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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 18:35 GMT
Alice: Through a looking-glass darkly
Is there a dark reality behind Alice in Wonderland?
As the British Government temporarily blocks the export of photographs taken by the Victorian novelist Lewis Carroll of his muse, Alice Liddell, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit examines the enduring, if sometimes disturbing, legacy of Alice in Wonderland.

On the afternoon of 4 July 1862, a mid-Victorian summer's day, a 29 year-old Church of England vicar, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, went boating as he often did, on the Thames near Oxford, with three young daughters of a colleague.

Over a picnic he regaled them with his absurd and fantastic tales and one of the girls, 10 year-old Alice Liddell, was so enthralled that she entreated the young curate, pen-name Lewis Carroll, to put his stories down on paper.

Alice Liddell
Alice Liddell: Carroll's controversial muse
Finally published three years later, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, together with its sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, re-defined children's literature.

With their vivid dream-like descriptions of the March Hare, the Mad Hatter's tea party and the Queen of Hearts, the books were a surreal odyssey the like of which had never been seen before.

They introduced a host of words to the English language including 'chortle' and 'galumph' and were re-discovered, and praised as masterpieces of psychedelic imagination, by the flower-children of the 1960s, being enshrined forever in Jefferson Airplane's drug-referenced song, White Rabbit.

21st Century obsession

Carroll's works endure to this very day, with numerous popular film and animated versions, the Royal Shakespeare Company's dramatisation adaptation of both books which has just opened in London's West End as well the recent publication of Katie Roiphe's fictional account of Dodgson's relationship with Alice, Still She Haunts Me.

Lewis Campbell
Complex: Lewis Carroll
But behind the whimsy lies a very 21st Century obsession with the real nature of Lewis Carroll's fascination with pre-pubescent girls like Alice Liddell. Carroll, the bachelor Oxford mathematician with a terrible stammer, delighted in what he called his "child friends".

He invited many young girls to dine alone with him in his rooms at Christ Church, where Alice Liddell's father was Dean: "And would it be de rigeur", he wrote to one mother, "that there should be a third to dinner? Tête-à-tête is so much the nicest".

Most disturbing of all Carroll, a noted photographer, often took nude, or semi-nude, pictures of his young companions, something that today would run the risk of landing him in court accused of child abuse.

Export ban

Indeed, a world-wide child pornography ring, smashed in 1998, called itself the Wonderland Club.

Alice in Wonderland
Alice's adventures have captivated generations of children
One of these pictures, Alice Liddell as The Beggar Maid, is one of thirty glass negatives sold in June to an overseas buyer which the British Government has temporarily banned from being exported from the country to allow time for a British bid for the items.

To the modern mind Lewis Carroll may run close to being called a paedophile but, although he undoubtedly loved young girls, there is no clear evidence to show that this was a sexual obsession or that he acted upon it.

His feelings were complex and can be truly understood only in the context of his age.

Theme of change

The stuffy, tightly-corseted Victorian view of the emotions sits uneasily with the fully-realised and absurd world which is home to the Cheshire Cat and Humpty Dumpty. Owing more to Jonathan Swift than any 19th Century writer, it is satire, of the human, not political kind.

Rank's film version of Alice in Wonderland
There have been many film adaptations of Carroll's books
All the creatures which populate Wonderland have something to say about the effects of time and change: the Caterpillar's metamorphosis from chrysalis to butterfly mirrors Alice's transformation from child to girl to woman, the Duchess's baby turns into a pig and the Mock Turtle laments that "once I was a real Turtle'."

Although Lewis Carroll and his works have been pored over by academics and critics, GK Chesterton's morose prophecy, that an over-analysis would render them "cold and monumental like a classic tomb" has happily not been realised.

Behind all the words, there is a feeling that, in his own tormented and nervous way, Carroll wished to recapture the innocence of his own childhood and see it enshrined in his books and young friends.

Relationship's abrupt end

Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell ended abruptly in 1863 when her mother destroyed all his letters to her daughter. Lewis Carroll died a bachelor in 1898. Alice married, lost two of her three sons in World War I, and died in 1934.

Humpty Dumpty
Egged on: Humpty Dumpty on his wall
Whatever the truth about Carroll's love for his muse, the reality will probably never be known. The fictional Alice probably sums up the modern obsession with the friendship perfectly.

"Alice sighed wearily. 'I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, 'than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers'."


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31 Oct 01 | Entertainment
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