alice books form the imaginative centre of a whole career of unfinished business. Not only does Through the Looking-Glass work as a sequel to Alices Adventures in Wonderland, like the first two volumes of an incomplete three-decker novel, but the final chapter of the second story, which is framed as a question Which Dreamed It?
It is appropriate that the Alice books are so full of questions, because these are stories that switch from the straightforwardly transparent to the puzzlingly opaque with the ease of a spinning coin. Sometimes this provokes critics into ambitious feats of exegesis. In the bestselling critical edition The Annotated Alice, even a seemingly innocuous remark such as the White Rabbits Shell have me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets produces a marginal gloss that stretches over two pages, as the editor Martin Gardner moves from Victorian slang the word was colloquially applied in England to thieving money-lenders to modern pet ownership Owning a ferret in New York City, which is said to have ten thousand ferrets, is a health code violation to the founding in of Modern Ferret, a glossy magazine devoted to praise of ferrets.
Yet no matter how closely the individual elements of the Alice books are analysed, the stories as a whole refuse to be explained away. This is not just because they are full of ideas that lurk just out of reach, only occasionally breaking the surface of the text, but also because so much of what attracts new readers such as Carrolls tone, which makes us feel simultaneously that we are being taken into his confidence and eavesdropping on a private joke depends upon a relationship that has disappeared from view. The precise nature of the triangular relationship between Carroll, the real Alice and the fictional Alice has always been notoriously hard to pin down.
As with a blob of mercury, applying any sustained pressure to what we think we know has only made it scatter further. The published facts about how Carroll first met Alice Liddell, how their friendship developed, and why it was abandoned, are not only few in number but capable of being rearranged into many different patterns. Each one generates further questions. Was Carroll in love with her? Were the Alice books merely written so that she could read about herself, or were they intended to be substitutes for her, allowing Carroll to create a dream-child who would never age or reject him?
The childhood photographs of Alice Liddell taken by Carroll are equally clouded by ambiguity. An image like Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes, taken in July , which shows Ina Liddell teasing Alice with some cherries, while a third sister, Edith, sits demurely a short distance away, contains at least two stories.
We know a good deal about the story in the photograph: it is a reworking of William Mulreadys painting with the same title, in which a man offers cherries to his sweetheart while being observed by an impassive child, and is based on the popular saying Open your mouth, shut your eyes and see what Providence will send you; another photographer, Oscar Rejlander, had already used it as the basis for a collodion print he exhibited at the Manchester Photographic Society in It is also a playful modern take on the Greek myth of Tantalus, who was doomed to spend eternity trying to seize fruit that would forever elude his grasp, reminding us that in this frozen image Alice will always be reaching for cherries that will always remain just out of reach.
The story of the photograph, on the other hand, is one about which we know almost nothing. To some viewers, who would like to think that Carroll was as innocent as a clown, the photograph depicts a joyous scene in which he gathers a surrogate family around himself and encourages them to perform a comic sketch before his lens. To others, for whom Carrolls motives are far murkier, the girls are merely stooges in a more disturbing private drama, flattened and preserved in his album like little white butterflies.
The fact that Carroll kept their arms raised by propping them up on an improvised wooden rest makes them look even more like mounted specimens. Like many of his photographs, it offers a frustrating mixture of the obvious and It is both a theatrical tableau presented for our entertainment, and a keyhole for looking into a lost world that is as perfectly constructed and sealed off as the contents of a snow globe. Put another way, it is a wonderland a scene that might fill us with wonder at its delicate skill, or make us wonder about the reasons for its construction. The whole relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell is capable of producing similar uncertainty in modern readers, and it is not only photographs like Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes that ask us to decide whether the surviving traces of their friendship should be viewed as evidence of Carrolls innocence or as something more like a crime scene.
The same is true of the Alice books. Indeed, there are moments in both stories when Carroll appears to be confronting us with just these questions. In Wonderlands courtroom, the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing tarts a crime that in the world of nursery rhymes is as unavoidable as rhyme itself and the King tries to make sense of the White Rabbits evidence by muttering selected phrases to himself: We know it to be true If she should push the matter on What would become of you?
If this is a sly parody of literary critics at work, diligently trying to make sense out of nonsense, it also nervously reflects some of the thoughts that Carrolls Christ Church colleagues might have had about his relationship with the Deans daughter. We know it to be true On the other hand, the Queens conclusion, Sentence first verdict afterwards, is a glum joke that recognizes how the court of public opinion might treat accusations that are considerably more serious than tart-theft.
It is far easier to condemn Carroll than it is to decide exactly what he should be accused of. Confronted by such a patchy historical record, it is not surprising that later writers have relied on fiction to fill in the gaps. Stephanie Bolster offers an alternative version of the scene in her poem Thames: The ongoing story has briefly paused.
Three Liddell girls fidget as Dodgson gazes at rushes edging the banks, oaks bending over them. Alice squeezes from her throat and hes back in the story: a small doorway, a garden. Her mouth opens, each distant lily nodding to her gaze, but he says shes too tall to get in and her lips clamp shut. Here a kiss is hinted at but avoided, and instead all we are given is the chaste near-rhyme of Dodgson gazes and her gaze. And once again we are left to wonder. While Carroll would have hated such fictional inventions, which he would have viewed as little better than gossip with pretensions to grandeur, he might have sympathized with the way each scene comes to a rest in a kind of narrative tableau.
This was not only a feature of his photographs; occasionally his stories also found themselves slowing to a halt, as when the King in Wonderland gravely advises Alice to Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop, before going on to himself in an undertone, important unimportant unimportant important as if he were trying which word sounded best. At the same time, Carroll enjoyed experimenting with new ways of capturing lifes irresistible onward force.
In Alices Adventures in Wonderland, he ensured that Tenniels illustration of the grinning Cheshire Cat dis appearing from view would be printed in exactly the same place as the previous illustration that showed it fully present, so that by turning the page back and forth a reader could make it materialize or dematerialize like a conjuring trick. It is only a small step from this to the dozens of moving pictures, such as Walt Disneys popular cartoon Alice in Wonderland, which would later bring the episode to life for a new generation By the time of Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll had become even more ambitious, signalling Alices moves across the chessboard with rows of asterisks that blurred where one scene ended and another began, like the mechanism of a magic lantern or a modern film dissolve.
Both books reveal Carrolls skill at creating narrative set pieces that could be shuffled into a different order like a pack of cards; both reveal his enthusiasm for assembling the individual fragments of a story into a living whole. In the following pages I try to do something similar for the story of Alice books themselves. The two most important strands in this story are biographical, because behind Carrolls imaginary characters lie the shadowy outlines of two real people, and understanding why these books took on the shape they did cannot be understood without unpicking the strange fleeting friendship between their author and the little girl who became his unwitting muse.
The other main strand is more like a complicated plait or tangle, because it involves the unprecedented influence that the fictional Alice had on the wider cultural landscape. We do not usually think of children producing children of their own, but the Alice books would prove to be remarkably fertile in creating literary offspring. Most of these works have long since been relegated to the vaults of research libraries, but returning to them reveals more than the efforts made by their authors to adapt Alice for different audiences.
They also show how Carrolls stor ies would permanently alter how readers thought about children both on and off the page. One model for the powerful but scattered impact of the Alice books is suggested by Joseph Campbells influential work of comparative mythology The Hero With a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, local variations in the stories of different cultures cannot disguise the fundamental similarity of their plots.
Whether the hero is Apollo, the Frog King, Wotan or Luke Skywalker George Lucas has openly acknowledged the influence of Campbells book on his Star Wars films , his story must always follow the same path: starting with a call to adventure, he undergoes a hazardous journey, and eventually proves himself worthy of his In the pages Campbell devotes to the Childhood of the Human Hero, he points out that heroes often enjoy a childhood marked by wonders Heracles strangles a serpent in his cradle; Krishna defeats a murderous goblin by suckling her breasts until she falls down dead but these are rites of passage rather than ends in themselves; they announce the arrival of a hero who is both a man and a superman.
The Alice stories represent a different kind of heroism. They offer a triumph of wit over brawn, and playfulness over high seriousness, in which the leading character is not a muscular warrior or a mysterious god but an ordinary little girl, whose original adventures have proven themselves capable of producing endless supplements and offshoots books, plays, films, toys, tablecloths, advertisements and more in which she is always slightly different but always recognizably the same.
Alice is a heroine with a thousand faces. In order to discover how this happened, and why it matters, we need to go back to the beginning of the story and look again at how the Alice books were written, and why they took on such an unstoppable cultural momentum. It means piecing together scraps of evidence that are to be found in many different locations, from archives to private collections, and deciding how to fill in cracks in the historical record that have opened up over the years.
Much of this evidence comes from unpublished sources, because these materials allow us to sidestep the myths that have gathered around Carroll and get much closer to the real world that helped to shape both Alice and Alice. It is a world we do not usually associate with the Victorians one that is noisy, colourful, brimming with energy and in order to explore it properly, we have to take the fragments that survive, blow the dust off, and restore them to life. One plus one can add up to so many different sums Michael Frayn, Copenhagen. But if he seldom referred to his early years, that may be because he never really left them behind.
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Long after he had become an adult, they continu ed to trail him like a shadow. Carroll was born on 27 January , in the sleepy, scattered Cheshire parish of Daresbury, the eldest son of a sternly intelligent perpetual curate and his loving but self-effacing wife. His first eleven years would later berecorded chiefly as a happy blank. The biography written by his nephew Stuart Dodgson Collingwood struggles to fill even a handful of pages, and repeatedly resorts to words such as uneventful, quiet and seclusion, noting with some desperation that the passing of a cart was a matter of great interest to the children.
This isolation was chiefly a practical matter, cutting off the Dodgson family from the strong currents of social change that were starting to tug at other lives was also the year of the first Reform Bill , but it is notable that on one of the rare occasions that Carroll wrote about Daresbury a name with punning potential he would later exploit he began by comparing himself to a character in an adventure story.
The happy spot where I was born, he writes in Faces in the Fire , was An island farm broad seas of corn Stirred by the wandering breath of morn. It is a poem that imagines his birth as a kind of shipwreck, as if he was a modern Robinson Crusoe, enviously watching the wind move freely around him as he plotted his escape. His familys seclusion was probably a blessing in disguise. Whereas in the squalid industrial slums of Manchester, just twenty-five miles away, infant mortality had reached 57 per cent by , Carroll and his ten siblings Even by Victorian standards of fertility this was a large family in the period from the s to the s the average number of children born to middle-class parents was between five and seven , and it was the difficulty of supporting it on a curates stipend that lay behind the genteel lobbying through which Carrolls father eventually secured a much more valuable living in the small North Yorkshire spa town of Croft-on-Tees.
The Dodgsons moved there in , when Carroll known to his family as Charlie was eleven, and for the next twenty-five years their home would be a rambling Georgian rectory opposite Crofts squat-towered and very respectable Norman church. It is here that Carroll first made his mark as a writer. On a second-floor window that lit the hallway leading to his bedroom, three workmen had inscribed their names on the outside of the glass, which from their perspective read: T Young Painted July 23 However, when in he he was also retracing signed a letter to one child-friend a moment from his own childhood, because at some stage he decided to play the workmens game in reverse.
Still visible in the Rectory are the initials C.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson that he etched in fiddly and precise letters on two panes of glass. Seen from the inside, they cast ghostly traces of Carrolls presence on to the trees and sky beyond; seen. Equally enduring was a collection of objects that he helped to hide under the nursery floorboards, although little is known about when this was done or why these particular items were chosen. Most of the objects have survived, but their secret histories have been lost, so in their current state they are hard to distinguish from the fragile bric-a-brac of any Victorian family.
They include a linen handkerchief delicately embroidered with lilac flowers, a childs battered leather shoe, and a hand-stitched glove that may once have been white but is now crusty and liver-spotted with age. Fragments of a clay pipe and crab shell are muddled together with a thimble, a tiny penknife, a crocheting instrument and some pieces from a dolls china tea set.
Other items include a printed cardboard S, a geometrical counter for a game and a sample of Carrolls handwriting. Just one or two objects might be dismissed as a household accident, like the missing toy plane in Geoffrey Hills Mercian Hymns , two inches of heavy snub silver that spins through a hole in the classroomfloorboards, softly, into the rat-droppings and coins. However, the fact. Glove hidden under the floorboards of Carrolls childhood home in Croft-on-Tees c. Possibly it was deposited to mark the familys arrival in their new home: items like childrens shoes were still occasionally hidden behind walls or under floorboards as symbols of good luck, rather as horseshoes are hung on walls today, long after a genuine belief in their magical powers had faded to a nagging superstition.
Alternatively, it could have been a little museum of domestic life to which everyone contributed, like those that children later in the century would be encouraged to assemble. But whatever the original intention behind this three-dimensional scrapbook, its real importance to Carroll only became clear many years later. In fiction, scenes such as Esther burying her doll near the start of Dickenss Bleak House usually signal a type of symbolic renunci ation; Esther puts away her childish things once she learns that childhood is not a fixed period of time but a state of mind she can no longer afford.
Carroll, on the other hand, appears to have treated his familys things more like the small grey elephant, large beetle with a red stomach and finely modelled bull with a sude skin that the children in Kenneth Grahames collection of stories Dream Days bury in their garden to prove that their love for these old toys was not entirely broken The Dodgson hoard was not discovered until , when the nursery floor was taken up during more building work, but long before that Carroll had shown that he was capable of treating it in a similar way to the children in Grahames story.
It was a private time capsule he could dip into in his writing whenever he wanted to investigate the links between himself and his childhood, allowing him to lift up a loose floorboard in his memory and bring the buried treasures of the past to light. Even when he was writing about fictional characters, Carroll enjoyed rummaging around in his mind for interesting physical odds and ends. He remained especially fond of objects such as thimbles, which frequently rose to the surface of his writing even when its real subject was something Typically, The Hunting of the Snark includes an account of the Snark-hunters going forth To seek it with thimbles Carroll suggested to his illustrator Henry Holiday that he might want to add a shower of thimbles to any accompanying picture , while in he wrote to Queen Victorias granddaughter Princess Alice promising her a golden armchair with crimson velvet cushions, made so that you can fold it up small, and put it in a thimble, and carry it about in your pocket!
He was equally interested in gloves. The House boasts four floors of iconic designs on display, from Warner Bros.
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