nolead begins The Story of Alice
nolead ends nolead begins Lewis Carroll and
the Secret History
of Wonderland
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By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Belknap Press of Harvard University. 496 pp. $29.95

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Reviewed by

Colin Fleming

nolead ends The genius' need to transform might be the salient detail of Lewis Carroll's working life. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst makes that plain in The Story of Alice.

The actual Alice whom Carroll knew was Alice Liddell, one of three sisters he photographed frequently. Having graduated from university with little clue of what to do with himself, Carroll turned to teaching, and pursuing something that inspired him for the rest of his life: finding ways to preserve the past, whether that involved making dolls, capturing photos of children at play, or finding new games to play himself.

In other words, he cultivated a childlike capacity for wonder. In a manner then considered avuncular but that would get you all but pilloried today, he befriended a 10-year-old girl who inspired two of our most beloved books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (150 years old this year) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

A boating outing serves as inpiration for the Alice adventures, but as Douglas-Fairhurst makes clear, this is far more about Carroll than his young charge. She took a more blasé stance; the tizzy was all Carroll's. No matter: She had a play partner who does seem, odd as this sounds today, to be a decent friend to her, and he had someone who could help him write books without a clue that she was a partner of a sort.

Weird, right? But, hey, if you have read the Alice books, you probably love them, and you love them, in part, because they are weird. Weird, and governed according to rules that seem nonsensical, which overlay an element of sense through consistency. To slow down, Alice must run faster at one point. Life can be like that, which is how these weird books have always maintained an impressive resonance.

Carroll was obsessed with time, something he hated to waste and tried to control. Along with Marcel Proust, he may be the author most obsessed with time, most focused on finding ways to compact it. But his relationship with Liddell did lead Carroll to make the Alice books work as they do.

"Despite the fact that he never introduces himself to us, and remains hidden in plain view for long stretches of writing, the story's other most important character is Carroll's narrator," Douglas-Fairhurst writes, which nails it, the idea of a precocious girl gamboling through whimsy with a stable, trustworthy presence. You'll go a long way in life and literature with such a combo, for which the Alice books are the ultimate primer.

Colin Fleming is the author of the just-released "The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss," a journey down another rabbit hole.