Interview: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

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Reading the initial chapters of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Story of Alice, one may rightly shudder at the quaint, mawkish-sweet encasement of the former Alice Liddell. An apparent ‘inspiration’ for Lewis Carroll’s celebrated protagonist, Douglas-Fairhurst presents the ageless ‘Dream-Child’ as a person of particular tragedy. “Crumpled and confused” by persistent associations with Wonderland, this genuine Alice emerges as a prisoner – a figure fettered to a fictional fame. Her literary correlate, resisting the assertion that she is “a sort of thing” in The Red King’s dream, touches on a similar anxiety. A probable cipher for authorial agency, this slumbering monarch addresses the dread of imagined existence, exploring the fear of a lost control. Concerned with the invasion of reality by fiction, I shared some of these impressions with Douglas-Fairhurst himself.

“Another reason for her looking ‘crumpled and confused’ may simply have been that she was fairly old (she celebrated her 80th birthday in New York)” he replies “but it’s certainly true that in her later years she was a reluctant celebrity. It’s not hard to understand why. Although she’d experienced much since the famous river trip in 1862, including the loss of two of her three sons in the muddy trenches of WWI, all anyone wanted to ask her about was an event that had happened when she was ten years old. So although she sometimes shyly signed herself ‘Alice in Wonderland’, she might have had mixed feelings about a fictional creation that in some ways had overshadowed her real life. In some ways she was doomed to fame.”

On the weight of this reputation, he continues: “If you’re asking whether someone might regret creating – or being turned into – a different version of themselves, made out of paper and ink rather than flesh and blood, then I think the answer is probably yes. Carroll sometimes returned letters addressed to ‘Lewis Carroll’ with ‘NOT KNOWN’ written across the envelope, and told one correspondent that ‘My constant aim is to remain personally unknown to the world’. It’s as if he wanted to keep his literary avatar safely hidden away from the mess and fuss of the real world. That’s one of the reasons I had doubts about whether or not I should subject him to another biography, as it would undoubtedly have made him squirm with embarrassment and annoyance”.

Biographies of Carroll can certainly prove contentious. He has appeared as a daydreaming mathematician, Victorian Humbert Humbert and even Jack the Ripper. One of these guises remains something of an ‘elephant’, haunting perceptions of the writer to the present day. With Wonderland’s 150th anniversary occurring this year, BBC Two’s The Secret World of Lewis Carroll (dir; Clare Beavan) was broadcast in late January. Earlier this month, Edward Wakeling’s acidic reservations about the documentary became the subject of a Times article by David Sanderson. Sanderson writes: “The BBC spiced up a documentary on Lewis Carroll and ‘lied’ by including a nude photograph he had purportedly taken of a young girl, it was claimed yesterday by an expert on the author”. As the programme’s historical consultant, it was inevitable that Douglas-Fairhurst would have some opinion on the matter.

“I know that a number of people were annoyed by the decision to include the photograph, as there’s no definite proof that it shows Lorina Liddell or that it was taken by Carroll. But (and admittedly I was the programme’s historical consultant), it’s interesting that someone had already attributed it to him. And that probably says more about us as it does about him – it shows how far he has become a lightning conductor for all our fears about childhood and sexuality, and it is worth asking ourselves why. Of course, there are fans of Carroll’s who see such questions as irrelevant muckraking. Perhaps that’s because when we talk about the Alice books we are also talking about ourselves, as these are some of the books we remember most fondly from childhood, and that makes it hard for some readers to hear anything potentially awkward about Carroll without it being experienced as a personal assault.”

Yet, is there not something inherently “awkward” about Carroll’s writings? His ‘Easter Greeting to Every Child who Loves Alice’ (1876) speaks of an inclination for “mixing together things grave and gay”, aspects of joy being balanced by the acknowledgement that “Echoes fade and memories die”. His association of children with seasonal brevity is wedded to a discourse on death.

“The saddest part of the Alice books is probably the underlying reason Carroll had for writing them. This seems to have been something more or other than simply the desire to entertain small children. Ultimately I think he wrote stories for children for the same reason that he took photographs of them: it was a way of creating little bubbles of fantasy in which they could be protected from growing up. In one of his letters, Carroll wrote that ‘There are few things so evanescent as a child’s love’, but turning them into stories or fixing them into images meant that he would never suffer the otherwise inevitable betrayal of them growing up and leaving him.

This is one of the interesting differences between photographs and stories. When Carroll took a photograph of Alice Liddell, it was like pinning a butterfly to a board – she would never change unless the image faded over time.  Put her in a story, on the other hand, and he could keep her the same age while also bringing her to life in speech and movement. She could be ‘still’ like Tenniel’s illustrations, but also ‘still’ in the same way that a river is still – always on the move, still going.”

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Evidently, Carroll proves a complicated character to interpret. Douglas-Fairhurst’s reference to letters raises a question about this interpretation itself: about the borders between biography and invention – Is it folly to judge Dodgson’s mind through the prism of his fictional work?

“That’s a good question. I think there’s always a danger in treating fictional works as disguised confessions, but I also think that the Alice books – perhaps because they are supposed to be a journey through Alice’s unconscious mind – allowed Carroll to explore parts of himself that he would never have felt able to without the alibi of fiction.”

Combined with Carroll’s own desire for privacy, The Story of Alice necessarily treads on the threshold of risk. With the fragile nature of the subject matter, the personal inspirations are worthy of note.

“I thought long and hard about whether to talk explicitly about the person it’s dedicated to – Conor Robinson, a dazzlingly talented English student at Magdalen who died after an accidental fall in Michaelmas 2013. There were a couple of paragraphs I put in and took out several times. In the end I decided to include them, because The Story of Alice would have been very different without what was a very sad time in many people’s lives. It’s probably why so much of the book is about how we grow up and what happens if we can’t. It was only after I finished it that I realised that in some ways the whole book was an act of mourning.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a story I knew long before I knew how to read, and the more I talked to other people about this the more I realised that this wasn’t just a personal quirk. Over the past 150 years the story has become a modern myth – one that is forever being reinvented, and one that slips out of our grasp whenever we try to pin it down. I suppose I wanted to find out why “

The reference to a “modern myth” is interesting. Indeed, it is true that Alice is often first known or experienced through adaptation and retelling. My preferred film version, directed by Jonathan Miller in 1966, sheds away the cloth of fantasy to render every character human. In contrast, Douglas Fairhurst sees the ‘cartoonish’ as intrinsically vital.

“I love the Miller for its druggy haze and the Svankmajer for its sheer weirdness, but my favourite adaptations, though, are probably the 56 very early films made by Walt Disney in the 1920s, when he started by dropping a real Alice into Cartoonland, but soon realised that the jokes were better when human beings weren’t getting in the way. And overall I suppose my feeling is that it’s cartoons that come closest to the mad inventiveness of Carroll’s Wonderland, a place where nothing is but thinking makes it so.

There are endless cultural sequels and echoes and offshoots, which you can see in everything from John Lennon’s lyrics for some the greatest hits of The Beatles (‘I am the Walrus’ or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) to fashion items like the ‘Alice band’, but the most significant work is probably Disney’s 1951 cartoon. It’s not as sugary-sweet as some people think – I think Dali had a hand in it somewhere – but it probably fixed an image of Alice in the popular mind just as much as John Tenniel’s original illustrations. Along with Tim Burton’s recent film, it’s one of the main reasons that far more people know the story of Alice than have ever read the books.”

Alice is something of a protean beast – larger now than Carroll’s work itself. So far, the year’s anniversary has been a varied affair, crafting a Wonderland in perpetual shift.

“I agree it’s been hugely diverse already – sometimes cosy, sometimes surprising – in a way that’s perfectly in tune with Carroll’s own writing and personality. And there’s still a lot more to come, including the new Damon Albarn musical wonder.land in Manchester and then at the National Theatre. I sat in on a rehearsal today and interviewed the creative team for a piece in the programme, and I think it could be very exciting. Wonderful, even”.

When questioned on what he was “working on” currently, Douglas-Fairhurst offered this reply: “My abs.”

Carroll, a known athlete and strongman, would certainly approve.

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