(Harvill Secker, £25)
On 4th July 1862, the Reverend Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematics don, rowed his young friends Ina, Edith and Alice Liddell up the Thames, and entertained them over a picnic with a story about a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole. In this richly evocative but never sensational book, Oxford professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst chronicles “the triangular relationship between Carroll, the real Alice and the fictional Alice,” weaving a biography of Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell with a cultural history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass. He portrays Dodgson/Carroll as a quiet eccentric, a neurotic perfectionist whose eclectic interests included Darwinism, board games and the paranormal, and whose favoured muses were his collection of “child-friends.” Douglas-Fairhurst is nuanced on the nature of these relationships, without attempting to whitewash their uncomfortable aspects; he contextualises Carroll’s attitudes within Victorian cultural and aesthetic mores, and his dazzling work within literary history.
For Carroll, photographing children and immortalising them in literature “allowed a little child to stay little for ever.” Alice Liddell’s long life was lived in the shadow of her fictional alter ego—apparently happily, despite a mysterious distancing from Carroll. Meanwhile he struggled to control his character Alice who appeared, often unauthorised, in satires, spin-offs, theatrical adaptations and merchandise. Douglas-Fairhurst unravels Carroll’s ingenious use of language—his teasing puns, acrostics, portmanteaux and rhyme—and detective-like, he manoeuvres ambiguous scraps of evidence, including Carroll’s tantalisingly censored diaries, into an intriguing portrait. On the 150th anniversary of Alice’s first publication, this accomplished book provides ample inspiration for readers to return to Wonderland.