The Alice Behind Wonderland
by Simon Winchester
Oxford, 128 pp., $16.95L
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) was a pedophile, by the standards of today. Of course, by the standards of today, no parent would have knowingly allowed him to take that famous photograph of the 7-year-old Alice Liddell—the one of her dressed in ragamuffin clothes, posed against the garden wall, a too-old look of allure in her eye, and her nipple exposed through the drop-shouldered dress. The picture is a pedophile’s dream, a pervert’s fantasy of a child who understands and would welcome a grown man’s sexual advances, and if the 26-year-old Carroll had taken it in the summer of 2008 instead of 1858, he might well have ended up in jail.
So what are we to make of the fact that, in a High Victorian summer, and for years afterward, no one seemed particularly to mind? Either such indifference indicts the 19th century, or it indicts the 21st; with regard to sexuality, either the Victorians were a sick, sick people, or we are.
“Alice Liddell as The Beggar Maid”—as the picture is carefully labeled in Carroll’s display album—is one of nearly 3,000 photographs he took through the 1850s and ’60s before abandoning his interest in the new technology. Now, in The Alice Behind Wonderland, the popular writer Simon Winchester takes the picture as a starting point for accounts of photographic history, Oxford University, book publishing, and the progression by which a shy, half-deaf mathematician named Charles Dodgson became, under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, the most famous children’s author in the world—to say nothing of Winchester’s forays into Muscular Christianity, the headmasters of Rugby School, Anglican theology, and the grown Alice’s romance with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son.
In fact, The Alice Behind Wonderland covers nearly every subject that might be prompted by reflecting on that famous picture of little Alice—everything, that is, except the real question of sexuality. Even at barely over a hundred pages, the book feels padded. Yes, it’s good to be reminded that the child was acting out Tennyson’s wildly popular poem “The Beggar Maid” (1842)—Barefooted came the beggar maid / Before the king Cophetua—but no, it’s not really necessary to be informed that “Charles Dodgson had ordered his camera in London, at a shop named Ottewill & Company, at 24 Charlotte Terrace, off the Caledonian Road in Islington.”
Perhaps Winchester had to bulk up his text with such things because he refused to examine, in any serious way, what the photograph means for our understanding of the Victorians, and what it means for our understanding of ourselves. The Alice Behind Wonderland practices a curious bait-and-switch: The first chapter opens with an extended description of the room in which Dodgson’s photograph album is stored (the American financier Morris Parrish’s Victorian study, re-created within Princeton University’s Firestone Library), but it turns quickly enough to the beggar-maid picture—which Winchester describes in openly sexualized terms: The girl’s slender legs, her tiny feet, her left nipple, the shift folded and tucked, all ardently photographed.
There is sufficient shoulder, ankle, and skin revealed about Miss Liddell to excite and, these days, to infuriate.
And immediately thereafter, the book runs away to “Daresbury, in Cheshire, where Dodgson had been born on January 27, 1832,” never really to find its way back from that rabbit hole. Throughout The Alice Behind Wonderland, Winchester assumes that the children’s author engaged in no sexual activity with, or even possessed a prurient interest in, the children he photographed and took on long boating picnics and wrote about. All of which may well be true. But surely it deserves some open evaluation—particularly in a book so titillated by the photograph it uses as its launching pad?
This may be the worst of Winchester’s books, his first real flop since he hit his stride (and the bestseller list) with The Professor and the Madman, his 1998 tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Through the 1970s and ’80s the now-66-year-old Winchester was a well-known English journalist, writing mildly popular travel books and reporting for the Guardian on everything from the Irish Troubles to the resignation of Richard Nixon. The Professor and the Madman changed all that. Optioned as a movie by Mel Gibson, and catching a wave of interest in Victorian and Edwardian England, the book made its author wealthy, and he’s followed up his success with one nonfiction bestseller after another: His story of the geologist William Smith in The Map That Changed the World (2001); his second crack at the characters behind the Oxford English Dictionary in The Meaning of Everything (2003); his volcano story in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (also 2003); and his earthquake history in A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005)—together with The Man Who Loved China (2008), Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (2010), and a pair of travel collections.
In other words, he’s writing only slightly more slowly than the average book buyer can read. That’s all right, you understand. Winchester has an easy prose, perfect for conveying his wide-eyed wonder at the past. His talent for personalizing events, a tying of history to biography, makes it all somehow come alive. None of his books are scholarship, of course; they’re more like the plundering of what real scholars do, in order to create middlebrow bestsellers. But why not? The fact is that Simon Winchester writes pretty good middlebrow bestsellers.
Except for this one. In The Alice Behind Wonderland, the detail palls, the narrative flags, and even the diction eventually falls to the floor in exhaustion, unable to keep up the pretense that the text isn’t boring. You would think it impossible to make the birth of Alice in Wonderland dull; readers are fascinated by this stuff. When the fragile 80-year-old widow Alice Hargreaves arrived for a visit to New York in 1932, she was mobbed by admirers and photographers, the newspapers filled with reports of her every word and deed. For that matter, debate still rages today about whether Dodgson was using the younger children of the distinguished classicist Henry Liddell to get near Liddell’s wife (or governess or eldest daughter), or whether he was using the wife and governess and eldest daughter to get near the prepubescent children.
Of course, one way or another, out of the relationship came that July day in 1862 when little Alice asked Charles Dodgson to write up the stories he had been telling as they rowed along the river. And so, under the name Lewis Carroll, he did. It’s a wonder that Winchester has managed to scrub this story down to something so lifeless; but perhaps his mistake was starting with that disturbing photograph. The Alice Behind Wonderland wants to personalize history, but it succeeds only at the drearier task of historicizing personality.
Winchester would have been better off accepting the challenge and facing up to the problem that Victorian sexuality poses for us. Or even, better yet, skipping the whole thing and spending his time rereading the reasons we’re interested in this story: those strangely perfect books called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.