The Alice Behind Wonderland

Simon Winchester examines the story behind the discomforting photo taken of the little girl who inspired “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The Alice Behind Wonderland By Simon Winchester Oxford University Press 100 pp.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried the Alice of “Wonderland” fame after falling down the rabbit hole.

I almost wanted to use the same words as I read The Alice Behind Wonderland, Simon Winchester’s new contribution to the field of “Wonderland” studies.

Winchester is a distinguished writer and researcher (“The Professor and the Madman,” “Krakatoa,” and “The Map that Changed the World,” are among his numerous bestselling titles) and the subject he focuses on (the relationship between Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and the young Alice Liddell for whom he wrote “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”) is a fascinating one.

Yet when I was done with this slender volume I still wasn’t quite sure what I had learned or why it mattered.

Winchester takes as his starting point the rather startling 1857 photo taken by Dodgson of young Alice dressed as a beggar girl. Certainly to contemporary sensibility the image is alarming. Alice – who was 6 at the time – looks coquettish at best and sexualized at worst.

But alarm bells have been rung over this photo many times before. Dodgson has been the subject of numerous biographical studies, none of which have ever really been able to explain the exact nature of his fascination with children – and particularly with very young girls. Alice Liddell was the daughter of the dean of Christ Church College in Oxford. Her parents and her young siblings were dear friends of Dodgson’s. He photographed all the Liddell children – and others – at different times and in different groupings. Alice is not the only child he photographed alone.

Alice is the only one, however, to appear in so arresting a pose. She is also of particular interest because she is the child to whom Dodgson first narrated the story of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And it was at her request that he turned this tale into a book.

But fascinating as that story is, it has been told many times. What Winchester offers that is new, largely, is a detailed explanation the nascent field of amateur Victorian photography. He meticulously tracks Dodgson’s 1856 purchase of his first mahogany-and-brass folding camera. He carefully works through the history of the development of the camera, and explains the difference between the daguerreotype, the calotype, and the wet-plate collodion that Dodgson relied on.

What Winchester does not do, however, is to explain what this contributes to our understanding of Dodgson or his famous book.

What is more useful is Winchester’s survey of Dodgson’s many photos taken over a period of years. This helps us to understand that the photo of young Alice is just one of many portraits made by Dodgson. A large number of these – although not all – are of children. If Dodgson was fascinated by children he was also fascinated by cameras. The staging of the portrait of Alice dressed up like the beggar girl in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson does seem somewhat less odd in the context of both the history of Victorian amateur photography and Dodgson’s devotion to the field.

What is frustrating, however, is to hear a good deal about Dodgson’s photographs but to see only the one of Alice, as no others are reproduced in the book.

And none of this helps to answer other questions – which Winchester refers to only glancingly – like why the friendship between Dodgson and the Liddells finally cooled, and whether the missing pages cut with a razor from Dodgson’s diary would have helped to explain this.

The story of Alice as an adult is a sad one. As a young woman she apparently leaped into an affair with one of Queen Victoria’s sons. Then she made a brilliant marriage with a wealthy industrialist. But it all eventually turned sour. Two of her three sons were killed in World War I and the third became a wastrel who frittered away the fading family fortune. Her husband died too young, plagued by financial worries. She lived to come to New York in 1932 to help celebrate the centennial of Dodgson’s birth, but her friendship with him had finished decades earlier. Winchester narrates all this just briefly in the last few pages of his book.

The story of “The Alice Behind Wonderland” is certainly an intriguing one. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t give us enough of it.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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