Alice and her creator’s curious adventures out of Wonderland (Book Review)

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Title: The Story of Alice – Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland ; Author: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst; Publisher: Vintage/Random House India; Pages: 490; Price: Rs.599

It was the peak of the Great Depression but an issue getting most attention in several New York papers in April-May 1932 was the visit of an octogenarian Englishwoman. But Alice Hargreaves was no ordinary woman – she had starred in a fantasy told to her and her sisters one summer afternoon long ago and it was on her urging it became a book.

She was the Alice to whom Charles Lutwidge Dodgson alias Lewis Carroll had told the tale with the heroine named after her, and the main reason for her visit was the celebration of the author’s birth centenary.

This episode, which Robert Douglas-Fairhurst researched extensively after coming across a photo of her and other material relating to the visit at a Yale library in 2013, is proof of how a whimsical tale told to amuse three pre-teen girls during a boat ride on the Thames continues to evoke such keen interest well after it came before the public in 1865 – down to our own times (remember Tim Burton’s 2010 film?).

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But anyone who has read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its follow-on “Through the Looking Glass” (1871) could also wonder what relation did its characters have with its earliest audience, especially the main protagonist? Was the story a spontaneous invention or did it have any connection to life, and what kind of person was its creator?

All these questions and much more are comprehensively dealt with here by Douglas-Fairhurst, who like Carroll, is an Oxford academician (but of English Literature, not Mathematics and associated with Magdalen, not Christ Church (college)).

In his painstakingly and comprehensively researched work, he not only acquaints us with Dodgson, who was also a deacon of the Church of England and a lecturer in maths, and Alice Pleasance Liddell, the fourth child of its dean, but also their “second lives” and the works that entwine them in literature, the era in which it came and the influence it continues to have.

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And he does a most thorough and balanced job, while demolishing several myths that have arisen around the author and his ‘muse’, to present them as mostly representative of their times – and the ways they broke out of the mould.

Not only is Dodgson brought out as a innovative creator of words and imagination, but also well-qualified to present the perhaps first story for children that sought to entertain, not only dryly and direly educate, and to understand the world and viewpoint of children he spent most of his life talking to and not talking down too.

It also takes an objective view of his other capabilities as well as predilection for befriending, entertaining and photographing young girls – which sounds particularly ominous in our modern era as much as it was growing to be in his.

And fans of Alice’s adventures might find it interesting to how many of the story’s familiar motifs draw inspiration from other works and some real life settings and events too. Also fascinating is how the author continued to maintain control over his immortal creation, and its different manifestations in his lifetime, and of its enormous cultural influence – right from the time it became into the public domain.

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Getting her due attention too is Alice and her family – and in her case, her long but not always happy adult life.

Douglas-Fairhurst, whose most recent work was on Charles Dickens as a novelist, says his quest to find material that would help him make sense of Lewis Carroll’s life, was in a manner, “also an attempt to make sense of his own”. For like many, he first read the Alice books when young and had never lost the “mixture of feelings they produced in me – an emotional scramble of amusement, fear, bewilderment and sheer unexamined joy” but it was only while reaching middle age, “found myself wanting to know why”.

For anyone who feels the same way, this book explains why the Wonderland allures all – and why indeed we need one.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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