Lead book review

Stolen kisses and naked girls: there is much to wonder about in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland

Reviewing Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice, A.S. Byatt enters the dodgy world of Charles Dodgson

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Harvill Secker, pp.488, £25, ISBN: 9781846558610

‘A vision of innocence was not always the same as an innocent vision,’ remarks Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. He is referring to Alice’s discovery in Wonderland that ‘ “I say what I mean” is not the same as “I mean what I say”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst is a subtle expert in doubleness. His new book tells the story of Lewis Carroll, who was also an Oxford mathematician called Charles Dodgson, and Alice Liddell, whom Dodgson photographed naked when she was seven, who married and became Mrs Hargreaves though she liked to use the title Lady Hargreaves, to which she was not entitled.

In 1862 Dodgson took Alice and her siblings on a boat trip on the river from Oxford to Godstow, during which he told the story of Alice’s descent to a world underground, inhabited by fantastic people and creatures. Alice asked him to write it down. It was published in 1865, with illustrations by John Tenniel, and a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. The story gripped both their lives.

Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorian ‘innocents’, was obsessed by the beauty and incorruptibility of young girls. The camera was a fairly recent invention. He used it to make images of girls dressed as princesses or beggars or — the clearest image of innocence — naked. Douglas-Fairhurst has fun — while making a serious point — with Carroll’s involuted letters to Alice’s mother (and other mothers) seeking permission to photograph their daughters. ‘On each occasion the correspondence turned into an elaborate dance of questions about how far they might go towards “absolute undress”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst shows that as Carroll insisted on the child’s ‘blissful unselfconsciousness’ his own writing became more selfconscious. Girls were variously ‘undraped’ or ‘undressed’; they were ‘in primitive costume’ or ‘Eve’s original dress’ or ‘their favourite dress of “nothing”.’ Douglas-Fairhurst remarks that Carroll’s increasingly elaborate attempts to avoid saying what he meant were ‘the rhetorical equivalent of a hand-tailored suit with a fancy waistcoat’.

The book goes into both innocent examples of this love of little girls and an exploration of the dark alternatives to innocence. Douglas-Fairhurst points out that the looking glass makes everything double and reverses things. Innocence first. He quotes a poem by F.T. Palgrave, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, later professor of poetry and editor of The Golden Treasury — an anthology with which I was familiar when I was Alice’s age. Palgrave wrote a poem, ‘The Age of Innocence’, which is — to put it simply — extremely embarrassing. It is addressed to:

The little wonderer at my knee—
Is she the Vision robed in light—
The Fairy Fair — the gracious sight;
The angel child that loosed the chain…?

After there has been an embrace, the poem concludes:

The white soft frock — the sash of blue —
The edging lace — the tiny shoe —
The sock turn’d down — the ancle fine—
The wavy folds — the bosom line.

The kiss is described in detail:

The quick warm breath: the heaving breast:
The tender weight against me prest:
The fair fine limbs — the soft — the pure —
All maidenhood in miniature.

Douglas-Fairhurst offers some equally touching or horrifying descriptions of male passion for innocent and delectable child-friends. He has a passage identifying these persons — people too young to inhabit the world of sex and marriage, yet offering what? A kiss seems to be the ultimate delight of this world. Carroll the mathematician wrote to one girl: ‘I send you 1,0000000 kisses’, and to another: ‘I send you 4 3/4 kisses; please give ½ of a kiss to Nellie and 1/200 of a kiss to Emsie, and 1/20000000 of a kiss to yourself.’

This is ponderous and jokey enough. But Douglas-Fairhurst reminds us of the work of W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who in 1885 conducted secret search into a concealed network of brothels and locked rooms that stretched out across London, where young virgins were ‘served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich’. Stead quotes a brothel-keeper who assured him that ‘as the walls are thick’ and there was ‘a double carpet on the floor’ any girl he chose ‘may scream blue murder, but not a sound will be heard’.

Left to right: Alice Liddell  (photographed by Dodgson) and Alice and the White Rabbit by John Tenniel
Left to right: Alice Liddell (photographed by Dodgson) and Alice and the White Rabbit by John Tenniel

Carroll’s manoeuvres were awkward on the edge of innocence. In 1880 he mistakenly kissed the daughter of one of his Christ Church colleagues who turned out to be 17 years old. His amusing ‘apology’ to her mother was ill-received, and not long after that he gave up taking photographs. His extraordinary innocence or deliberate blindness is shown in a story about his attempt to buy a copy of a civil war painting by Thomas Heaphy called ‘General Fairfax and his Daughter pursued by the Royalist Trooper’. He wanted only the child in the painting. All he remembered, it seems, was ‘the fainting child’ — and the title he eventually chose for his copy was ‘Dreaming of Fairyland’!

In later years he seems to have spent his summers on the beach at Eastbourne, accompanied by a series of child-friends. There was ice-cream and paddling and affection. I love the story of the 11-year- old Nellie da Silva in 1876. She decided that the bathing-machine man was ill-treating his horse. So she fed his lunch to the horse and set about smashing the glass in the peepholes of the bathing machines. We’re not told what happened next. But the incident shows Douglas-Fairhurst’s precision and liveliness as a narrator. He is constantly surprising and often shocking, quietly and carefully.

I have concentrated on the doubleness and single-mindedness of Dodgson/Carroll. But The Story of Alice is splendidly interesting about the world in which the Alice books were written, and the way in which Carroll tried to keep hold of his child-friends and freeze them — so to speak — at a certain age. It is also interesting about Mrs Hargreaves, and her journey to New York, aged 80, where she was besieged by journalists curious about the famous Alice.

Douglas-Fairhurst is a startling and exciting writer. I shall not forget his description of the Alice books — compared to Carroll’s last novel Sylvie and Bruno — as being ‘as slim as snakes’. I had to make an effort to remember myself as a reader, about Alice’s age, being startled and delighted on every page of those books, but completely unaware of little girls and loving men, ambivalence and meaningfulness.

They are eventually books for solitary, surprised children. How did that man do that? This book helps us to see, even while unravelling our innocence.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. A.S. Byatt is a novelist and poet. Her books include The Children’s Book, Still Life and the Booker Prize-winning Possession.

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Show comments
  • v_3

    And now for something completely different: Dodgson’s deep dark secret of mathematical reactionariness revealed.:


  • Secret Lewis Carroll`s obsession of small girls must hide in his early childhood .what kind of incidence occurred in his childhood for this obsession finding out is very difficult but recent research in neuroscience suggest that all our decision taken by our unconscious mind.and uncoscious mind developedin childhood only.

    • Mike Leach

      There was no obsession. See my comments above.

  • alleagra

    In spite of the WT Stead observation (a situation likely still with us) the phrase ‘obsession with small girls’ does not in every case (though maybe in most) betoken an unacceptable incursion of adult sexuality. When he was only 21 Lewis Carroll wrote a poem with the last line “I’d give all my wealth that years have piled, the slow result of life’s decay, to be once more a little child for one bright summer’s day”. ‘Arrested development’ you may think but the HG Wells story ‘The Door in the Wall’ possibly points to a similar perception with no sexual baggage.

    “. . .the garden that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey
    nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality,
    that difference from the common things of experience that hung
    about it all”

  • saksin

    Long on innuendo, short on facts, adds up to a wastage of time.

  • RXTT

    If it smells like a pedo, and sounds like a pedo, and takes naked photos of pre-pubescent children like a pedo, then it must be a….

    • Spock Puppet

      BBC personality?

    • Mike Leach

      You don’t have the faintest clue what you are talking about, do you?

      • RXTT

        NAMBLA much Mr. Leach?

  • Upright Man

    ‘increasingly elaborate attempts to avoid saying what he meant’
    Lewis Carroll was a gifted writer of subtle nonsense and it his preoccupation and prerogative was to write elaborately, and he meant precisely what he said.
    AS Byatt is just another ideogical writer of destructing bilge, who tries desperately to avoid explicitly calling Carroll a paedophile, knowing this would have no basis in reality.

  • Gnaeus-Julius Agricola

    Possibly, Lewis Caroll was a paedophile.
    Yet I like to think he never crossed the line
    but transcended his feelings into wonderful prose and verse.

    • Mike Leach

      You have misread the situation.
      There is no evidence whatsoever that Dodgson was a paedophile, and the currently popular view that he was is the result of a) a misunderstanding of Victorian cultural mores, b) the misguided efforts of his family to safeguard his reputation, c) a spectacularly successful practical joke played by a Balliol undergraduate in 1932.

  • goodsoldier

    The only dodgy person is A.S. Byatt herself and her Guardinista writing style, so phony and delectable and vicious all at once. She’s going after dead white males hoping to instill a revulsion mechanism in us all. So sneaky and tiresome.

  • The Masked Marvel

    Interesting that this comes on the heels (or is the reverse the case?) of the BBC documentary on the same topic. That one tried and failed to nail anything down, and was almost entirely supposition. The case made was weak enough that the producers were left with suggesting that Dodgson had some sort of sordid relationship with Alice’s older sister instead.

    The main impression left was of the odious Will Self stating repeatedly and uncategorically that Dodgson was a child molester, grinning like the Cheshire Cat as if making such a statement was a brilliant poke in the eye of the establishment.

    • Jenny

      Robert Douglas Fairhurst was the Carroll consultant on the programme.

  • WimsThePhoenix

    The thing is, what percentage of the population are excited at nude children? I’m 62, and when I was young, pictures of naked kids were commonplace. Normal people saw them as a charming bit of fun, something to show their friends when they grow up as a bit of a tease.

    There is a lot of nudity in Victorian Art and the camera was originally used as an art form until Kodak emancipated it for the hoi polloi.

    For God’s sake there are people out there who get excited by SHEEP! Should we stop people photographing THEM? Was Constable a pervert?

    • Mike Leach

      Excellent point.
      To Constable you might add Cameron, Rejlander, Louys, Sutcliffe, Peach Robinson, Schenk (among photographers); Paton, Coleman, Millais, Leighton (among painters) …
      If photographing/painting naked girls makes Dodgson a paedophile, the whole Victorian age was paedophilic. (Discuss).
      In Victorian culture, the little girl was the symbol of innocence. If she was naked it simply emphasised that characteristic. Calling a man a paedophile (not that they’d have understood the word) would have made as much sense as branding a Hallmark photographer a zoophile for taking photos of naked puppies and kittens.

  • Buck18

    Where is the evidence that Lewis Caroll got a hard-on when he was around little girls? Did little girls remain physically little girls at that time later than they do today? The evidence seems to suggest that girls are getting their period earlier and earlier, and turning into women earlier and earlier. In an age when sexuality was secret (a network of brothels, indeed) there is something to be said for someone who loved innocence. One need only to look at Leigh Hunt’s “Jennie Kissed Me” to see the astonishing beauty of innocence and how that beauty can be turned into art.

  • Mike Leach

    What a pity so many people find the need to make their views on Charles Dodgson known without acquiring either a basic knowledge of Victorian mores, or a detailed knowledge of the first-hand evidence relating to his life.
    Given the superb understanding of Victorian society revealed in Byatt’s masterpiece Possession, it’s surprising how easily she succumbs to the mainstream view of Dodgson and his so-called ‘child-friendships’. She gets the implications of the kiss with Atty Owen completely the wrong way on.
    What, may I ask, is a poem by F.T, Palgrave supposed to tell us about Charles Dodgson?

  • Jenny

    Palgrave wrote various embarrassing poems to little girls – he had several children and was a conspicuously doting father and famously a lover of children’s company, though not as far as I am aware, a paedophile in any way. I had always thought that this particular poem was for his own daughter and makes a point about her beloved vulnerability. I mentioned in my book that he also wrote a flowery poem to Agnes Weld, who LC photographed, and it was not an uncommon thing for Victorian gents to take this romanticised view of little girls. What bothers me is why this poem is quoted as some length to suggest something sinister about Carroll when he didn’t write it, doesn’t mention it and as far as I know didn’t even read it ! (and it’s NOT in the Golden Treasury). You could drown in conspiracy theories once you begin down this route. What about Julia Margaret Cameron, who did pictures (like Turtle Doves() which would have been notorious if Carroll had only done them (though he didn’t)? Still, he did know and mix with her. What, indeed about Tennyson who had all three of these people in his circle? Has anyone investigated why Tennyson was involved with a group of people who might now be considered to have a dodgy interest in children:? But no, please let’s stop. Tennyson was fine and this is truly silly. Hysterical, even. Mean, witch-hunting, even. However elegantly written… .