Simon Winchester The Alice behind Wonderland
Oxford University Press 2011
A century and a half ago, in July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in a limited edition by Oxford University Press — and then immediately withdrawn because Tenniel was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his illustrations. Although it wasn’t until November 1865 that the second edition appeared (approved by both author and illustrator, this time under the Macmillan imprint which had published Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies two years before) be prepared for a slew of media trumpeting and Wonderland brouhaha this summer. Nevertheless, it’s an opportune moment to review this short study of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s two most famous fantasies.
Simon Winchester structures his discussion around a photograph that Dodgson took in 1858 of the five-year-old Alice Liddell, taking as subject Tennyson’s 1842 poem The Beggar Maid. In this the legendary North African king Cophetua has no interest in women until he spots the young Penelophon begging in the street outside his palace. “Her arms across her breast she laid,” recounts the poet; she is “more fair than words can say … She is more beautiful than day.” Cophetua swears that this dark-haired beggar maid, bare-footed, in poor attire, with “so sweet a face, such angel grace” shall be his queen. Dodgson’s portrait of Alice captures all this, but with what to us now seems a degree of impropriety, both as regards her age and her unexpected décolletage. Of his attitude to his favourite “child-friend” there has been no end of gossip but precious few facts, especially as key pages in his diary were removed after his death, and I don’t want to add to the wealth of uninformed speculation. Not least of these is the implicit parallel between a king’s infatuation for a beggar-maid and a college lecturer’s obsession with a prepubescent girl.
The author explores a bit of this, but not before he outlines Dodgson’s upbringing and education, his penchant for nonsense writing, his enthusiastic involvement with the new ‘black art’ and his first meeting with Alice, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, on the occasion of Dodgson’s first foray with his newly acquired camera into the deanery garden. Winchester, a former geologist before he migrated to investigative journalism and then writing, expertly discusses the science of early photography and Dodgson’s rapidly specialising in portraiture. By chapter six (of just seven chapters in this book) he finally gets to the heart of the matter in “A Portrait most Perfect and Chaste” when he discusses Dodgson’s relationships with the Liddell family.
The Dean, of course, was supportive of Dodgson’s use of the deanery garden for portraits. Mrs Lorina Liddell was nearer in age to the photographer and by most accounts got on well with him. Dodgson was later said to be “paying court” to the children’s governess, Miss Prickett, but his diary entries apparently suggest that this is not a credible theory. Harry, the only boy in the family, hero-worshipped Dodgson. Edith, the youngest girl, was a redhead “with a Pre-Raphaelite look that Dodgson might have found less attractive” than the darker look of the others in the family, Winchester suggests. Lorina — Ina, as the eldest of the three sisters was known — is also linked with the young man as a potential spouse, though marriage would have meant him relinquishing his studentship (as Christ Church fellowhips were known).
When it comes to the middle girl, Winchester notes that “Alice Pleasance Liddell was peculiarly and particularly special to Charles Dodgson;” his “interest in small girls — he photographed scores of them, and a significant number of them nude — fascinates many in today’s more exposed world.” But he notes that Victorian attitudes held that young children “were the literal embodiment of innocent beauty, an innocence to be preserved and revered. All surviving evidence suggests that Dodgson’s attitude was no different and that his interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word.” I tend to agree — after all, in The Water-Babies (1863) Tom the former climbing boy spends most of the book as a totally naked child, echoing William Blake’s earlier Songs of Innocence — and perhaps it was only with the advent of photography, where real individuals might be identifiable and gazed upon, that candid portraits and adult interest in them became suspect. Winchester doesn’t however pursue this line of thinking.
If, as Winchester suggests, The Beggar Maid study was taken in June 1857, then it wasn’t till Alice was ten, in July 1862, that the famous “golden afternoon” boating trip resulted in an extempore tale becoming one of the best-known children’s classics. But by 1865 Alice was on the way to that difficult age that Dodgson found difficult to deal with, and — for reasons unclear to us — the Liddell family’s relationship with the newly famous author became more distant. So it came as a surprise to Dodgson when Mrs Liddell turned up with Alice and older sister Lorina for new portraits in June 1870, just as Alice was about to enter society. Can we read too much into the enigmatic gaze that the eighteen-year-old turns upon the camera lens? What do we make of Alice as Pomona, goddess of fruitfulness, as taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, where she deliberately mirrors the stance she took fifteen years before of beggar-maid Penelophon? And what do we think of the look given by the widowed eighty-year-old Alice Hargreaves when she visited America for the centenary celebrations of Dodgson’s birth? Can posed photographs really tell us anything about the state of mind of the person portrayed, or do we expect to see their backstory echoed in their body language and in their eyes?
In a text of around a hundred pages (to which is added Acknowledgements, Further Reading and an index) Winchester covers a lot of ground, though I fear we are little wiser as to who the real Alice was. Apart from the beggar-maid portrait, reproduced on the dust jacket and as a frontispiece, no other images are forthcoming. Instead we do get a lot about early photography and a little about Dodgson’s early nonsense writing and not very much about the Alice books. Odd facts stick in the mind, such as one uncle being a Commissioner in Lunacy and another being a Master of the Common Pleas; and I was struck by the curiosity that Winchester admires the conceit of Alice being like the Cheshire Cat’s smile so much that he uses it twice, at the end of the last chapter and immediately again at the end of the acknowledgements. Still, as a metaphor for the character of Alice it is probably most apt; and it certainly is no more than Dodgson’s own letters tell us about this special child-friend if his.