This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” probably the most beloved children’s book in English, as well as the most parodied, quoted and analyzed. Its 1871 sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” is only slightly less celebrated, though most readers regard the two as one long book. In which, for example — quick now, no cheating — does one find “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” the classic nonsense poem that talks “Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax — / Of cabbages — and kings”? In which do we learn about the four branches of arithmetic — “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”?
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s “The Story of Alice” belongs with the best books ever written in the field of Carrollian studies. What are some of the others? Morton Cohen’s “Lewis Carroll” is still the fullest biographical account of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the mathematics teacher at Christ Church, Oxford, who Latinized and reversed his given names when he needed a literary pseudonym. Martin Gardner’s annotated editions of the two novels and the mysterious narrative poem “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876) — which Carroll called “an Allegory for the Pursuit of Happiness” — have never been superseded as grab-bags of information, speculation and fancy. Several specialized works, such as the various albums of Carroll’s pioneering photographs or Will Brooker’s 2004 survey of Lewis Carroll fandom, “Alice’s Adventures,” deserve more than specialist audiences.
Yet for a total work of criticism, a scholarly Gesamtkunstwerk, “The Story of Alice” can’t be beat. In it, Douglas-Fairhurst examines the tangled lives of Carroll and Alice Liddell (later Alice Hargreaves) up until the latter’s death in 1934, while also tracking the publication history of the “Alice” books, their popularity and their ongoing cultural influence. The Oxford don’s own prose is, moreover, a delight to read: fact-filled, nicely balanced between exposition and quotation, confiding and witty.
In fact, high among the pleasures of “The Story of Alice” is its willingness to amuse as well as instruct. Discussing his subject’s school days, Douglas-Fairhurst pauses for a pen portrait of the headmaster of Rugby, Archibald Tait, “a rather remote figure, who was reluctant to punish his pupils (one boy who escaped and was later found riding on a circus elephant received only a stern reprimand).” Later, to suggest the conservative ways of Oxford, we are told that when Carroll matriculated he was required to swear in Latin that “he would abide by statutes that included the promise ‘not to encourage the growth of curls’ and ‘to abstain from that absurd and assuming practice of walking publicly in boots.’ ” Wonderland clearly abuts the university’s dreaming spires.
Carroll probably first saw the three Liddell sisters, the daughters of the dean of Christ Church, through a window of the college library. By the time of the famous boating party up the Thames on July 4, 1862, Alice Liddell was all of 10, three years older than her alter ego in that funny story her grown-up friend told to pass the time on a golden — actually cloudy — afternoon.
In fact, the passage of time was an obsession with Carroll. He hated for anything to be gone for good, done and over. Through art — that is, through his camera portraits and his stories — he sought to preserve, to permanently “fix” (in the language of wet-plate photography) the otherwise evanescent wonder and magic of childhood. Alice Liddell might grow up, but Alice in Wonderland would stay the same age forever.
Was the writer drawn to little girls in a pedophilic way? It’s impossible to say for sure, but probably not. None of his child-friends, even when grown up, ever suggested that he took liberties. Carroll was serious in his religious beliefs, valued innocence as an essential part of childhood and was conscientious to avoid any possible misinterpretation of his fondness for the Liddell sisters or their successors. Douglas-Fairhurst quite rightly sets even the notorious nude photographs into the context of the Victorian cult of childhood, wherein such pictures were understood to be representations of prelapsarian purity: Young children were, after all, nearer to God than you or I.
For a long time the public wasn’t generally aware of the real identity of Lewis Carroll or that the heroine of Wonderland was based on Alice Liddell. Both seemed to prefer this relative anonymity. Alice, in particular, shucked off her mischievous, gamine personality once she grew up and married Reginald Hargreaves. She soon settled happily into a pretentious country-house life of doing pretty much nothing at all. Only after World War I, when she needed money to maintain her lavish lifestyle, did she start to trade on her secret identity. She visited America in 1932, received an honorary degree from Columbia, and while here sold to A.S. W. Rosenbach the original holograph of what was first called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” before being amplified and polished into the children’s classic we know.
By then, Carroll had been dead for 30 years. But throughout his later life he had kept strict watch over the fortunes of his two most famous works, correcting misprints in various editions, working on a musical adaptation and a nursery version of the adventures, overseeing any merchandising spinoffs. Still, much of his creation escaped his control. Douglas-Fairhurst notes the widespread adoption of the word “Wonderland” to describe exotic scenery or tawdry seaside resorts. He points out the many books that borrowed Carroll’s original template, such as the political satire “Alice in Blunderland” and the instructional “Alice in Orchestra Land.”
Enriching nearly every page of “The Story of Alice” are its author’s memorably phrased aperçus: For instance, John Tenniel’s illustrations were so integral to reading about Alice that “no longer was an illustrated book merely text plus pictures; it was text times pictures.” The characters in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land, Douglas-Fairhurst neatly reminds us, are more often cranky than cuddly. He also offers plenty of unexpected, oddly beguiling factoids. Did you know that Carroll owned “no fewer than nineteen works by Darwin or his critics?” That he was curious about the seemingly paranormal and helped found the Society for Psychical Research? Or that he was mad about the theater, his diaries recording attendance at more than 400 plays, some of them more than once. He also used a Whitely Exerciser, a pulley contraption for physical training. (So did Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s “Ulysses.”) Because Carroll didn’t care for Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, he deftly anagrammatized his name into “Wild agitator! Means well.” Not least, it’s always a shock to remember that this fussy bachelor once traveled all the way to Moscow.
“The Story of Alice” doesn’t stop with the death of Carroll or even of Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves. Later chapters trace the growth of the Alice industry and the importance of Carroll’s fantasies to such diverse 20th-century figures as surrealist Andre Breton, animator Walt Disney and critic William Empson, who insouciantly dashed off a notorious chapter of “Some Versions of Pastoral” interpreting the Wonderland adventures in Freudian terms.
Douglas-Fairhurst ends his book by reminding us that Carroll’s Alice stories “entertain us with what we can imagine as true, and encourage us to enjoy being puzzled at what we do not know. They are invitations to wonder.” They are also — oh my fur and whiskers! — imperishable masterpieces.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
THE STORY OF ALICE
Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Harvard Univ. 488 pp. $29.95