On Sale now
ANOTHER GLANCE AT WONDERLAND…
A LETTER FOR ALICE, is out now as both a paperback and an e-book with The Little French E-Book Company, is a work of speculative fiction.
I will not pretend the book is not disturbing; but despite its Victorian setting, the novella's themes are contemporary and the story is worth telling.
What, then, are these contemporary themes?
Firstly, to acknowledge the huge elephant in the room, I must say that, following research, I have come to the conclusion that Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, had an unhealthy interest in young girls.
A number of his photographs of children are disturbing - including one, attributed to Dodgson, which appears to show a 14 year old Lorina Liddell, the sister of Alice, posing unhappily in the nude.
Does this mean, then, that Dodgson was a paedophile? Well, in terms of modern sensibilities, yes, I think it does. This is one of the premises of my novella. Indeed, when I set to work, the voice of Dodgson was going to be the dominant voice. But it didn't quite work out that way.
Early on, I seemed to be "channelling" the voice of Lorina very strongly, and soon she became the story's dominant character.
But why Lorina, and not Alice? Well, Lorina was the only one of the Liddell girls who was of marriageable age, under the laws of the time: when Dodgson was writing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Another theme of the novella, then, is the Victorian marriage market, as it affected the upper classes.
I speculate that an informal engagement existed between Lorina and the thirty or thirty one year old Dodgson, and there is some evidence that this might well have been the case: at least, some kind of courtship probably occurred.
Pages in Dodgson's diary, covering the period in 1863, when there seems to have been a split between the Liddell family and Dodgson, have been removed. However, a mysterious old note exists concerning one of the removed pages, and the note states:
“L.C. learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess—he is also supposed...to be courting Ina….”
Now, Ina was pet name for Lorina, who was 14 at the time. The wording of the note is ambiguous, but could it mean that the split took place because Dodgson was accused of flirting with the governess, when he was meant to be courting Lorina?
The courting of a 14 year would not have been unusual in Victorian England. For instance, one of Queen Victoria's daughters was betrothed at 14.
Returning to Liddell family: in Oxford, Lorina's mother had the unfortunate nickname of "the kingfisher", because she hoped that one of her daughters might end up marrying Royalty; and she was known to be a keen surveyor of the marriage market. Did she eye up Dodgson as a potential son in law, perhaps because she found him attractive herself, and wanted him near?
Did she then change her mind?
This is another theme.
Does all this, then, get Dodgson off the hook as a paedophile: given the standards and practices of his day? Well, not really, because he took a series of pictures of children who were clearly not of marriageable age.
I leave him on the hook. But while Dodgson was a strange fish, and it would have been easy to turn him into monster, I resisted this temptation. Instead, I see him as someone, to use modern terminology, with a multiple personality disorder. For instance, I make a clear distinction between Charles Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics don, and the avuncular author, Lewis Carroll. After all, Dodgson himself would fly into rages if anyone, who was not a child, addressed him as Lewis Carroll. I believe he was tormented by his own nature. Some of his existing diary entries, in fact, expressed that torment. At times, it seems, he knew what he was: but he wanted to be someone else. The problem was, his personality and desires were always in a state of flux. He would have made a dreadful husband for Lorina, and this is another theme.
Now it is time to acknowledge another huge elephant in the room: the question of sex. Dodgson's apparent desires were one thing, but what about Lorina's desires? As she, apparently, allowed herself to be photographed in the nude, she was clearly compliant with Dodgson's demands, to an extent, and she may have experienced strong sexual feelings herself, at the time. After all, she was a young woman: a very young woman, but a young woman all the same.
In our own day, when marriage at the age of 14 is something to be opposed, in any country, we are rightfully squeamish when it comes to discussing the first strong waves of sexual awareness, and for obvious reasons. However, an intense focus on sex and sexuality is something all adults have been through. It is part of our natural development as human beings and, as such it should never be ignored.
I decided, early on, to imagine and describe Lorina's developing sexual nature as well as I possibly could; and this is another theme of A Letter for Alice.
Other themes insisted on their inclusion; for instance, the question of social class, which strikes a contemporary note, because in some respects I fear we are entering another Victorian age, where the upper and middle classes have little compassion for the lower classes. The level of snobbery among well-heeled Victorian families, including the Liddells, was considerable and unfortunate; and Dodgson at times also displayed snobbish traits. I decided the best way to mock snobbery was through satire, and this is another theme.
Finally, there is no doubt that the image of a "lost" England is an engaging one. Despite large-scale industrialisation, during the Victorian age, a great deal of countryside remained, and much of it would have been almost unimaginably beautiful to our eyes. Most Victorians, outside the big cities, would have been in walking distance of flower meadows. These days, flower meadows are extremely rare.
Like the Victorians, however, we worry about lost Edens, and this is another dominant theme in my novella, A Letter for Alice.
Gary Bills. Ledbury. 2018.