The Alice Behind Wonderland

The Alice Behind Wonderland

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by Simon Winchester
     
 

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On a summer's day in 1858, in a garden behind Christ Church College in Oxford, Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics, photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the college dean, with a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera, recently purchased in London. Simon Winchester deftly uses the resulting image--as unsettling as it is famous,… See more details below

Overview

On a summer's day in 1858, in a garden behind Christ Church College in Oxford, Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics, photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the college dean, with a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera, recently purchased in London. Simon Winchester deftly uses the resulting image--as unsettling as it is famous, and the subject of bottomless speculation--as the vehicle for a brief excursion behind the lens, a focal point on the origins of a classic work of English literature. Dodgson's love of photography framed his view of the world, and was partly responsible for transforming a shy and half-deaf mathematician into one of the world's best-loved observers of childhood. Little wonder that there is more to "Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid" than meets the eye. Using Dodgson's published writings, private diaries, and of course his photographic portraits, Winchester gently exposes the development of Lewis Carroll and the making of his Alice. 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

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) explores the story behind Alice in Wonderland by focusing on an 1858 portrait taken by the eccentric Charles Dodgson-best known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. The subject of the photo is six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Oxford's Christ Church College who, encouraged by Dodgson, is dressed as a ragged beggar-maid-a costume inspired by a Tennyson poem. The dean's daughter provided Dodgson with not only the name and inspiration for the main character of his now infamous book but she also asked him to write it as a gift for her. Winchester's overall tone is unfortunately self-indulgent, and his take that Alice is seductive and coquettish in the 1858 photo is questionable. He stretches his brief essay with the differences between daguerreotype and calotype photographic images while skimping on Dodgson's relationship with Alice's mother. Readers will more likely be interested in Winchester's benign interpretation of Dodgson's character than his preoccupation with one particular photograph.
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From the Publisher
"As usual with Winchester, well-founded, witty and perceptive." —Kirkus

"Mr. Winchester's elegantly written study provides a balanced, sympathetic portrait of a complex and gifted man." — Wall Street Journal

"What Winchester offers that is new, largely, is a detailed explanation the nascent field of amateur Victorian photography. He meticulously tracks Dodgson's 1856 purchase of his first mahogany-and-brass folding camera. He carefully works through the history of the development of the camera, and explains the difference between the daguerreotype, the calotype, and the wet-plate collodion that Dodgson relied on." —Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

"In this very slim volume—a nice break, for history lovers, from the trend toward doorstop-sized commitments—Winchester sketches both Dodgson's life and a bit of Alice's, along with illuminating digressions into the history of photography." —Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

"Winchester provides a new perspective on the shy bachelor who wrote one of the world's most famous children's stories, while questioning the most recent scholarship that neglects the role of photography in Dodgson's life. An important addition to the burgeoning collection of Dodgson scholarship, this book will appeal to scholars and general readers and is recommended to all." —Library Journal

"With remarkable clarity and eloquence, Winchester uses this photograph as the focal point for an examination of the man behind Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." —Financial Times

Library Journal
Winchester (The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary) makes photography the focus for this small biography, in particular the famous photo Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll made of the probable model for Alice in Wonderland when she was six in 1858. Alice Liddell, daughter of a family friend, posed as a beggar girl, looking seductive in rags and revealing one small nipple. This photograph, as well as Dodgson's interest in the company of children and in photographing them, has led to accusations of pedophilia. Winchester points out, though, that Dodgson's attitude of idealizing children was no different from that of his Victorian contemporaries; in fact, he took hundreds of other photos that were well received. Also, no evidence exists of Dodgson's being accused of any sexual improprieties. Describing the early development of photography and Dodgson's growing expertise, Winchester provides a new perspective on the shy bachelor who wrote one of the world's most famous children's stories, while questioning the most recent scholarship that neglects the role of photography in Dodgson's life. VERDICT An important addition to the burgeoning collection of Dodgson scholarship, this book will appeal to scholars and general readers and is recommended to all.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews

Winchester (Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, 2010, etc.) offers his take on the relationship between author/amateur photographer Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Pleasance Liddell—the "Alice" in his Wonderland and the subject of a certain unsettling photograph.

To fill in the background, the author retraces Dodgson's early schooling from years at the Rugby School to his arrival at Oxford (that "forcing-house for flaneurs") and three formative "epiphanies": the beginning of his side career as Lewis Carroll, a developing friendship with the children of his college's new dean, Henry George Liddell, and his discovery of the pleasures of the recently developed camera. Dodgson shot albums of photographs, but one image of Alice comes in for particular attention: a portrait of the 7-year-old dressed in rags, bare of shoulder and bearing "an expression of impish, secret knowledge, a winsome look that manages to be both confident and disturbing." This and other provocative child portraits—along with pages tantalizingly razored from Dodgson's diaries of the period—fueled modern accusations that have gone so pervasively viral that any random passerby will "know" more about Dodgson's pedophilia than his literary works. Not so fast, cautions Winchester, making connections and offering counter-interpretations as he goes. The author judiciously considers the evidence, suggesting credible alternative views before finishing off with a quick pass through Alice's later life and role as unwilling celebrity.

Quite a slender volume—the actual narrative runs under 100 pages—but, as usual with Winchester, well-founded, witty and perceptive.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199753116
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
02/17/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
600,194
File size:
2 MB

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