IF ONE THING seemed indisputably clear, in the thickets of English literary history, it was the question of how, when and by whom "Alice in Wonderland" was written.
Lewis Carroll, move over, according to a new book, "Queen Victoria's Secret Diaries."
The new author, in the tradition of Who Really Wrote Shakespeare's Plays: the Queen herself.
Published last Dec. 14 (the anniversary of Prince Albert's death in 1861), the book is already sold out in its first printing and is heading for a second, which will be retitled "Queen Victoria's ALICE IN WONDERLAND." In preparation is an edition of "Queen Victoria's THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS," in which the publishers promise "even more startling revelations."
There is no doubt at all that the publishers, the Continental Historical Society in San Francisco, are dead serious in this opinion.
The book is a reprint of the first edition of "Alice in Wonderland" with an introduction and marginal notes purportedly by Victoria (actually by one or more anonymous members of the Continental Historical Society). These notes "confess" Victoria's authorship of the book and explain the intricate symbolism that makes it a crypto-autobiography. The book is apparently a collaborative effort, and the publishers politely decline to say exactly who worked on it.
But the membership of the society (scattered around the world, but predominantly in California) includes a number of scholars capable of such work.
Rumor holds (and has so held for well over a century) that the author of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a minor cleric of the Church of England and lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, who had a taste for word games, mathematical conundrums and taking nude photographs of nymphets. Dodgson began publishing comic pieces for young people under the pseudonym (a reversal of his first two names; "Lutwidge" = "Lewis" and "Charles" = "Carroll") in 1856, while using his own name for mathematical works.
For a while, after the pen name became famous, he used it on letters to newspapers about causes close to his heart, such as vivisection and political issues. He autographed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the "Alice" books. Then there was a falling-out between Dodgson and Carroll. In 1890, he had a leaflet printed saying that he "neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym, or with any book that is not published under his own name." In 1897 (two months before his death), he began returning letters addressed to Carroll to the post office, unopened, with the notation that the addressee was "not known."
On July 4, 1862, according to rather voluminous documents, Dodgson took little Alice Liddell and her sisters on a rowing expedition and picnic, during which he improvised the story of "Alice in Wonderland." Alice urged him to write the story down, and he did, making rough notes the same night and finishing the job some eight months later. The book was published in 1865, followed by "Through the Looking-Glass" in 1871. The incident is recorded by Dodgson in his diary, by his friend Canon Robinson Duckworth, who went along, and by Alice herself (who became Mrs. Alice Hargreaves and wrote her memoirs in 1932.)
Still, there are doubts--as there are doubts about any historic event examined in microscopic detail. All parties agree that July 4, 1862 was a "golden afternoon" (Dodgson), a "beautiful summer afternoon" (Duckworth), a "blazing summer afternoon" (Hargreaves). Researchers point out that it was "cool and rather damp" in Oxford on that date--0.17 inches of rain fell, mostly between 2 p.m. and 2 the next morning. Dodgson mentions the outing in his diary under that date, but the first reference to the "Alice" stories is an insert, placed under July 4 but actually written later, probably when he had the story written out in its definitive form. There is no question that he physically wrote the story; his manuscript exists and has been published in facsimile. But did he also invent it or did he simply copy it?
Nagging questions: Does the purported date of the first telling of the "Alice" story have anything to do with the fact that Victoria's daughter Alice (later the Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt) was married on July 1, 1862? Why are there crucial sections missing in the diaries of Victoria, of Dodgson, and of Crown Prince Albert Edward (alias "Bertie"), who studied mathematics with Dodgson and may have been the Queen's intermediary with the purported writer? At what time did the 0.17 inches of rain fall in Oxford that day? Could the elaborately arranged picnic have been washed out, requiring bribes and threats later to make the participants "remember" the event? Is the washout commemorated at the beginning of Chapter III of "Alice in Wonderland," where everyone is soaking wet? Was the story told during the picnic (as Alice later recalled) or during the rowing (as Duckworth recalled)? Why did Dodgson, toward the end of his life, renounce the previously treasured identity of Lewis Carroll?
According to the Continental Historical Society, "Alice in Wonderland" was written by Victoria as a sort of grief therapy in the months following Prince Albert's death. It is supposed to be an allegory of Victoria's insecure youth, when she was wondering whether she would become Queen of England. For this to happen, King William IV ("Old Father William" in the book) had to live past her 18th birthday in 1837. He managed to do that by exactly 28 days, averting a Regency during which her mother, the Duchess of Kent, would have had her locked up for insanity and seized power for herself and her lover, Sir John Conroy. A rival for the position of Regent was Victoria's uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, but the Duchess discredited him by spreading rumors that he was trying to poison Victoria.
This subtext is worked out in an elaborate series of symbols that are pointed out in the notes, purportedly by Victoria but actually by the publishers. The White Rabbit is Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent; her mother is the ugly Duchess, whose negative qualities are embodied in the White Queen, while her political ambitions are symbolized by the Duchess's baby, who turns into a pig.
Various aspects of Victoria are symbolized by the cat, Dinah, by the Cheshire Cat, the Gryphon, the Queen of Hearts and, of course, Alice. Dodgson is symbolized by the Dodo and also by the Knave of Hearts (a thief standing for a plagiarist). Prince Albert (the White Knight) will not make his appearance until "Through the Looking Glass," at the end of which, of course, Alice becomes Queen.
Some of the symbolism is worked out in ingenious detail, but this may point toward the cleverness of the annotators more than the accuracy of their observations. It is not the first time Victoria has had a literary masterpiece attributed to her. In his "Essays in Satire," published in 1928, Ronald Knox (best-known for his later translation of the Bible) published an essay "proving" that Victoria wrote Tennyson's "In Memoriam," which was originally published anonymously.
He analyzed 11 lines of the poem (chosen through an intricate mathematical process) as possible anagrams and struck pay dirt. Line 1 of Canto 1, "I held it truth, with him who sings," was unscrambled to read: "Who is writing this? H.M. luteth hid." The last of the chosen lines was line 11 of Canto 113: "A potent voice of Parliament," which Knox shook out to read: "Alf, poet-pen to Victoria. Amen."
Knox was, of course, poking fun at the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy. The Continental Historical Society is not laughing. Besides a sometimes fascinating close reading of "Alice in Wonderland," the publishers provide evidence derived from that oracle of contemporary scholarship, a computer analysis. A computerized comparison of the frequency of use of certain italicized words (particularly "not" and "very") in the "Alice" books and the childhood diaries of Queen Victoria shows a remarkably close correlation.
On the other hand, the "pre-Alice" works of Lewis Carroll and roughly contemporary works of Dickens and Thackeray show no such correspondence. The correlation is even closer (to three decimal places!) in a comparison that examines " 'very' as a percentage of the six most commonly italicized words." The publishers observe that Dodgson's style, "prior to the 'Alice' books, was quite similar to that of other Victorian writers of the period, and quite different from the style of the 'Alice' books" and that the style of the "Alice" books is "unique" except for being "virtually identical with the diaries of Queen Victoria." They conclude that Victoria wrote the "Alice" books and that Dodgson tried to imitate Victoria's style in his post-"Alice" works but seriously overdid it with italicized "nots." They suggest that he may have been "trying to tell the world he was not the author of ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS."
Of course, all this may mean simply that Dodgson managed in the "Alice" books to capture the way well-bred little girls talked and wrote in Victorian England--even little girls destined to be queen. A computer analysis of the letters and diaries of other girls might be more relevant than comparisons with Dickens and Thackeray. The publishers hope to have their research double-checked by independent researchers. Until then a reasonable verdict might be that their suggestion is very interesting but not absolutely proved.