The dark past of the man who brought Alice to life

The first thing I remember about Alice wasn’t the Disney adaptation that my grandmother kept in a drawer stuffed full of old VHS movies. Nor was it the blue and white fancy dress that some of my friends wore at the school carnivals with their blonde wigs that for a fleeting moment made them feel like the small Queens of Wonderland.

The first time I stumbled upon the image of that “little heroine” was when I was seven or eight years old. I found a white teacher’s version of Alice Through the Looking Glass that my father had left on the table in our old living room while he’d been revising some passages of text for the literature class he taught at school.

It surprised me that my father had a book with a cover of a young girl blushing, surrounded by wonderful small animals dressed as humans and red flowers that seemed more like pools of blood. He usually read bigger books for adults that to me always seemed boring.

“Alice in Wonderland isn’t exactly something for kids.”

There was something strange about the book, and it wasn’t just that it was full of drawings, what really grabbed my attention on the few pages I looked through were the black and white photos of young girls and verses that seemed like short little songs.

When my father caught me looking at the book, he explained that it was a very special story and the inspiration for the Alice in Wonderland movie, although the author never had the faintest idea that the story he invented for his friends’ daughter would years later end up have such a profound impact.

“So what are you doing reading a children’s story?” I asked my father, who then told me it’s not exactly something for children, this book holds many secrets.

“Madness didn’t exist for Carroll, he spent his life building worlds where his human nature wasn’t a sin and then closing them with golden keys, so only the bravest would dare to grasp them.”

The author, who went under the pen name Lewis Carroll, was a scientist, a maths teacher, a reverend, a philosopher and a very dark and complex writer. Despite what you might imagine when reading his magical prose, everything around him was filled with darkness.

“He liked to take photos of his friends’ daughters,” my father said. Then he told me about a boat, some impossible loves, mathematical problems and something else that remained a blur in my mind for years but kept me curious enough to both love and fear this writer.

Long cold shadows on Oxford’s backstreets

It’s hard to imagine one of the world’s prominent literary figures was also one of most puzzling and perverse minds in its history: he possessed a truly magical mind, full of exploding numbers, wordplays and impossible loves that tormented him over time.

Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Reverend Dodgson, a man who in the eyes of society at the time, and with an incredible intellectual ability, had a knack for establishing strong bonds with the world of children, especially girls.

So much so that Carroll came to fall in love with these young muses, with whom – when he wasn’t teaching them mathematics and logic, or strolling all on his lonesome through the foggy streets of Oxford – spent all the time he could with them and even wrote them long letters where he opened up his heart.

His relationship with minors, which at first glance, didn’t go beyond a few photos in the forest or sinister landscapes and a handful of stories dedicated to them, especially Alice Liddell, the daughter of some friends, however, there were always all kinds of doubts, gossip and comments about Carroll floating around.

 “Vladimir Nabokov always called him Lewis Carroll Carroll because he was the first Humbert Humbert.”

Thanks to the analysis of the letters the author exchanged with the girls – published in Spain by La Felguera publishing house – we’ve discovered his fondness for them was far more dangerous than previously thought, to the extent that the Liddell family ended up stopping Carroll from having any contact with their daughter.

No wonder even Vladimir Nabokov referred to him as the first Humbert Humbert of the literary world. Today, this is something that underlines the theory that Carroll was truly in love with the young girl and at one point may have even wanted to marry her.

All the gossip and suspicions aroused, even more, speculation when Carroll came to be known as the eternal bachelor of Oxford. He himself would later write about how much he regretted those years when his fascination with Alice was so excessive.

“Thanks to the analysis of the letters he exchanged with the girls it emerged his fondness for them was far more dangerous than previously thought.”

What the magic that charms the glad babe in her arms,

Till it coos with the voice of a dove?

‘Tis a secret, and so let us whisper it low

– And the name of the secret is Love.

For I think it is Love,

For I feel it is Love,

For I’m sure it is nothing but Love.

“After blockquoteCarroll’s new poems many guessed he was hiding from one of his greatest torments behind his fantasy worlds: the impossibility of loving who he loved.”

These significantly revealing verses belong to Lewis Carroll’s humorous poem “A Song of Love”, which was included in the recent book Vaparaíso publishing house just brought out in Spain, which was translated and edited by Raquel Lanseros.

In this poem, and in many of the others selected, we can only assume Carroll hid the truth about one of his greatest torments behind his joyous fantasy worlds: the impossibility of loving who he loved or the impossibility of shouting from the rooftops that he only had room in his heart for these young girls.

The truth about Wonderland

But the truth is that Carroll did shout it out, and with the years that shout became one of his most famous works: Alice in Wonderland is precisely that, a secret song, one of the greatest declarations of love to have ever been written, even if for many it’s considered a children’s story.

The story of Alice is pretty well known by most: the dreamy and distracted young girl who decides to follow a rabbit down a rabbit hole and ends up crashing into a crazy world where everything is upside down and lacks the logic of the place where she had been brought up.

This fantasy and the succession of strange characters is also seen in Carroll’s poems, as if his reality had ended up tainted with the fiction he himself invented one golden summer’s day as he rowed a boat up the Isis with his beloved Alice and told her the short story that would later become his famous novel.

“All Carroll’s poems repeated the secret words, summer, fairies, loneliness… and became something of a digression in the story of Alice in Wonderland.”

Alice, being so lovely, but at the same time inquisitive, sneaks into Carroll’s madcap mind to turn it all upside down. As a stowaway in the heavy boat bobbing around in his mind, she turned the dark universe to beauty and light and transformed the solitary mathematician into the best narrator of children’s tales and crazy stories.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,

Alice moving under skies

Never seen by waking eyes.

In the poem “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky”, Lewis Carroll recalls the precise moment when the magic began to happen between himself and the happy, affectionate girl: that mythical summer trip along the Isis when Carroll’s world started to revolve around Alice obsessively.

All his poems repeat the secret words, summer, fairies, and loneliness, and become something of a digression in the story of Alice in Wonderland, the tale Carroll bestowed upon his beloved in the hope she could somehow decipher his words.

Reading it over and over again today, the reader might think each of the chapters hides a riddle, some scene whose thread could be pulled to reveal a sentiment the author wished to bury for fear of adults understanding what this literary work of art was really all about.

Life, what is it but a dream? Carroll wrote at the end of another of his poems as if he wished he dreams come true so he could make sense of his life in the complex world of fiction he had invented for little Alice Liddell and for himself.

A place where cats talk, caterpillars smoke and rabbits know how to tell the time, where babies are frightening, un-birthdays are celebrated every day, oysters appear snooty, and the queens paint their gardens with red ink or the blood of decapitated subjects.

In this place where everything is wonderful, strange and unimaginable, how could a loving relationship between an adult and a young girl not be possible? How could his affection be frowned upon, if in fact, it would be the least unusual among the perpetually strange?

We’ll always be left with the doubt and maybe this is precisely what Carroll was chasing with his peculiar way of understanding life and his even more incredible way of portraying it.

For him, madness didn’t exist; his imagination was greater than heaven and the galaxy combined:  Maybe that’s why he spent his life building worlds where his human nature wasn’t a sin and then closing them with golden keys, so only the bravest would dare to grasp them.

In a place where cats talk, caterpillars smoke and rabbits tell the time. How could a loving relationship between an adult and a young girl not to be possible?


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