I do have all the books, all dipped into over the years, Morton Cohen's Lewis Carroll A Biography, considered the definitive work, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild - A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll by Karoline Leach, the book that purported to have discovered definitive reference to those lost pages of Lewis Carroll's diary. Pages that seem to have been dated around the time that there was the unexplained and irreconcilable rift with the family of Alice Liddell, Carroll's muse for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the young subject of the controversial photographs. Then there is The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf and The Agony of Lewis Carroll by Richard Wallace and so it goes on, the author of Alice in Wonderland it seem a never-ending subject for reinterpretation and renewed understanding.
I'm not quite sure where the Lewis Carroll, 'guilty' or 'not guilty' of offences against children debate rests at the moment, though there is little doubt in my mind that, were he to be judged in the context of present-day sensibilities and safeguarding awareness, he'd be banged to rights pronto for 'that' over-revealing photo and not allowed near a child unless supervised.
And there can be little doubt that Alice Liddell, was an ethereally beautiful and photogenic little girl with a gaze that almost defies description, so when The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester arrived I was in half a mind whether to read it or not. Would this be more of the same-old same old or perhaps a different perspective on a man, who for all his perceived faults and transgressions left us the legacy of one of the most famous children's books of all time.
Coming in at just under 100 pages I decided I could afford to risk it and was almost pleased to discover that Simon Winchester has tip-toed around the paedophile sensation approach, acknowledging that the absent diary pages do leave room for 'ambiguity and speculation' but steadfastly refusing to tread further on those egg shells. Simon Winchester prefers to explore his subject through the medium of the photography, a burgeoning phenomenen of which Lewis Carroll was an early enthusiast. And a very good exponent of the craft he was, not only capturing the images but doing his own developing too. Carroll's photographs are recognised as of the highest compositional standard and I was interested to discover that many of the originals now lie in the vault of the Princeton University library. Copies are available but it has been declared, by the current Curator of Manuscripts, that the actual Alice picture itself will not see the light of day again, ever, for fear of light deterioration. Simon Winchester clearly did his level best to lay eyes on those originals whilst researching this book but
' after some courteous chafing, I felt obliged to abide by his ruling.'
There is a fascinating potted history of Carroll's life in a rather decadent and loutish Oxford and his unusual elevation to a Fellowship at Christ Church college whilst still an undergraduate; an honour which guaranteed him lifelong residence, food and a grant of £25 a year with no requirement to work for any of it, so clearly someone somewhere recognised something about him worth rewarding.
Simon Winchester includes a good account of the history of photography woven around the life of Lewis Carroll, his friendship with Family Liddell, the mysterious falling out and the later life of Alice too. I had no idea that one of the very few signed copies of Alice in Wonderland was given by Alice as a gift to a young Princess Elizabeth, or that the original manuscript, which I have
often looked at in the British Library, was presented to the British people by a group of US book lovers after the Second World War. It had originally been in Alice's possession and sold to a US buyer when she hit hard times but eventually handed over with great ceremony and received by the Archbishop of Canterbury no less,
'as an expression of thanks to a noble people who held Hitler at bay for a long period single-handed.'
And it's obvious that this postcard from The British Library was my bookmark for this read, a fascinating little book that explores a life we think we may know well enough, but recounted from a really unique angle, so an interesting and useful addition to the Lewis Carroll shelf....and now it occurs to me...
I may never have read the original.
How on earth has that not happened.
Have you read it?
The original rather than an abridged version?