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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

  

The Alice behind Wonderland

by
Simon Winchester


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Alice behind Wonderland



Title: The Alice behind Wonderland
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 96 pages
Availability: The Alice behind Wonderland - US
The Alice behind Wonderland - UK
The Alice behind Wonderland - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : charming introduction to Carroll, the Alices, and the photograph

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 17/3/2011 Marjorie Kehe
Financial Times . 11/4/2011 Nathan Brooker
Globe & Mail . 23/3/2011 Mark Kingwell
The Guardian . 16/4/2011 Stephen Bates
The Independent . 27/4/2011 Jonathan Sale
Publishers Weekly . . .
Wall St. Journal . 26/3/2011 Charles E. Pierce, jr.


  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hen I was done with this slender volume I still wasnít quite sure what I had learned or why it mattered. (...) The story of The Alice Behind Wonderland is certainly an intriguing one. Unfortunately, this book doesnít give us enough of it." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The title of this slender volume is quite inappropriate; the private life of well-to-do Alice barely figures. Instead, and with remarkable clarity and eloquence, Winchester uses this photograph as the focal point for an examination of the man behind Aliceís Adventures in Wonderland. Level-headed throughout, this book is accessible, pellucid and engaging, even to the most casual Carroll admirer." - Nathan Brooker, Financial Times

  • "Simon Winchester, a veteran spelunker in the caverns of eccentricity, does his best in this slim volume to enhance the drama of this historic conjunction. (...) Winchesterís eye for detail and flowing prose are here in their usual proportion. But despite its brief length, there are repetitions. And, strangely for a book about photography and investigating a photograph, there are no images. (...) (H)is book, which started with such high expectations, ends up feeling unmotivated, and even bogus." - Mark Kingwell, Globe & Mail

  • "Winchester's book is clearly aimed at the US market, not only in spelling but in its quaint American formulations" - Stephen Bates, The Guardian

  • "Those of us who have enjoyed reading the Alice books to our own children will be glad to have that cleared up, although it might seem to sabotage a slim volume by tipping its central theme down a rabbit hole. Fortunately, Winchester saves the day by using the evocative photo as a way into the development of photography and the part it played in the creation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" - Jonathan Sale, The Independent

  • "Winchester's overall tone is unfortunately self-indulgent, and his take that Alice is seductive and coquettish in the 1858 photo is questionable. (...) Readers will more likely be interested in Winchester's benign interpretation of Dodgson's character than his preoccupation with one particular photograph." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Those who know a good deal about the life and art of Charles Dodgson may not find much that is new in The Alice Behind Wonderland. For those who know Dodgson's books but not much about their author or the "real" Alice, Mr. Winchester's elegantly written study provides a balanced, sympathetic portrait of a complex and gifted man." - Charles E. Pierce, jr., Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Alice behind Wonderland is an odd little book, just making it (exactly) to the hundred-page mark (though only with some 'Suggestions for Further Reading') yet ranging from general biography to a history of photography in the mid-nineteenth century to a careful analysis of one specific photograph. Dealing with familiar lives, iconic pictures, and one of the best-known works of children's literature, Alice in Wonderland, Winchester nevertheless offers an interesting and informative tour in these few pages, in a quite delightful read.
       The focus of the book is on the most famous of the pictures Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- Lewis Carroll -- took of the young Alice Liddell (the model for the Alice of his books). Alice Liddell [In his Acknowledgements Winchester writes of the Oxford University Press editor "responsible for this photography series", suggesting this is a monograph in a (planned ?) series focused on specific photographs, but there are no other indications of this anywhere in or on the book.] Oddly, despite being a book that is in large part about photography and photographs, there are no illustrations or plates whatsoever, save the rather diminutive cover-picture. Winchester describes several photographs in painstaking detail; perhaps many readers already hold them in their mind's eyes, and the images can readily be found online, but it would certainly have been more convenient had plates been included.
       As in most of his books, Winchester here excels at weaving in the small and incidental details of history and biography. His overview of Dodgson/Carroll's life is excellent but hardly a substitute for a full-fledged biography, but it is in how he handles the smaller and incidental figures that he manages to create a work that is a useful complement to the piles of Alice-related titles already available. As he describes how Carroll picked up photography he goes so far as to analyze Carroll's choice of equipment -- and of the competing forms of 'photography' at the time. Winchester gives a brief history of the invention of the wet-plate collodion process (which is what Carroll opted for), and the man behind it, Frederick Scott Archer -- who never even bothered to patent it, but whose "three otherwise destitute children" were admirably given a pension by the British Crown for what they recognized as his important contribution. Similarly, Winchester begins his book with a description of the Princeton University Firestone Library's Parrish Room, and an entertaining digression about the great bibliophile collector M.L.Parrish and the grand Collection of Victorian Novelists he left the library -- which includes many Carroll photographs. (Only in the Acknowledgements does Winchester note that he never actually got to see the Parrish's original of the famous Alice picture, as the curator: "does not wish the Alice picture to be seen, ever", arguing the digital reproductions -- "pixel-for-pixel identical" -- were readily available (and wanting to spare the original the "destructive rigors of wind and sun" ...) -- an interesting archival policy that might well have been worth a more prominent mention and discussion (taking in Walter Benjamin's idea of the aura of the original, and the image in the age of mechanical reproduction, perhaps ...).)
       Winchester offers a good overview of Carroll-as-photographer -- and notes that of some three thousand catalogued photographs by Carroll, a mere eleven are "solo portraits" of Alice Liddell. His focus is, however, on the most famous one:

one of the most memorable photographic likenesses ever taken, freighted not just with uneasy resonances, but having later powerful literary consequences and associations that remain with us to this day.
       Winchester is very good in describing what led up to the photograph -- from Carroll taking up photography to his getting to know the Liddells -- as well as then considering all the technical aspects to it, from the photography involved to what led up to the picture (from costume changes to the mat underfoot). It's all done with a keen eye, and all quite interesting -- but Winchester does skirt around the more difficult issues of what Carroll (and Alice) were presenting here, and their relationship. Winchester embraces the idea that Carroll's: "interest in the Liddell girls during their prepubescent years was unremarkable, in every sense of the word", Carroll's attitude the (supposed) general Victorian one that young children "were the literal embodiment of innocent young beauty, an innocence to be preserved and revered". It is, arguably, a plausible reading -- but the alternatives would surely have deserved ... more airing.
       Winchester does not look at the photograph in isolation, but also discusses the evolution of Carroll's relationship with Alice (as well as a bit of her later life), as well as the other photographs he took of her. If a rather quick tour through a great deal of material, Winchester nevertheless manages to present an impressive amount, and to present it very well.
       Though only occasionally considering its varied subjects in greater depth, The Alice behind Wonderland is a rich little monograph, and certainly a very good introduction to the subject-matter. The colorful incidental material is particularly interesting, and makes for a very engaging and enjoyable read. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 February 2011

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Links:

The Alice behind Wonderland: Reviews: Alice Liddell: Lewis Carroll: Simon Winchester: Other books by Simon Winchester under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Simon Winchester works as a journalist and has written a multitude of books.

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© 2011 the complete review

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