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

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

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Buy The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Anna Hollingsworth
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Summary: An intriguing biography about an author and his muse, The Story of Alice explores the true story behind Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Fact can be more wonderful than fiction, and this biography certainly takes the reader down a rabbit hole and into a real-life wonderland.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099594031

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Think of iconic novels, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will be near the top of your list. From the rabbit hole to the Mad Hatter's tea party and the Queen's cricket ground, Lewis Carroll's imagination has established itself firmly in Western cultural heritage: with a parade of characters ranging from the weird to the wonderful and a constant play with logic and language, Carroll's masterpiece has earned its place among classics.

But perhaps even more wonderful – or curiouser and curiouser – than Alice's fictional adventures is the factual tale behind the novels and the double lives lead by the author and his muse. The real-life Alice, Alice Liddell, was the daughter of the dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, when she, wholly unintentionally, became the model for one of the most celebrated characters in children's literature. The fictional Alice, however, was also a model for the real-life Alice: still seventy years after the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice's visit to New York made headlines and was portrayed as a journey to wonderland. Equally split into two was the life of the author. It was Charles Dodgson, a quiet Oxford academic, who was introduced to the Liddell family; but it was Dodgson's alter ego Lewis Carroll who dreamt up wonderland after wonderland, idolized childhood in his writings and photography, and declared that his child friends were three fourths of his life.

Douglas-Fairhurst documents the birth of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland precisely through the dichotomy between these characters and their complex, to say the least, relationship. The Story of Alice offers a biographical exploration of Carroll's journey from a peaceful childhood as Charles Dodgson to the subject of gossip in Oxford social circles, and an account of how Alice Liddell, through her acquaintance with Carroll, comes to lead a dual life, and ultimately to express frustration with Carroll's fixation about her.

The Story of Alice impresses in terms of both breadth and depth. It succeeds in its ambitious mission of covering two lives from crib to the grave, while entertaining ideas and alternatives about the murkier phases of these lives. By citing letters, diaries, and public opinions from the time, Douglas-Fairhurst delivers even the less well-established facts without ever veering into the domain of mere speculation. This is particularly successful in the discussion of the ever-present question of what Carroll's actual intentions were with respect to Alice Liddell. Was his interest in his child friend purely a matter of fascination about childhood innocence? What was the cause of the tensions between Carroll and the Liddell family? Douglas-Fairhurst skillfully avoids any sense of sensationalism and provides the reader with a nuanced overview of what can be assumed based on the available evidence.

Throughout The Story of Alice, there is also a constant effort to situate the choices and opinions of its protagonists against a wider cultural and historical backdrop. Central to the narrative is conveying the Victorian fascination about children and childhood, and how Carroll's interest in portraying children in idealized situations in his writing and photography can be understood through this. As such, the book reads not only as a biography of two individuals but also as an intellectual history of a time and place.

However, this multilayered structure along with Douglas-Fairhurst's ornate narration does not lend itself to the clearest of structures. The narrative bounces back and forth, as themes are revisited and unexpected paths explored so that the reader is at times left feeling like Alice trying to find her way around Wonderland.

Although a clearer structure would have done more justice to the author's expertise, The Story of Alice is a beautifully written and intriguing read. It takes the reader down a rabbit's hole into the wonderland that is the life of Lewis Carroll, and to the Mad Hatter's tea party surrounding the creation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

If this book appeals to you, then you might also like to try Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves by Anne Isba. You might also appreciate A Serious Endeavour: Gender, Education and Community at St Hugh's, 1886-2011 by Laura Schwartz.

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Buy The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at Amazon.com.

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