A.S. Byatt

Stolen kisses and naked girls: there is much to wonder about in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland

Reviewing Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice, A.S. Byatt enters the dodgy world of Charles Dodgson

‘A vision of innocence was not always the same as an innocent vision,’ remarks Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. He is referring to Alice’s discovery in Wonderland that ‘ “I say what I mean” is not the same as “I mean what I say”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst is a subtle expert in doubleness. His new book tells the story of Lewis Carroll, who was also an Oxford mathematician called Charles Dodgson, and Alice Liddell, whom Dodgson photographed naked when she was seven, who married and became Mrs Hargreaves though she liked to use the title Lady Hargreaves, to which she was not entitled.

In 1862 Dodgson took Alice and her siblings on a boat trip on the river from Oxford to Godstow, during which he told the story of Alice’s descent to a world underground, inhabited by fantastic people and creatures. Alice asked him to write it down. It was published in 1865, with illustrations by John Tenniel, and a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. The story gripped both their lives.

Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorian ‘innocents’, was obsessed by the beauty and incorruptibility of young girls. The camera was a fairly recent invention. He used it to make images of girls dressed as princesses or beggars or — the clearest image of innocence — naked. Douglas-Fairhurst has fun — while making a serious point — with Carroll’s involuted letters to Alice’s mother (and other mothers) seeking permission to photograph their daughters. ‘On each occasion the correspondence turned into an elaborate dance of questions about how far they might go towards “absolute undress”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst shows that as Carroll insisted on the child’s ‘blissful unselfconsciousness’ his own writing became more selfconscious. Girls were variously ‘undraped’ or ‘undressed’; they were ‘in primitive costume’ or ‘Eve’s original dress’ or ‘their favourite dress of “nothing”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst remarks that Carroll’s increasingly elaborate attempts to avoid saying what he meant were ‘the rhetorical equivalent of a hand-tailored suit with a fancy waistcoat’.

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