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Little Miss Liddell

The strange case of Dr. Dodgson and Mr. Carroll.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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.

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