The Story of Alice has three strands, effectively intertwined: two biographical and one literary. The story began, as every Alice aficionado knows, on a July day in 1862, when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, with his friend Robinson Duckworth, took three little girls, the Liddell sisters, on a boat trip up the River Thames to Godstowe, two and a half miles north-west of Oxford. Here the little party disembarked and ate a picnic tea, while Dodgson, in his Lewis Carroll persona, entertained the others with the bare bones of a wonder tale that was destined, three years later, to take the world of children's literature by storm. Childhood reading would never be the same again.
The persistence of Alice as a classic storybook character, as a literary trope and endlessly variable source of reference, is a testament to the author’s incomparable aplomb and ingenuity. The last 150 years have seen an infinity of Alices and Alice-inspired compositions, some of which are closer than others to the spirit of the original Carroll creation. And the real-life Alice, Alice Liddell, whether she liked it or not, got caught up in what became an unending Alice brouhaha.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s compelling new study of the entire Alice phenomenon opens with the arrival in New York, in 1932, of an elderly Englishwoman gamely going through the routines and demands of literary celebrity. As a literary figure, though, you’d have to say that Alice Hargreaves, nee Liddell, was in something of a false position. She may have been a catalyst for the Alice books, with her request for a story by the riverbank back in 1862, but the more we read about Mrs Hargreaves – who liked her servants to call her Lady Hargreaves – the easier it becomes to detach Alice from Alice. The intrepid small girl who went down the rabbit hole would not, you feel, have grown up to lead an utterly conventional, decorous, upper-middle-class county-house life. The Alice who underwent enticing adventures under ground was a figment of the exuberant imagination of Lewis Carroll, nothing more or less.
His imagination was crucially attached to childhood and child accoutrements. By the time he was in his 20s and a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, Charles L Dodgson had already succumbed to a powerful nostalgia for “pinafores, treacle and innocence”, and placed himself at the centre of what a later writer, Edgar Jepson, called “a cult of little girls, the little daughters of dons and [Oxford] residents”.
Not only Alice Liddell, but hundreds and hundreds of “child-friends”, mostly female, contributed richness and sparkle to Lewis Carroll’s life. He cultivated, cherished, amused and often photographed them, always with their parents’ approval. For 20 years, he indulged his dearest pastime by spending his summer holidays at Eastbourne and trawling for children on the beach. No alarm was aroused in mothers or matrons by this pursuit of the besotted cleric. It was patently innocent – or was it? No one has ever established the truth of the matter, though it seems likely that we can accept the incorrupt version. Innocent or not, though, it is disconcerting to read that Carroll once spent a happy afternoon at Hatfield House playing with two of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, Princess Alice and her brother Prince Charles. The children were aged seven and eight; he was 59.
And then we have the famous episode of his estrangement from the Liddell family, with no information as to how it came about. Lewis Carroll and the Liddells were on terms of frosty politeness during some months of 1864, though a degree of cordiality was gradually resumed. Of course, in the social context of Victorian Oxford, it was easy to overstep the mark. But what, as Elizabeth Bowen wondered in a different context, was the mark? The point where protocol was breached, or propriety endangered? Whatever temporary grudge came into play, it isn't long before Carroll is back strolling by the river with Alice and her governess; and Alice is the first recipient of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, the book with which she will be for ever associated in the public mind. The wondrous Tenniel illustrations, though, further indicate a distinction between the two Alices. In his hands, the chestnut bob of the real little girl has given way to the flowing fair locks of the Lewis Carroll heroine.
The impact of Alice was tremendous and almost instantaneous. It seemed the reading public, of all ages, was poised to applaud the story's inventiveness and wit. It – and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking-Glass – gave expression to the author's entertaining astringency and capacity for jest. But another side to his personality existed – a syrupy side – whose effects aren't altogether suppressed. A sentimental note has crept into the ending of Alice, and erupted later in the dreadful Easter Greeting (not to mention Sylvie and Bruno). But these fade in the mind in comparison with the buoyancy and the blithe ruthlessness of The Walrus and the Carpenter (say), the mad tea party episode in Book One, or the anarchic mock trial which ends with Alice being beset by a pack of cards.
The great thing about the Alice books is their accomplishment on many levels. Their effect on a reader of six, or on one of 46, may be equally elevating, though not for the same reasons. Following on from the child’s uncomplicated delight comes a more knowing appraisal of the stories’ implications. Not that those can be easily identified, or pinned down once and for all.
Over the years, Alice has been subjected to psychoanalytic, political, allegorical and sociological interpretations, among others. Many critics and readers have made out a case for this or that underlying dimension to Lewis Carroll's underground. The scope is enormous, due partly to the author's brilliantly askew angle of vision, his exhilarating linguistic mischief-making, and to the intriguing oppositions which animate his narratives: common sense and nonsense, logic and levity, transience and durability, playfulness and gravity, tradition and invention. Unlike other classic works into which too much is apt to be read – The Water Babies, for instance – the fictional Alice can stand any amount of analysis, and still hold on to her integrity as a child bemused and entranced by the world and its oddities.
The stories' "unstoppable cultural momentum", as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst puts it, gave rise to innumerable parodies, jeux d'esprit and acts of homage. Douglas-Fairhurst has identified most of them (only omitting Nicholas Blake's detective novel of 1940, Malice in Wonderland, along with the espionage aspect of the whole business as exemplified in titles such as The Looking-Glass War, or David Mure's 1984 novel The Last Temptation, with its Duchess, Red Knight and all, and an actual Liddell – Guy Liddell – as its protagonist). His astute and subtle commentary illumines the world of Lewis Carroll and Alice, with all its attributes and attitudes. Scholarly, engrossing and comprehensive, The Story of Alice, like Alice itself, raises the spirits while extolling ambiguity and unpredictability.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Bookworm, her memoir of childhood reading, will be published later this year