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The Alice Behind Wonderland Hardcover – Mar 14 2011
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Acclaim for Simon Winchester: "An exceptionally engaging guide at home everywhere, ready for anything, full of gusto and seemingly omnivorous curiosity." --Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review
"A master at telling a complex story compellingly and lucidly." --USA Today
"Extraordinarily graceful." --Time
"Winchester is an exquisite writer and a deft anecdoteur." --Christopher Buckley
"A lyrical writer and an indefatigable researcher." --Newsweek
About the Author
Simon Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World, Krakatoa, and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable booklists. In recognition of his accomplished body of work, Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
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That in itself is not a serious fault. Far more serious are the very many errors of fact. I list just a few; there are plenty more. He did not live in Tom Quad in 1856; he moved there in 1868 (p.11). His parents were first cousins, not third cousins (p.12). His back-garden railway was at Croft, not Daresbury (pp.12-13). Not all of his home-made magazines survive (p.18). Charles arrived at Oxford 30, not 40, years after his father graduated (p.19). Henrietta was seven, not four, when Carroll's mother died (p.20). He refers to "a magazine that for some inexplicable reason was called the Train" (p.27); the reasons for its name are well-known. Similarly, it is well known why Dodgson suggested the name Edgar Cuthwellis (p.29) - it is an anagram of his first two names, Charles Lutwidge. Maybe these errors are minor, but they could all have been avoided by reading the books that the author himself recommends for further reading. It does mean that it is difficult to trust any statement in the book without checking it.
The climax of the book describes Carroll taking the cover photo, of Alice as a beggar. "Is Mrs. Liddell watching? Is Lorina in the garden? And Edith? ... Would anyone care that Dodgson then reached behind the little girl's hair and adjusted the off-white garment about her shoulders, such that it fell slightly from her left and exposed only just entirely her left nipple?" (p.85) Needless to say, there is not a scrap of evidence that this piece of child molestation actually occurred in the way the author describes.
The acknowledgements mention Carroll authority Edward Wakeling. Mr. Wakeling says "It's one of the worst books on Carroll I have ever read - mistakes from beginning to end. He gives a fulsome acknowledgement to me, totally unjustified because I had nothing whatsoever to do with this book. I offered him help but he declined."
Mr. Winchester ends by recommending Morton Cohen's biography. It's one of the few times I found myself agreeing with him.
Winchester does not understand how a view camera works. He writes that the whole of the camera needs to be brought into the darkroom for the plate to be inserted. But he writes that there is an "ingenious flap" and so only the negative frame need be brought back in the darkroom for development. I believe, and someone please correct me if I am wrong, that the whole of the camera need never be brought in the darkroom. He also has Carroll under the "black velvet shroud" while the plate is in the camera. Of course, once the plate is in you cannot see anything at the back of the camera anymore, it is blocked. He also has things out of order, the subject and picture are all arranged before the photographer prepares the plate, not after. This comes off especially bad for Winchester because these errors take place while he is fictionalizing two photographic sessions, which naturally make the fictionalizing much worse.
It is true that Carroll noted in his diary the number of boat trips Ina, Alice's older sister, took at one point. But he uses this out of context. It is also true that Carroll marked one day with a "White Stone" (a way he marked special days in his diary) when Alice was about. But this is also used out of context, as if it only refers to Alice.
He writes that exposure times could be as long as 45 seconds, a common statement in papers on Lewis Carroll, to be honest. But this is like saying a baseball team can score as many as 23 runs in one ballgame to someone who doesn't know anything about the game. It says nothing about the norm. Carroll is on record as taking one at 90 seconds and 45 seconds and 10 seconds. The first two, however, are mentioned because they are long and outrageous. Winchester writes that "neck braces and tie-downs" (to hold sitters in position) were not used in the wet-plate process. Not true. Braces, or head-rests were used and you can see a head-rest in many (5 or 6?) of Carroll's photographs. Carroll even mentions buying a "head-rest" as late as 1876. And of course, you can see head-rests in the illustrations for a poem Carroll wrote about a photographer ("Hiawatha's Photographing), which Winchester himself mentions and quotes.
Winchester gives Duckworth's account of how Alice asked Carroll to write out the story the day of the trip and that Carroll began writing, in part, that night. Winchester even has Carroll writing it out as we see it today in facsimile. But Duckworth's account (he was the other adult on the boat that famous day) goes against Carroll's diaries and Alice's account that she gave later in her life (without the knowledge of Carroll's diary). Carroll and the older Alice have the younger Alice asking the next day (when they met at a train station) and Carroll writing them out on the train to London. Winchester does write "According to Duckworth" but clearly it should not even be brought up, being obviously a romanticized account.
Winchester says Under Ground is 15,500 words (it is 12, 772 or so) and that Wonderland is almost double (it is more than double). He says that Alice naming her son "Caryl" was "her only public acknowledgment of her connection." But I've always read that she denied this.
It is the nature of photography that we hardly ever see the actual photographs but see reprints only. His bit about this photo being rarely seen in the library at Princeton makes for an ineffective framing device. (He opens and closes the book with this idea.) Also, he loses points because it is not only at Princeton as he writes, as mentioned above. He wants that Da Vinci Code mystique of having a rare document, writing "consigned to the secure and deep darkness of the Firestone Library." But it doesn't work here at all.
Further,and despite the many many books that carefully suggest otherwise Winchester chooses only one book,published in the late 1990s to support his viewpoint,and the data in that book is not direct but second hand,and second hand opinion at that.Winchester concedes that quite a bit of the material written by Dodgson himself during the period in which he was involved with the Liddells had been deliberately destroyed and with the knowledge of the very people upon whom Winchester relies to bail Dodgson's questionable reputation out,that is to say Dodgson's own family.How odd then that while his surviving relatives chose to leave the bulk of his journals and personal writings intact they made it a point to destroy all evidence of his personal writings from this crucial period and then chose to substitute their "recollections"in place of what they themselves destroyed.How much more curious that Winchester chooses to give credence to these recollections as if they represent a final say on the matter,.
Victorian middle and upper-class families are quite often described as living life under a double-standard.Prim and conservative on the outside they are often described as vice-ridden in secret.Even if this is so(and the evidence is speculative at best that it is)the pictures that Dodgson took of little girls from "good"families does not reflect the known conservative bent of Victorian values.Today such pictures would justifiably be viewed suspiciously at best,and the individual responsible for their production would be subject to police investigation at the very least.I hardly think that Victorian era parents were any less protective of their children as we are today.
...but Winchester has ignored all of this and instead chosen to gloss over all of the negatives surrounding this episode with "what if"and"just imagine"
Dodgson,who wrote"Alice in wonderland"may well have not been some sort of perverse individual with an unnatural attraction to photographing little girls in scant attire or in the nude...but"what if"Simon Winchester,in making up these excuses for Dodgson is wrong?
The story of how Charles Lutwidge Dodgson or Lewis Carroll came to write his wonderful tales has been exhaustively analyzed many times before, and Winchester wisely does not attempt to go through the entire history. While he does provide short biographies of Carroll, Alice Liddell, and others, Winchester is primarily focussed on Carroll's interest in the new field of photography. He describes the beginnings of photography and the very painstaking and difficult processes it involved, then explains how Carroll came to purchase and enjoy using an expensive new camera. Then Winchester turns to Carroll's relationship with the Liddell children, especially young Alice. Here he encounters the same difficulties every other Carroll biographer has faced: Carroll's predeliction for taking photographs of young girls semi or completely nude. In our day such interests are looked at with more than askance, but Winchester does a good job of explaining the very different view Victorians took of "fairy photographs." While we will never be able to look at some of Carroll's photographs, including the very famous one of Alice as a beggar girl which is the frontispiece, without some distaste and discomfort, Winchester makes it clear that Carroll can be held guiltless of sinister intentions or activities.
As always, Simon Winchester writes clearly and elegantly, explaining the somewhat intricate details of early photography in an interesting and lively manner. His tone is scholarly but witty and engaging as well. While I could wish that more of Carroll's photographs had been included, and that he had spent more time on Carroll's life after writing the Wonderland books, The Alice Behind Wonderland is just as satisfying as any of his longer works.