When people know that I’ve written a novel with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme, After Such Kindness, they usually assume that I’ve been a fan of the book all my life. Not so; when I had it for my sixth birthday, I found it quite a hard read. The tone was strange – and the ‘wonderland’ not really all that wonderful. Alice seemed both rude and priggish and I found the world she inhabited very unsettling – with all its weird changes, its unreliable authority figures and its arbitrary rules. It wasn’t a comfortable fairy-tale where Good can be expected to triumph over Evil. There was no sense of safety, no order that could be relied upon. Only the jokes and rhymes were good. Of course, when I was six, I had no idea of the satirical nature of the jokes, or the hidden agenda in all those question-and–answer sessions between Alice and all the creatures she encounters, as Carroll ventriloquises his way through philosophy, religion, science and mathematics, skewering all the controversies of his time with devastating logic. The world may have been made by God, he says – but just look at it – it’s a madhouse!
But, like so many classic reads, it entered my soul and couldn’t be ignored. And as an adult, I found the whole thing very much more interesting than it had seemed when I was a child. I was interested not just in the complications of the text, and what Carroll intended by it – but also found myself drawn in to the ‘story behind the story’ – the rumours and allegations of paedophilia that are often levelled at the author. This interested me for two reasons. Firstly, I have been a social worker and have worked with child victims of sexual abuse; so the fact that this famous children’s author may also have been an abuser was professionally interesting. Secondly, I’m intrigued, as most authors are, by doubleness, ambiguity and contradiction, and the notion of a dark and possibly disreputable secret life which is at odds with the respectable image which is presented to the world. This deliberate separation of different selves is emphasised in this case by the author having not only two names but it would seem, two distinctive personalities – Lewis Carroll the transgressive children’s author engaging lustily with the forces of chaos, and Charles Dodgson the shy, conservative (and religious) Oxford don. Is there yet a third persona – the seducer of children? To me, this notion was the most fascinating aspect of the author’s otherwise not very enthralling life, and the side that I wanted to write about, especially in light of the ‘paedophile panic’ of current times, where all adults are seemingly under suspicion, and even the most commonplace of activities, if they involve children, require a clean CRB check. I could only wonder at the discrepancy between the laisser-faire attitudes of Dodgson’s contemporaries when it came to his relationships with children, and today’s perhaps over-cautious attitude on the subject of ‘safeguarding’. All this led me to wonder how Carroll saw these relationships himself and how he might defend his concept of ‘child-friendships’ in his own head.
The actual facts are few, and those we have are ambiguous. When Dodgson, after being entrusted with the care and entertainment of the Liddell girls, became, quite suddenly, a persona non grata in their household, the sudden rupture of the previously cordial relationship has given rise to the idea that Dodgson must have done something seriously inappropriate, possibly of a sexual nature. This speculation has been given credibility because of Dodgson’s life-long obsession with little girls (his ‘child-friends’) and his habit of photographing some of them in scanty dress, or even unclothed. But there are those who have argued that such practices were commonplace in the Victorian era, and nothing would have been thought amiss. However, parents and others in more recent times have frequently found themselves duped and betrayed by those whom they trusted (teachers, care workers – and especially – priests) and what was considered acceptable in the nineteenth century was not necessarily right then or now.
But in the end no one knows the ‘real story’ of Charles Dodgson or Alice Liddell, so I have been free to imagine it – or rather imagine a whole scenario in which this relationship between adult and child is played out against the backdrop of the great social movements and religious anxieties of the Victorian age. I’ve made no attempt to be biographically accurate, but have kept to the spirit of the original when I could. The narrative of my characters in After Such Kindness runs parallel to that of Dodgson and Alice, and shares many preoccupations of the dream story, as well (I hope) as some of its humour. The Rev Jameson is ‘rather’ like the Rev Dodgson, and Daisy Baxter is ‘rather’ like Alice Liddell. But my novel takes Daisy outside the dream world and back into a world of family and marriage, while I attempt to enlarge on the reasons why Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a work of wit and whimsy – has always inspired in me such a sense of discomfort.
Gaynor Arnold’s “After Such Kindness” is published on 5 July by Tindal Street Press (£12.99)