What MORE is there to say about ‘Alice’?

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ Books have had a remarkable fascination for readers the world over; not only have there been over 9,000 editions in 174 languages, but there are countless books about them. Peter Hunt reflects on writing yet another.

What interests people about famous children’s books can be bewildering. Was Enid Blyton a bad mother? Was Dumbledore gay? In the case of the most famous children’s books of all, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass this kind of interest generally seems to involve a trial in absentia of Charles Dodgson over his relationship with Alice Liddell and other little girls (with a great deal about missing and mutilated diary entries and Dodgson’s photographic habits).

Which is a pity because the ‘Alice’ books are the complex product of a complex mind, and can tell us a great deal about Victorian culture, and the intricacies of writing for children. Dodgson, beginning with a personal story for a little girl, then developed and layered it and its sequel with local jokes, political satire, personal preoccupations, and mathematical oddities – indeed, both books are extended games, which may now, increasingly, be more interesting for adults to play than for children.

And so my new book about these books is about things that most people don’t know about the books – as opposed to what they know, or think they know, about the private lives involved.

For example: take Friday, 4th July, 1862, a ‘golden afternoon’ so well known that it is still celebrated as Alice Day in Oxford. Two junior academics, Charles Dodgson and his friend Robinson Duckworth rowed the three young daughters of Dean Liddell of Christ Church (the Oxford college known as ‘the house’) up, or possibly down, the river. Dodgson made up a story, and Alice, number two daughter, asked him to write it down. Of course, as many people know, this is at least partly a myth: it was actually raining that day; and Dodgson added the reference to the story in his diary as an afterthought, and later admitted that it was ‘made up almost wholly of bits and scraps’ from stories, ‘like summer midges’, told on several such trips.

But probably very few people know that such excursions were commonplace in Oxford: junior staff frequently took the children of their superiors for excursions (probably for politic reasons); or that Duckworth became Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria, officiated at Charles Darwin’s funeral, and was so distinguished that he was buried in Westminster Abbey. That boat was almost a microcosm of a deeply intertwined set of cultural contacts.

14 Books for Keeps No.243 July 2020

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