A friend of mine, prior to reading my latest book, suggested that I was in danger of becoming another Lytton Strachey (Eminent Victorians, anyone?) and I suppose by picking two of the most well-known of Victorian authors to attach my fictions to, I have to plead guilty to some extent. But only to some extent. I’m interested in the biographical facts of these Great Lives, certainly, but there’s no fun in a simple repetition of known facts—especially when professional biographers and historians can lay claim to a much more rigorous examination of the same. But it’s the small gaps where history is silent, or the points at which facts give way to speculation that give me the chance to use my imagination: to present a scenario in which the truth (or an emotionally sympathetic version of the truth) is arrived at by a different route. It was the silence of Catherine Dickens that allowed me to slip into her fictional shoes in Girl in a Blue Dress, and in my new book, After Such Kindness, I found a similar freedom in describing the unknown and unrecorded nature of the relationship between Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and the child, Alice Liddell.
Of course, I didn’t need to be a historian in order to have picked up the basic facts about this eccentric don with his predilection for the company of little girls and his hobby of photographing them in scanty outfits. But the historical facts are intriguing. As a man, Dodgson was celibate, religiously conservative, pedantic, unadventurous, and shy. He lived all his adult life within the confines of an Oxford college, where he was known to fuss about the smallest matter, freaking out if he so much as overheard any kind of bad language. On the other hand, the writer Carroll was a highly transgressive person with a wicked sense of humour, who made fun of all the revered institutions of his day, including organised religion, and who celebrated the right to question every aspect of Victorian life, particularly the notions of authority and obedience.
This kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde duality is always intriguing, and I very much wanted to see how the two apparently opposing parts of Carroll’s psychology fitted together, particularly when I realised that his child heroine, Alice, far from being a precocious Victorian child, is not really a child at all, but Dodgson himself, using his heroine to express his own repressed thoughts and doubts, as he takes Alice into a world where reality is constantly shifting, where religion requires strange practices (Eat Me, Drink Me) and madness is the prevailing state of mind. The salient thing about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is how every creature Alice encounters is constantly questioning her—and continually criticising her in the rudest possible manner—for not conforming or knowing ‘the rules’. Alice tries to make sense of it all. But of course, says Carroll, it doesn’t make sense. Everything we know (religion, morality, parental authority) is utter nonsense, so we don’t need to take it too seriously.
But, beyond this, the Eminent Victorians comparison breaks down. My book is not ‘about’ Lewis Carroll, or even Alice Liddell. I’ve used aspects of their relationship to construct a new story in which I look at how Victorian adults relate to children and how Victorian society relates to our own, especially regarding the speculation about Dodgson’s ‘paedophilia’, which has become so ubiquitous in our post-Freudian age. I wanted to imagine what might be going on in Dodgson’s head as much as in Alice’s—but I have created a whole new fictional scenario in which to do this. Suffice it to say that I became more and more aware of the resonances between Dodgson’s ‘child-friendships’ and the predatory actions of paedophile priests in our own day and age. What conclusion I came to in the book, I won’t say. But, it’s not a biography. And the subject is not eminent at all.