Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Growing up with Alice

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Vanessa Tait, Town Hall:

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Vanessa Tait, Town Hall:

SPEAKING to a packed audience at the Christ Church Centre, Richard E Grant declared Alice in Wonderland to be his favourite book.

So it was perhaps fitting that earlier in the day at the town hall Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an Oxford don and the author of The Story of Alice, gave us a fascinating introduction to Lewis Carroll, Alice and the book.

He described how it had endured far beyond other fictional worlds (coming third in Google searches behind the Bible and Shakespeare).

He speculated that part of its success may be in the way that it provides a framework for children to understand the world around them, often full of confusing and contradictory rules and strange creatures.

For adults it provides the opposite — an escape back to childhood innocence and imagination.

He was joined by Vanessa Tait, the great-granddaughter of the original Alice, who has written her own fictionalised account of the relationship between her great-grandmother, Alice, and Carroll.

Growing up in the shadow of Alice, Tait shared how, as a child, she was often asked to dress up as Alice or pose for pictures reading an oversized version of the book.

And how she often felt uncomfortable with the role, and indeed, with the book, whose fantastical imagery she often found frightening.

Tait’s book The Looking Glass House, told from the viewpoint of the children’s governess, explores Carroll’s friendship and affection for the governess (who he may have been in love with) the Liddell children and Alice (a subject of much modern Operation Yewtree-style speculation). Wonderland has featured heavily in Tait’s life and it is unsurprising that she should have mixed feelings about it, as well as her own reflections and insights into the people who created it.

She uses this to create a compelling, if occasionally unsettling world (especially when viewed through a modern lens).

A hundred and fifty years on, and despite extensive research, Carroll and his book remain a puzzle which invite our curiosity and attention but which side-step us once we think we’ve found the answer, leaving us with little more than the fading grin of a Cheshire cat and the distant memories of floating gently down the river during a magical Oxford summer many years ago.

Review: Ali Poostchi

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